EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2015/16
Jewish Museologies and the Politics of Display
Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Leeds, 13th-14th March 2016
Main organizer: Dr Eva Frojmovic (Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Leeds)
Co-organizer: Dr Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek (Association of European Jewish Museums, Amsterdam)
As debates on the musealisation of Jewish history / culture proliferate, this conference will engage international curators and scholars to ask the following questions:
- Are there commonalities among Jewish museums in Europe?
- What are these museums and exhibitions trying to achieve?
- How do they construct and involve their stakeholders?
- How do they engage with the political discourses that shape their societies?
- Is a dividing line emerging between museums in countries directly affected by the Holocaust and others not directly affected?
- What research is needed, and has become possible as archival resources become available and laws change?
- With new challenges arising in living in an increasingly fractured Europe vulnerable to extremist violence, what reorientations may be required?
This was a very intensive conference with 34 participants giving papers or presenting at round table panels, and 25 further attendees, and 8 sessions of between 3 and 4 papers each, and two roundtables. In grouping the papers, the organisers were guided by the desire to put academics and museum professionals into dialogue. Furthermore, the papers were grouped not by periods or geographical principles, but rather by theoretical concerns.
Session 1 “Jewish Museologies I” was devoted to a diversity of museology. Accordingly, the debate revolved around Jewish museums’ self-positioning: the move from a “logic of equivalence” between minority and majority values to a logic of difference (David Clark, London Metropolitan Uni [emeritus]); the move from narratives of the nation to narratives of migration (Kathrin Pieren, University of Southampton and Petersfield Museum); and the creation of a multivocal, post-authoritarian narrative in a shifting political landscape (Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, POLIN Museum Warsaw and New York University [emerita]).
The issues raised in this initial session were continued in Session 2b “Jewish Museologies II”, in which Michal Frankl (Jewish Museum Prague) unravelled the challenges to presenting the history (of the Czech Jews) in a synagogue setting (the orientalising “Spanish” Synagogue); Hagai Segev (former chief curator of Beit Hatefutsot) spoke to the challenges of transforming a didactic university museum into a lively place of cultural exchange, and Katalin Deme (Aarhus University) discussed the new challenges of Scandinavian Jewish Museology. All three discussed the relationship between Jewish museums and changing ideas of the nation (Czech Republic after communism, Israel’s changing relation to the Diaspora, social integration in Scandinavia and “scandinavianness”). In this way, some of the stakes were set out for the rest of the conference, and many other papers and Q&A sessions incorporated a reflection on these recent and ongoing transformations.
Session 2a took a different approach to the question of display of Jewish heritage in the museum by engaging with museums that do not describe themselves as Jewish museums, but which either have older Judaica holdings or which are seeking to integrate Jewish history and personal narratives. Thus, the question of Jewish “folk art” in many older ethnographic museums (Erica Lehrer, Concordia University), especially (but not exclusively) in Eastern Europe, was addressed, and above all Jewish presences in history museums and documentation centres. Timo Saalmann (Germanisches Nationalmuseum) reflected on the implications of transferring the temporary exhibition “Jewish Life in Bamberg”, installed in a house formerly under Jewish ownership into a permanent display within the Historisches Museum; Sylvia Necker (Dokumentation Obersalzberg and Institute for Contemporary History, Munich) outlined the plans for integrating personal narratives of victims at this symbolic perpetrator location of Obersalzberg.
Session 3 was devoted to new and renewing museums. Ch. Twiehaus (Rhineland Regional Council and Archaeologische Zone & Jewish Museum, Cologne) presented the evolving concept for the archaeological museum set to open in the next few years. The other speakers spoke to radical or far reaching transformations in existing museums. Zsuzsanna Toronyi (chief curator, Jewish Museum Budapest) meticulously documented the radical nature of the reversion from communist state control to community museum. We were especially fortunate to welcome the new director of the Jewish Museum Frankfurt Mirjam Wenzel, who outlined how the new extension and the reopening of Museum Judengasse will incorporate the “past imperfect” history of the museum since the 1980s.
A second major theme was initiated in Session 4: Trauma and Display. Here, Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek (xhibit.at and Association of European Jewish Museums), one of the co-investigators of the present grant, was able to elaborate on her earlier major essay, “Thoughts on the role of Jewish museums in the 21st century”, and propose that in some way most Jewish museums in areas affected by the Holocaust have to confront the continuing trauma of the Holocaust. Her paper was complemented by Griselda Pollock’s (University of Leeds) critical display history of Charlotte Salomon – between “woman artist” and “Holocaust artist”, and by Dominic Williams’s (University of Liverpool and University of Leeds) exploration of the materialities, display possibilities and challenges for the so-called Scrolls of Auschwitz.
Roundtable 1, “Jewish Museums and European Politics” (Hetty Berg, Joods Historisch Museum Amsterdam; Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek; Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, POLIN Museum Warsaw and New York University; Cilly Kugelmann, Jewish Museum Berlin; Zsuzsanna Tornyi, Jewish Museum Budapest; chair: Griselda Pollock, University of Leeds), was devoted to the impact of European politics on the role of Jewish museums. The often animated discussion, which also included voices from the audience, revolved around the ethical position of Jewish museums in relation to current debates, for example around the refugee crisis. There was a clear sense that although Jewish museums cannot avoid current debates, they should not be delegated the sole responsibility (i.e. what is to be avoided is a scenario of “there’s a political crisis with an ethical dimension – let’s leave it to the Jewish museum”). Beyond that, the variety of views was significant. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett warned against Jewish museums being instrumentalised by new right wing governments in central and Eastern Europe; this warning that was seconded by Zsuzsanna Toronyi who defined the Budapest Jewish Museum’s independence as a community museum with all the financial disadvantages but with political independence. By contrast, Hetty Berg outlined a commitment to intercultural dialogue, especially with migrant groups from beyond Europe; this commitment was seconded by Joanne Rosenthal (Jewish Museum London) and David Glasser (Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, London) from the floor. In sum, it emerged very clearly that Jewish museums in former communist countries are having to deal with quite different sets of political issues than some of those in western European countries.
On the second day, many papers addressed the question of diverse and changing visitor demographics and the imperatives arising therefrom. The theme was explored thoroughly in Sessions 5 and 7. In particular, the challenges to Jewish museums in non-Jewish areas or without a significant Jewish audience were explored, and different strategies were discussed for reaching out to a variety of communities. A significant part of the discussions revolved around reconciling the desire to be a “Jewish” museum and the need to reach out across communities.
Session 5 was opened by Cilly Kugelmann (Jewish Museum Berlin), who outlined the change of direction towards a museum whose audience consists overwhelmingly of non-Jewish visitors. Sara Tas (Joods Historisch Museum Amsterdam) presented a museum pedagogy aimed at confronting intercommunal and anti-Jewish prejudice. Magda Veselska (Jewish Museum Prague) discussed the challenges posed by changing institutional frameworks and changing visitor profile in post-communist Prague; and Rachel Sarfati (Israel Museum Jerusalem) spoke of the new strategies for integrating contemporary art within the Jewish ethnography wing, and the resulting challenges from a range of different audiences.
Roundtable 2 was devoted to developments across the United Kingdom. Alexandra Cropper (Jewish Museum Manchester) reported on the newly won Heritage Lottery Grant to build an extension, and plans to involve the local (non-Jewish) community; Sharman Kadish (Jewish Heritage UK) called for synergy between preservation and museum, especially for museumization as a method for salvaging historic synagogues. Joanne Rosenthal (Jewish Museum London) and David Glasser (Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, London) presented different facets of engaging a variety of audiences in multicultural London. Other participants included Philippa Lester and Diane Saunders (Leeds Jewish Literary Festival ), who together with Antonia Lovelace and Kitty Ross (Leeds City Museum) floated the possibility of a virtual heritage network across the city. There was a dose of healthy debate between the imperative to save Jewish monuments by turning them into museums, the salvaging of ephemera, the desire to serve as a focal point for changing Jewish communities, and the need to broaden one’s audience by bringing other communities into the museum.
A special feature of the conference was a session dedicated to Ph.D. students (Session 6 “Research in Progress”) from a variety of institutions in Lucca, London and of course Leeds. Lorenzo Borgonovo (IMT School for Advanced Studies, Lucca) traced the lines of continuity between the pre- and postwar Jewish museums of Livorno, while highlighting the loss of heritage in that historic community; Shir Kochavi (University of Leeds) spoke about the transformation of the Bezalel Museum during the immediate post-Holocaust period, by its acquisition of “heirless property”; and Natalia Romik (UCL) presented her installation plans for the old Tahara Hall of Gliwice. An interesting part of the discussion revolved around the ethics of reconstruction.
Session 7 engaged with questions of migration and integration. Annette Seidel-Arpaci (independent scholar) focussed on the changing discourses of migration in relation to museum pedagogy. Hilda Nissimi (Bar Ilan University) showed how both Daniel Libeskind’s architectural metaphors and the display narrative in the Copenhagen Jewish Museum transmit metaphors of rescue and shelter. Joanne Rosenthal (Jewish Museum London) presented the “Your Jewish Museum” project, a collaboration with Kings College London aimed at developing new audiences by means of community engagement and participation processes such as their series of “crowdsourced” exhibitions. David Glasser (Ben Uri Gallery and Museum) gave an account of the successive stages of Ben Uri’s rebranding over the last two decades, which positioned the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum as being in close connection with the changing face of multicultural London.
The conference demonstrated the benefits of museum-university dialogue – this was universally praised by participants. The papers and roundtables showed that despite much European collaboration, there remain significant centrifugal political forces between Eastern and Central Europe (broadly post communist countries) and Western Europe, which need to be addressed in future collaborations if cultural cohesion is to be furthered across Europe. The contributions also show divergences between countries once occupied by the Nazis and those not occupied, with significant differences in emphasis and interpretation of Holocaust memory.
The conference has led to 2 new collaborations:
- An informal connection between the University of Leeds and Southampton University, which is hosting a heritage workshop in July 2016, which may lead to a joint publication.
- A connection with the Hohenems Jewish Museum in Austria. This has already materialised in Leeds’ participation in a development workshop at Hohenems, and is set to continue with an event at Leeds with one of the artists currently active there, the UK sound artist Susan Philipsz, see http://www.jm-hohenems.at/en/veranstaltungen/susan-philipsz-soundinstallation-am-juedischen-friedhof-hohenems-en
- During the conference, an archive of recordings was assembled. We are now looking into how to make at least portions of it accessible.
- An extensive questionnaire collected feedback from speakers. The results may be summarised as follows:
In a rapidly changing political climate in Europe, including centrifugal forces connected to economic crisis, enlarged EU, new nationalisms, new religious identities including fundamentalisms, and the refugee crisis, Jewish museums face significant challenges. “Jewish Museums all over are undergoing a process of change. They are confronted with new challenges due to the advanced development of professional museology, political changes in many countries, and advanced academic research in the field of Jewish visual and material culture.” In this context, there were discussions about the changing audiences of Jewish museums, changing funding structures, and also the diversity that divides community led Jewish museums from state led museums.
A major contribution was the insight that temporary exhibitions are not merely a way to bring the visitors in, but also the vehicle of choice for responding flexibly to changing political climate and changing educations imperatives.
- A publication is being planned.
Announcements about the Conference online