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Jewish museums: from treasure box to forum for dialogue

Miriam Cosic
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Jewish museums: from treasure box to forum for dialogue

Published: 3 November 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Their purpose is changing from preservers of heritage to a 'safe place for unsafe ideas', says museum maven BARBARA KIRSHENBLATT-GIMBLETT.

When The Whole Truth … Everything You Wanted to Know about Jews opened at the Jewish Museum in Berlin in March 2013, many Jewish people were incensed and said so publicly. It was intended as education for visitors living increasingly distant from WW2. Part of it, a performance piece popularly known as The Jew in the Box, was held once a week, on Sundays. It entailed a volunteer sitting in a large glass exhibition case for two hours at a time, fielding visitors’ questions about Jewish life in answer to the final question posed by the exhibition, and written at the bottom of the glass case: “Are there still Jews in Germany?”

The museum’s website explains that the questions were about “the FAQs, the difficult questions, the funny questions, the clever questions, and the questions that really have no answer. Some of them made the questioner uneasy and some were politically incorrect, while others revealed something about the person who asked them”.

Stephen Kramer - then secretary-general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany who had worked hard on religious freedom, Muslim-Jewish relations, and antisemitism among other things - emphatically declined the invitation to participate. Another Jewish man - Eran Levy, an Israeli who had lived in Berlin for years - was horrified by the idea of presenting a Jew as a museum piece.

"It's a horrible thing to do, completely degrading and not helpful," he told CBS News when it opened. "The Jewish Museum absolutely missed the point if they wanted to do anything to improve the relations between Germans and Jews."

Ten years later, Toronto-born Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, an authority in all matters of museology with a PhD speciality in East European and especially Yiddish culture (her parents were born in Poland), calls the segment a “gold standard” in museum practice.

A high point in the exhibition came when a Holocaust survivor was asked to take the chair in the glass case. For some, that was the final straw. “But then her response was just extraordinary,” says Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Professor Emerita at NYU, a Chief Curator with POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, by telephone in New York.

The 2019 definition wanted museums to be less about consensus and more responsive to issues facing contemporary society.

“That she would walk up to the box, sit with him in solidarity and be open to what people in the audience were interested in. I mean, if they've come to the exhibition to start with, they're open-minded: they have to be. As the director of the Jewish Museum in Vienna said at the time, ‘we're not making this museum for antisemites. Antisemites don't come to these museums’.”

In a recent webinar for the Jewish Museum of Sydney, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett ran through revealing efforts in the annual International Council of Museums (ICOM) to write a new definition of a museum. In 2007, the definition was classical, she explains: “It had supported the status quo, it was uncontroversial”. Museums were institutions entrusted with preserving and presenting cultural heritage, particularly material heritage.

In 2019, the committee writing the new definition had in mind not what many museums were, but what they could become: critical and activist about issues like war, authoritarianism, social justice and global warming. This critical aspect of the humanities had come into academia during the 1970s, in the context of post-colonialism. “That does put pressure on museums that were formed in the colonial context and whose collections are a product of colonial empires,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett says.

“The 2019 definition was intended to reflect the most progressive developments in the museum field,” she says. “They wanted museums to be less about consensus and more responsive to issues facing contemporary society. They felt that museums should be a positive influence on their visitors and that their impact on society should go beyond education. Advocacy doesn't mean bias; it’s not about pushing a particular agenda. Advocacy means creating a space for informed civil debate.”

As Antony Polonsky wrote in Jewish Peoplehood and Jewish Museums in 2016, quoting former Tate director Nicholas Serota: “The establishment of so many new Jewish museums in Europe has developed a change in the function of Jewish museums; they are now ‘becoming a forum as much as a treasure box’, allowing for dialogue rather than just a place to preserve items.”

Historians of Jewish life have sequestered Jewish societies and institutions from the Holocaust.

Historian Timothy Snyder

That framework was not how some museums understood themselves, not how they felt museums should be defined. The ICOM membership rejected the 2019 definition and a modified version of it was accepted three years later.

And yet Jewish museums, in particular those that are specialist Holocaust memorials, have a particular need for a critical spirit. Ever more so as the memory of WW2 recedes and blurs, especially for non-Jews.

Historian Timothy Snyder, in a review of David Engel’s Historians of the Jews and the Holocaust, wrote of surprising intellectual limitations: “Historians of Jewish life, scholars comfortable with the longue durée of Jewish history and with Hebrew and Yiddish, have sequestered Jewish societies and institutions from the Holocaust.

“After the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, Engel maintains, scholars found it difficult to integrate the mass killing of the Jews into a history of Jewish life.” In Israel itself, that history was “entrusted to a separate state institution, Yad Vashem”. In America, “scholars such as Steven Zipperstein and Paula Hyman wished to prevent Hitler from shaping the history of earlier centuries of Jewish life”.

But there have always been illuminating minds in that world too, including in Australia. In July, Noè Harsel, director of the Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne, referred in a speech to its inaugural director, Dr Helen Light, imagining it as “a safe place for unsafe ideas” where visitors could “have discussions that challenge our minds, warm our hearts and teach us something about ourselves”.

Museums should be authoritative without being authoritarian.

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett believes museums should be “authoritative without being authoritarian. One should be able to trust that the information they present is accurate and that they are transparent about what they're doing. They are also responsible to those from whom their collections have come; they have a responsibility to people and not only to objects.”

Museums in authoritarian societies, she points out, are instruments of the state, which mandates an official historical narrative. In the case of Poland, for example, “the intention of that policy is to defend the good name of Poland and build a generation of Polish patriots who are willing to die for their country.

“In authoritarian countries, museums are all about compliance, not about critical and independent thinking.” POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, because it was formed as a private-public partnership, she says, is relatively independent and fearlessly addresses difficult issues.

Museology has been a vexed subject since the rise of 20th-century postcolonialism and postmodernism. In our troubled times, as the separation of information and disinformation becomes ever more blurred, the critical function and transparency of museums – and especially Jewish museums – has become ever more important.

Photo: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (Canadian Jewish News)

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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