European Jewish Museums: Universal or Particular?

Jukebox, Jewkbox! A Century on Shellac and Vinyl; photo by Dietmar Walser for Jewish Museum London.
“Jukebox, Jewkbox! A Century on Shellac and Vinyl”; photo by Dietmar Walser for Jewish Museum London.

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

At the beginning of the year, a lively debate took place in the pages of Mosaic on the condition of Jewish museums. Edward Rothstein posited that, by and large, Jewish museums have come to offer a “paltry view of Judaism, Jewish history, and Jewish public responsibility”:

“Minimize your profile, mute your pride; be overly indulgent, even perversely so, of the tastes and priorities of the surrounding culture; resist any hint of “difficult” scholarship or religious thought; avoid any sort of self-assertion that might infringe the dictates of political correctness or intellectual fashion: these are the defining characteristics of the modern Jewish identity museum.”

Rothstein’s critique was largely defined by his experience of Jewish museums in the United States. But of perhaps the most famous Jewish museum in Europe, Daniel Libeskind’s Jüdisches Museum Berlin, Rothstein said, “The museum’s interest in blurring tensions between Jews and Germans makes the German past seem more enlightened and the Jewish past less particular. 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.”

Setting aside the specifics of Rothstein’s criticisms of Berlin’s Jewish museum, his article in essence raised two questions that Jewish museums in Europe in particular continue to grapple with: What is a Jewish museum for? And, who are they for? To that end, a new survey of Europe’s Jewish museums collected and analyzed by Brigitte Sion for the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe is a particularly welcome addition to this ongoing discussion.

Sion wrote at length for these pages about the specifics of her findings, and therefore there is no need to repeat them, save for one aspect of them which I believe deserves further attention and relates to the Rothstein critique. Sion found that, “In a post-national and trans-cultural world, and Jews being the transnational people par excellence, Jewish museums are beginning to reflect on their mission from a more universalistic perspective leading to updating their galleries and offering programs that reflect a reinterpretation of the Jewish experience through the lens of migration and cultural diversity.”

To study the programming of the Jewish museums of Europe is to see that, in their temporary collections at least, there has been a tendency to emphasize the Jewish contribution to life in Europe over the specificities and internalities of Jewish life itself. One recent example of this was “The Power of Pictures,” an exhibit hosted by the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam about how pivotal Jewish photographers were to pioneering new forms of artistic expression in early Soviet Russia.

The Jewish Museum London is currently staging “Shaping Ceramics” – “the story of how Jewish ceramicists transformed British studio pottery and influenced successive generations of ceramic artists” – while “Jukebox, Jewkbox! A Century on Shellac and Vinyl” on “the history of Jewish inventors, musicians, composers, music producers and songwriters” began life in the Jewish Museum Hohenems in western Austria and has since toured the continent, stopping in London and Munich among other museums.

To wit, one could add the growth of cross-cultural programming under the auspices of Jewish museums. The Jüdisches Museum Berlin has been putting on a lecture series in recent months that “addresses ethically controversial issues from different areas of life and shines light on them from Jewish and Islamic perspectives.” Beginning with social ethics, the next will address capital, profit, and finance, and ask, “How are material possessions and wealth actually assessed from the Jewish and Muslim perspective?”

Of course, if not the Jewish museums of Europe, who else is going to put on this sort of programming? National and other historical museums have a tendency to sublimate the role and place of national minorities in their presentations for the sake of the grander narrative, treating minorities as precisely that – a minority concern. Only Jewish museums are fit to essentially invert the model of the national museum, and focus on, highlight, and augment the Jewish perspective and the Jewish contribution to national or European life and culture.

The uncomfortable answer to the question of whether it is the place of a European Jewish museum to be universal or particular is that they must be both. No one else is going to tell the Jewish story in Europe if not its Jewish museums. Akin to national museums or museums of religion or ethnography, Europe’s Holocaust museums, by definition – and of which there are many – will only reveal part of the story. (One area where European Jewish museums certainly could improve is in their telling of post-Holocaust Jewish history and the reconstruction of Jewish life in Europe, too often given short shrift. In this regard, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is showing the way.)

But, unfortunately or otherwise, this particular story must be told in a way that has an appeal beyond a Jewish audience, creating an inherent tension. Sion found that local Jewish population are unlikely to visit their Jewish museum more than once. The core audience for a Jewish museum, at the present time, is not Jewish. The challenge is to “entice local and international visitors to make repeated visits” through their “temporary exhibitions, cultural events, and other diversified programmes.”

As I’ve previously written for these pages, museums as palaces of memory are by their very nature inert. They are a collation of life, or the elements of life, but they are not alive themselves. They are spaces to be engaged with, and in order to come to life, have to be understood and appreciated. In other words, a museum without visitors is a dead museum – and this is somehow exaggerated when that museum is a Jewish museum. Without visitors, as Rothstein commented, “a museum of Jewish religious artifacts is partly a Jewish morgue, less a tribute to Judaism’s continuity than a memorial to a world of belief left behind.”

Above and beyond the other challenges facing Jewish museums that Sion highlights in her report, this struggle between the universal and the particular that Rothstein is also correct to note, this great unanswered question of who a Jewish museum is for exactly and what is its purpose, must continue to be addressed and will very much define the future of the European Jewish museum.