European Jewish Museums at a Turning Point
[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]
By Brigitte Sion
There are more than 130 Jewish museums in Europe, from Portugal to the Ukraine and from Norway to Greece. Some are the creation of star architects, like the museums in Berlin and Copenhagen, both designed by Daniel Libeskind. Others are renovated buildings, like the synagogue in Cavaillon, France or the former mikveh in Rotenburg an der Fulda, Germany. Some collections entail more than 30,000 objects, like in London or Amsterdam, while others boast a historical building as their sole artifact, like the synagogues in Maribor, Slovenia or Jicin in the Czech Republic. Some museums struggle financially and may not be able to survive, while new museums open every year – in Warsaw, Poland (2014), Schwabach, Germany (2015) and Lecce, Italy (2016) – with more cornerstones already placed in other European cities.
This is certainly a varied and busy landscape, but its vast discrepancies raise some fundamental questions: Are Jewish museums relevant in the 21st Century? If so, what is their purpose, and what kind of audience do they serve?
For answers, we have to look at the 20th Century roots of these museums. Most Jewish museums in Europe started with a collection of ritual objects, books, photographs and other communal and personal artifacts. The core collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague, founded in 1906, came from synagogues that had been demolished after the clearance of the Jewish ghetto. A significant number of Jewish museums in Germany and Italy were established after the local communities were destroyed or exiled, most notably after World War II. However, nowadays it is not enough to assemble silver candlesticks, Torah ornaments, old prayer books, photographs of local Jews and a few explanatory panels and call this display a relevant Jewish museum. A number of years ago a shift occurred; these days, many museums are no longer strictly collection spaces but rather sites for public programs, lectures, pedagogical tours for schools, academic conferences, concerts and performances, family activities and social programs. They include libraries, archives and open courtyards. As architect Francesca Lanz recently observed, “The interpretation of museums as static repositories of historical and artistic treasures and sites of worship is being gradually overtaken by a new comprehension of museums as public services and social agents.” (“Staging Migration (in) Museums: A Reflection on Exhibition Design Practices for the Representation of Migration in European Contemporary Museums,” Museum & Society, March 2016). These, Lanz adds, “not only have a preeminent conservation role, but also – and primarily – an important educational, political and social role within contemporary society.” What this means practically is that museums that wish to remain relevant for the general public cannot afford to limit themselves to a repository role; they must engage with a diverse audience – local individuals, foreign tourists, school groups, researchers, etc. – with diverse knowledge and diverse expectations.
In a January 2016 interview to the Frankfurter Rundschau, the newly appointed director of the Jewish Museum Frankfurt, Mirjam Wenzel, said she prefers to call her institution a “center for Jewish culture in history and in the present” rather than a “museum.” She added: “I would like to free the future Jewish museum from negative representations tied to the concept of ‘museum.’ I understand the museum as a social place, from which one can be inspired, a place that can foster conversation and invites further thinking.” (Es gibt eine Unwohlsein,” Frankfurter Rundschau, 28 January 2016)
Some recent museums have included such programs as part of their original mission. Others have caught up with the public’s needs and changed their mission, space use and programming. The Maribor Synagogue in Slovenia, a museum that does not yet have a core exhibition, summarizes its multiple identities in the following terms: “We are neither a museum or a gallery in the traditional sense, as we do not possess a permanent collection of Judaica yet. On the other hand, we are housed in one of the oldest preserved synagogues in Central Europe – thus in a way, our core exhibition is in fact the building of the former synagogue. We also organize cultural events, exhibitions, meetings, colloquia, symposia and other programs.”
The issue is about relevance, but can also be financial: by attracting a larger and more diverse crop of visitors than the usual suspects, a museum can increase revenue from ticket sales, guided tours, cultural and educational activities and from café and shop sales. Of course, not every museum has the capacity or the will to undertake such major changes, nor is it worthwhile for every institution. For example, the Jewish Museum Gailingen in Germany fulfills its mission by showcasing past Jewish life of the High Rhine region. As museum consultant Elaine Heumann Gurian observed, “Some of these ‘object-focused’ museums might proudly remain what they wish to be: displayers of objects for their own sake, unabashedly and without apology. Without meaning to offer a ‘hidey-hole’ to museums too lazy to invigorate their displays, it may be time to allow stunning objects to take their place as just that. And if that is the intention of the museum, then the institution should say so and we will all understand.”
For small museums, the questions are: Would changes of programming give more exposure and recognition to the collection, or would they somehow underplay the collection in favor of programs? Can museums afford to change? How would the impact of such considerable change be measured and appraised? Such an exploration naturally leads to more radical questioning about the purpose and survival of some museums. Is the transformation into a dynamic multi-purpose hub a way for a Jewish museum to avoid being a “glass case for dead Jews” that displays ritual objects divorced from their actual use, or describes the Jewish experience as stuck in the past?
These difficult questions are driven by key stakeholders of Jewish museums: the visitors. Jewish museums cater to a very diverse audience: Jewish and not Jewish, local and international, students and tourists, scholars and random visitors. This conundrum has an impact on all museum activity: the mission statement, the core exhibition, the temporary exhibitions, the educational and cultural programs, as well as marketing and fundraising. While data is not available, it is clear that non-Jews make up a majority of visitors to Jewish museums, whether locals or foreigners. What is also evident is that most visitors come only once. This complicates the challenge faced by museums: How can they entice local and international visitors to make repeated visits, and how can they renew themselves often enough (and at what cost) to expand their visibility and win the public’s loyalty?
And yet, Jewish museums do a poor job in monitoring their visitors, understanding their profiles, expectations, and needs. They use unreliable measurement methods (website views, Facebook followers, random questionnaires, informal conversations after a guided tour) and do not collect substantial metrics that could subsequently serve their mission.
Serious measurement of their visitor constituency would help train guides, design pedagogical materials and organize attractive public programs, among other uses. Indeed, some museums could probably increase their audience with more targeted offerings. A third of European Jewish museums welcome fewer than 5,000 visitors a year. In some cases, the relatively low number can be explained by limited opening hours (one day a month, one day a week, only in the summer, etc.) or by the absence of monitoring tools. The bulk receives between 5,000 and 50,000, while a handful welcomes more than 100,000 visitors a year (Gerona, Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, the last three boasting more than 500,000 visitors a year). However, these absolute attendance numbers are skewed: large urban museums tend to attract many more people than small renovated synagogues in the countryside. In capital cities, Jewish museums are often part of a tourism circuit, included in weekly passes, and they interest a wide array of visitors, including architecture fans who do not care about the content of the exhibition. In some museums, there is no entrance fee, while in others it can be symbolic (low) or as expensive as an art museum.
Two aspects that statistics do not show are the proportion of school groups and the ratio of national and international visitors. If we looked only at absolute numbers of visitors, a small museum in a medium-sized town that receives 10,000 visitors a year wouldn’t survive. However, if 8,000 of the 10,000 visitors are school groups, we see that the museum fulfills a very important and unique pedagogical mission, and that it should remain active in the regional landscape. Picture this: the Jewish museums of Manchester (UK), Merano (Italy) and Trondheim (Norway) boast over 70 percent of school groups among its visitors. Similar discrepancies can be observed in the geographic origin of visitors: among museums that monitor their visitors, albeit imprecisely, a vast majority welcomes more national visitors. This ratio climbs to 90 percent nationals against 10 percent foreigners (in Parma, Frankfurt or Ben Uri in London). At the other end of the spectrum, some museums receive an overwhelming majority of foreign visitors, because they are located in highly touristic cities (Rhodes, Budapest, Sarajevo, Granada and Seville.)
Such diverse audiences with different needs have direct influence on the mission of the museums. While all museums that have a mission statement aim at collecting, presenting and transmitting Jewish history and culture and their contribution to the local, regional and national environment (or variations thereof), and serve as a resource for schools, researchers and the general public, a significant number strive to promote understanding and tolerance between Jews and non-Jews and to fight anti-Semitism: “With its exhibitions the [Jewish] Museum [Frankfurt] shall promote the possibility of a dialogue for its predominantly non-Jewish visitors, elucidating the relationship between Jews and their environment against the background of the historical development in Frankfurt and highlighting the key elements of culture and religion, discrimination and animosity.” The Manchester Jewish Museum extends its mission beyond the Jewish community: “To advance education for the public benefit in the subject of Judaism and Jewish heritage by the maintenance of a museum to preserve, collect and display material relating to Jewish heritage with a view to countering racism and prejudice and promoting tolerance.” Or, as the Jewish Museum of Belgium says in fewer words: “combat all forms of intolerance, particularly racism and anti-Semitism, by promoting democratic and humanistic values.”
A comparable tension between particularistic and universalistic missions has been observed in Holocaust museums or Holocaust-related sites that have begun to include other victims of Nazism (Romani, homosexuals, etc.) and victims of more recent genocides (in Cambodia, Rwanda and other places). The idea is that the horrific Jewish experience during the Holocaust shares unfortunate commonalities with the experience of other groups; particularistic history gives way to a universalistic message of warning against stigmatization, discrimination and persecution and to a hopeful message of tolerance, democracy, equality and peace. This is especially visible in Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam, where, at the end of the exhibition, the visitor leaves the secret annex and is presented with interactive panels about xenophobia, cultural differences and coexistence.
We see now that the Jewish experience, particularly its Diasporic dimension and the Holocaust, has become a paradigm to study other minorities across the globe, especially at a time when migrants and refugees flee war zones and countries where they suffer from discrimination. The Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens exemplifies this attitude in its mission statement: “To foster cross-cultural understanding among people, to promote public dialogue about tolerance and respect for people of all religions, races, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds, using lessons from the Holocaust.” The Jewish Museum Munich sees its mission as “fostering an awareness for social equality, opportunity and tolerance in the face of vast differences in religious, intellectual and everyday areas of life,” while the Museum Sjoel Elburg in the Netherlands seeks “to offer a historic background for present-day themes viz. integration, respect and tolerance.” As Jillian Weyman observed in her master’s thesis at HUC-JIR (Los Angeles), about Jewish museums and Jewish-themed exhibitions in the Los Angeles area, “While there exists overlap in how Jewish museums define their Jewishness in terms of their institutions’ founding, values, mission, leadership, and funding sources, there is no one Jewish or museum-related thread that unifies them. In that way, Jewish museums join in the struggle and ambiguity around what it means to be a Jewish institution.” (“Universalism in Jewish Museums Yields More Similarity to Jewish Communal Life, Not Difference,” eJewishPhilanthropy.com, April 20, 2016)
Finally, one of the oldest Jewish museums in Europe, the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum in London, founded in 1915, has fully embraced the universalistic mission based on the particularistic Jewish experience: “Museums and Ben Uri in particular have a major opportunity to play a pivotal role within society expanding its audience engagement outside its traditional constituencies and into the growing numbers of immigrant communities as economic migration and refugees from war seek a new life and opportunities in this country.” This position has been condemned by cultural critic Edward Rothstein, who argued in a recent opinion piece published by Mosaic, “Becoming a celebration of ersatz tolerance and fake universalism, the museum, like too many of its American counterparts, suggests that Jewish identity is best realized through its shrinkage.” (“The Problem with Jewish Museums,” Mosaic, February 1, 2016) Is this universalistic bent a museographical trend aligned with historical and ethnographic museums that universalize their mission, or is it that Jewish museums serve a wider audience that they need to attract, engage and fundraise with in the general public?
Jewish museums, like other identity museums, are at a turning point. In order to remain relevant, visible and economically sustainable, they must be dynamic and not anchored solely in the past. They cannot afford to be simply repositories of ritual objects or learning centers visited exclusively by scholars. They carry a crucial educational mission to teach about Jewish culture, history and religious practices. The burden falls on small and large museums alike: whether they cater primarily to schools, local visitors or international tourists, they are in a unique position to explain the cultural, social and economic contributions of Jews to the fabric of European culture to this day, and to fight anti-Semitic bias that is resurfacing in Europe 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz. No mission can be more relevant or important.
Brigitte Sion holds a Ph.D. in performance studies from NYU. She has written extensively about memorials in Germany, Argentina and Cambodia, and is an international expert on identity museums, particularly Jewish museums in Europe. She is based in Geneva, Switzerland. This article grew out of a comprehensive survey of Jewish museums in Europe conducted on behalf of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. The report will be published in Fall 2016 and will be available at www.rothschildfoundation.eu.