By Emile Schrijver
As Jewish museums reopen after COVID-19 lockdowns, we are pleased to share this post by Emile Schrijver, the Chair of the Board of the Association of European Jewish Museums. Emile is also the General Director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter in Amsterdam and Professor of Jewish Book History at the University of Amsterdam. (The article was first published, in German, in Tachles, as Die Jüdischen Museen Europas nach Corona. Published in English on Jewish Heritage Europe and reposted with permission.
These are difficult times for cultural institutions all over the world. Most institutions have been closed for more than two months already now and those that have been allowed to re-open or will be allowed to do so soon, will have to deal with severe social-distancing restrictions. Jewish museums are, of course, no exception.
Since March, many Jewish museums have done their utmost to remain visible, largely online. Some examples: the Jüdisches Museum Berlin has created an “Online-Schaukasten: Museum für die Couch”; the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam promotes its “Jewish Virtual Quarter”; the Jewish Museum Frankfurt launched a series of online interviews entitled “Tachles – Videocast zur Krise”; and the Italian Jewish Museums, probably hit the hardest by the crisis, have launched a joint online platform “Musei Ebraici Italiani.” The website <jewish-heritage-europe.eu> covers many further initiatives, including those of many smaller museums and Jewish heritage sites.
Something is missing, though, not only in the online tours of empty exhibition rooms, but also in a digitized painting or in a livestream of a ballet performance without an actual audience. It is what in 1936 German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) called the “aura” of the real object. This is what museums, galleries, theatres and concert halls offer to us and it is therefore vital that all our museums will be allowed to open as soon as possible, corona volente.
But will all European Jewish museums survive the crisis?
European Jewish museums are very different from each other. The largest, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, had to postpone the opening of its new permanent exhibition and of its Children’s Museum ANOHA, but museum staff has worked at full speed and the state-funded museum will simply open a few months later.
Similarly the Jewish museums of Frankfurt, Munich, Amsterdam and Paris, to name a few, will face serious financial problems caused by the lack of visitor revenues, but they will not cease to exist. This is true as well for the Jewish museums of Vienna and Hohenems, in Austria, and even for the much smaller privately-run Jüdisches Museum der Schweiz, in Basel.
The situation is very different, however, for a large group of other museums that are owned privately or supported by private foundations.
For their operation these typically totally depend on visitor revenues and even after they re-open they will be faced with a serious lack of income.
Many Italian Jewish museums belong to this group, as well as Jewish museums in, for example, Turkey, Spain, Greece, and smaller Eastern European countries. It seems inevitable that some of these smaller museums will not survive, to the detriment of Jewish and non-Jewish visitors who will then visit historic sites without being able to learn about Jewish history and culture and of local schools that often depend on these institutions to teach about Judaism, as well as about the Holocaust.
The majority of Jewish museums are positioned somewhere in the middle between full public support and security and total dependence on self-generated income. But even the bigger institutions, Berlin, Warsaw, Vienna and others, have become aware that external fundraising will become ever more important for them. One of the first online seminars that the Association of European Jewish Museums will organize before the summer, therefore, will be on the professionalization of fundraising, for which many museums will have to invest some of the funds that they are now so short of.
But will these museums be the places that we remember from before the crisis?
Fewer visitors, less tourism, fewer group visits, fewer school classes, fewer and different public events, social distancing, more online exhibitions, more online tours, etc., will certainly change the museum experience.
Museums, Jewish and non-Jewish, are there for all of us to enjoy and to learn from. But Jewish museums also play an important role in the creation of tolerant and diverse societies.
By teaching both Jewish history and Jewish values they encourage non-Jewish audiences to understand and appreciate the Jewish contribution to our societies. They are important in the fight against anti-Semitism, as well as in teaching about the Holocaust and in keeping our Jewish audiences aware of the importance of their heritage.
It can only be hoped that many countries and their governments consider these goals important and will come to the rescue of our endangered Jewish museums, together with private benefactors with a special connection with the missions of the museums. Because not being able to visit these Jewish museums anymore would mean an intolerable impoverishment of the European cultural landscape.
(NOTE: A list of current re-openings of European Jewish museums can be found at https://jewish-heritage-europe.eu/2020/05/10/cautious-reopening/)
Emile Schrijver, Chair of the Board of the Association of European Jewish Museums, is the General Director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter in Amsterdam and Professor of Jewish Book History at the University of Amsterdam.