What Colonel Sanders Taught Us About Jewish Museums

Whilst Jewish educators around the world work tirelessly to teach their communities about Israel and its people, Israel often places little or no focus on the realities, achievements and challenges of world Jewry.

Synagogue hall; photo by Yaakov Brill.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 18 – Jewish Peoplehood and Jewish Museumspublished by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education in collaboration with the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. An introduction to this volume can be found here.]

By Irina Nevzlin

Back in 1991, a branding agency in the United States by the name of the Schechter Group made its most famous contribution to popular culture. The agency successfully convinced its client, the restaurant chain Kentucky Fried Chicken, to rebrand as KFC, offering an elegant way to drop the word “fried,” which had started to sound unhealthy. The restaurant was moving with the times, diversifying its menu to add healthy, family-friendly options. In fact, “Kentucky Fried Chicken” was banished entirely, appearing in no promotional material for over a decade. New products were introduced and sales grew substantially. Fourteen years later however, faced with a slowdown, the original, full name was reintroduced, this time in tandem with the snappy acronym. In essence, what the fried chicken people came to realize was that while innovation is essential and positive, it rarely benefits from disowning the past entirely.

Although this story may seem an unusual launchpad into what to follows below, it remains a timely allegory and reminder of the ten-year journey to rejuvenate Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People. For the modern Jewish museum, ours or any other, finding that same balance for which corporate brands strive – between invention and continuity – is critical.

Unlike corporate brands, however, defining “success” for a Jewish museum today is decidedly difficult. Visitor numbers, both online and in person, are an ineffective indicator of actual impact. Equally, the idea of impact itself is far from straightforward. Are we looking to impart a specific experience – transformative and disruptive even – or to facilitate a more personal, less prescriptive response? If the former, are the visitors we’re attracting even the right kind of visitors to effect the change we wish to see?

Naturally, different institutions around the world will draw their own conclusions, reflective of their own needs and objectives. In each instance, however, the questions should serve as tramlines for any credible program of conceptualizing a Jewish museum in today’s environment. In the case of Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People, three separate conceptions of what a museum ought to be have led to some bold answers.

The Museum as a Temple

There is a charming little book written in 1917 by Benjamin Ives Gilman, the long-serving secretary of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In the book, in a section titled “The Aims of Museums: The Ideal of Culture,” Gilman politely takes aim at the tendency to offer museum visitors context or explanation to aid their intake of the exhibitions. “A museum,” Gilman wrote, “is in essence a temple.”

While Gilman’s vision has died away over the past century, an alternate view – less elitist, more attentive to the needs of the visitor – is taking its place.

In the case of the modern Jewish museum, and certainly The Museum of the Jewish People, it’s clear that helping visitors connect is a must. For anyone with any semblance of interest in the continuity of Jewish Peoplehood, there is no value in building palaces of conceptual thought that don’t resonate with the everyday visitor. In our case, the vastness of our subject area – 4,000 years of diverse Jewish life, culture, and history – mandates an approach that brings the material to life, while empowering visitors to assess and reassess how they relate to the Jewish people.

To achieve this, the new core exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People, opens with a dramatic opening statement, focusing on two key aspects: identity and culture.

First, following an ascent to the uppermost floor, visitors begin their museum journey with a series of interactive features showcasing the diversity of Jewish life today and offering opportunities for visitors to explore and contribute their own input. Here, the display creates a space and a toolkit for visitors to form and substantiate their own unique and personalized Jewish identity. In doing so however, while the museum unabashedly hopes to inspire a strong and committed identification with the collective experience of the Jewish people today, it makes no claim as to what conclusions visitors should or should not reach.

Second, as a further illustration of the multiple orientations of Jewish life today, the exhibition proceeds with a powerful introduction to the contribution Jews have made to global civilization and culture. The focus on contemporary Jewish achievement and influence reflects a drastic break with tradition in many Jewish museums globally, which often lean heavily towards the past, focusing on Jewish history, the internal mechanics of Jewish life, and antisemitic persecution. Whilst each of these features is important, and each will find its place within The Museum of the Jewish People, our approach differs. Up front, we’re opting instead to draw attention to modern Jewish creativity and action.

It is worth noting that within this aspect of the museum, the visitor’s role is ultimately passive. Even when seemingly contributing to the experience, by engaging with the extensive technological, interactive features on show, visitor input is essentially geared towards absorbing a narrative, albeit a narrative that is deliberately open-ended and customizable. In fact, as a tool to support the museum’s core narrative, the role of the exhibition’s actual features – be it the cinema of Woody Allen, the Golden Age in Spain, or the literary treasures of the Jewish canon – is secondary. Each exhibition exists primarily to tie together the museum’s cumulative sense of Jewish experience, whose prominence far outranks the aesthetic or didactic value of any individual feature.

Essentially, Gilman lives on, although perhaps not in the sense he had intended. While the museum is a “temple” – in that it is designed to inspire reverence, and even adherence to a certain way of thinking – that reverence stems from the subjective feeling of connecting, not through the austerity of velvet-lined partitions. The Museum as a Platform Gilman himself argues that the museum exists “primarily in the interest of the ideal,” rather than the real. In the framework of Jewish Peoplehood, where the real seems frequently underwhelming, there is a clear value instead to present a stylized notion of the ideal. Not things as they are, but things as they could be.

In that light, there is a magnificent quote taken from a televised interview with Abba Eban, marking Israel’s tenth anniversary in 1958. The interviewer, Mike Wallace, presses Eban to define what it means to be a Jew. With disarming off-the-cuff eloquence, Eban responds that (it) “is a religion and it is a peoplehood, and it is a civilization, and it is a faith, and it is a memory; it is a world of thought and of spirit and of action and it cannot be restrictively defined.” Currently, no site in the Jewish world – not in Israel nor any other global location – gives voice to this holistic effort to understand and explain the Jewish experience in its entirety. In rectifying this, The Museum of the Jewish People will offer not just a symbol for the Jewish people to embrace their own unity and diversity, but a platform to effect positive change.

On a narrower level, one specific challenge stands out, for which The Museum of the Jewish People is uniquely impelled to act. Although there are exceptions to the rule, it is regrettable that many voices in Israel still appear to lack the confidence to embrace and acknowledge the role of the wider Jewish world. The most probable root cause of this is that Israeli Jewry is routinely brought up with a lack of awareness about Jewish life outside of Israel. Whilst Jewish educators around the world work tirelessly to teach their communities about Israel and its people, Israel often places little or no focus on the realities, achievements and challenges of world Jewry.

Ultimately, both sides lose out from this ongoing trend. Whilst Jews from around the world end up feeling distanced from Israel, Israeli Jews end up underexposed to the vibrancy and creativity of Jewish life across the globe.

In short, when the leaders of the Jewish world want to ensure that their voice in Israel can resonate effectively, The Museum of the Jewish People can be their springboard. Under this model, over and above the museum’s core daily focus – to apply the richness and diversity of Jewish life to connect the Jewish people – there is an overarching goal: to offer an institution of genuine importance in the evolving relationship between Israel and the Jewish world – an “unofficial embassy” for the Jewish people in Israel.

The Museum as an Incubator

Finally, it is worth considering briefly the limitations of any given vision or mission statement, including those laid out above. Although even the very best museum can actively seek to transmit its values, and even to apply those values beyond its walls, the human filter through which this change takes place will have its own voice to impart.

Ten years ago at The Museum of the Jewish People, we established the International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies (ISJPS), our in-house educational wing, dedicated to cultivating a sense of belonging and identification with the Jewish people. Through its diverse range of programming, the ISJPS provides a constant supply of fresh voices and fresh thinking, with a shared commitment to the collective future of the Jewish people.

Moreover, through an ongoing series of temporary exhibitions and cultural events, hundreds of artists, filmmakers, designers, innovators, musicians, and thinkers are granted an open space at the museum within which to explore, perform and collaborate. By showcasing creative talent from around the globe, these activities internalize and reiterate the inclusive spirit of the museum. On both counts – the young leaders we nurture at the ISJPS and the creative talents we incubate through an open-door approach – the museum ensures a democratic, participatory-driven culture, with the lowest possible barriers to entry. We may have built the museum, but we don’t claim to own every inch of it – ownership comes with participation.

The Invention Test

There’s a fundamental question that the leaders of any museum, or any nonprofit for that matter, should not be afraid to ask. It goes like this: If we didn’t exist, would it matter? Or, put differently, if we hadn’t been established already, would someone think to create us today? In either case, if the answer is no, the road ahead is often bleak.

In the case of Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People, through the three models outlined above, the museum carries an ominous task, which no other institution can adequately address. Across the global spectrum of Jewish life, the task we face – as lofty as it sounds – is to lead the Jewish people towards an embrace of its own unity and diversity. This, in effect, is our “brand.” It exemplifies our shared commitment to conceive of the Jewish people in terms that apply to its entirety. Answering “no” to that challenge would go against both the test of time, invention, and expression of Jewish Peoplehood.

Answering “no” to that challenge would be criminal.

Irina Nevzlin is Chair of the Board of Directors, The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot.