Museums as Cultural Centers and Educational Institutions

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June 1, 2001
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Michael Berenbaum

As a Holocaust historian, I was surprised to find myself recently in the uncharacteristic position of musing positively about the state of American Jewry and its “renaissance.” Scholarship is proliferating, and American Jews are creating new art, music, film, literature, and culture. Old institutions are being rejuvenated and new ones are being established to nurture and deepen the Jewish experience. Among such institutions are cultural centers and museums that offer new encounters with Judaism.

The 1990s may be characterized as the age of the Holocaust Museum. New large institutions were opened in Washington and Los Angeles, in New York and Houston. Smaller, more modest facilities were opened in several cities throughout the United States and Canada and even in Capetown, South Africa and Hampton, England. Washington’s success has drawn much attention. More than 15 million people visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in its first seven years; according to detailed and ongoing sampling, some 8 in 10 of its visitors are non-Jews. Even those who are critical of the Holocaust Museum in Washington have recognized that it has become, in the words of Peter Novick, “the place to go in Washington, much as the Louvre in Paris.”

More than the numbers attending museums, what goes on inside is striking. The Los Angeles Police Departments come to receive training at the Museum of Tolerance because the Holocaust was, in part, a police action against a civilian population. In San Francisco, sessions are held for lawyers to discuss not only the rules of law but also the values that underlie those laws. Physicians and medical students are taught not only about Nazi medical experiments but also about the German medical community’s participation in the T-4 program of genocide. School children are taught about the Holocaust and the way in which we treat those unlike us. Church-based visitors reconsider the role of Christianity in promulgating antisemitism. In short, teaching the Holocaust becomes an instrumental way to raise issues of pluralism, tolerance, democracy, respect for human dignity and human rights, and medical and legal ethics.

The phenomenon of Jewish museum creation is not limited to the Holocaust. In Los Angeles, the Skirball Cultural Center opened with a permanent exhibition that, though interesting, was not quite overwhelming; it compensated by swiftly realizing its mission as a cultural center. Temporary exhibitions, such as the recent exhibition of Sigmund Freud, stimulate increased attendance and reinforce the basic cultural mission of the center. Unlike the Jewish Community Center, whose athletic facility still remains the primary draw, Jewish culture is the Skirball’s focus and it draws people of from a spectrum of ages and backgrounds into a multi-level Jewish cultural experience.

A similar cultural center-museum is being developed in San Francisco and a new iteration of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. In Capetown, South Africa a new Jewish Museum will open in December to tell the story of South African Jewry, and in Paris a new Jewish Museum has opened that tells the history of French Jewry. The phenomenon of museum development seems to be proliferating throughout the Jewish world.

What does the flourishing of museum-cultural centers say about the American Jewish experience and Jews in the Diaspora?

These museums are a creation of the Jewish community. Although developed for the Jewish community, they clearly reach beyond it as an important educational tool. There is no “inside language” and “outside language.” Exhibits are designed for a general audience, and while Jews learn about their faith and their history, non-Jews learn about Judaism and Jews. No expertise is presumed. Rather, an invitation is offered and, judging by attendance, readily accepted.

Visitors shape their own museum experiences. No demands are made aside from stepping inside the door. There is no “requirement” for a visit. You don’t have to belong to attend. The best of contemporary museums raise the level of a visit beyond pop-entertainment and seek to enrich and ennoble contemporary tastes and visitor expectations. Less successful museums merely give in to the norms of today’s pop culture. Martin Buber once said that to remain a master one must elevate the need before responding to it. So too with museums.

Museums are open to singles as well as families in which parents share and shape the experiences of their children. They presume to inform without creating a hierarchy of authority. No rabbi mediates the experience. Docents can be used for additional information, as can headsets for those wanting a mediated experience, but they are not required.

Contemporary museums have become storytelling institutions, places of interactive learning. Traditionally, the conventional museum told the story of its artifacts. Unlike art museums or most artifact-centered historical museums, which tell the stories of the artifacts they possess, the storytelling museum is driven by the story it wants to tell – both in design and exhibition. It is on the basis of that story that the artifacts are collected and exhibited, photographs are gathered and chosen, and diverse media – film, video, narrative tale, text, design and atmosphere – are selected. These new historical storytelling museums aim to engage and involve the visitor.

The best of the museums are deeply committed to portraying the particularity of the Jewish experience, yet the Jewish story is conveyed as a human story. The more appealing the human story, the more cultural differences can be bridged and attention can be paid to the particularity of the experience. The particular is unashamedly assumed to be of universal interest.

These new cultural centers offer a forum for Jewish cultural creativity, reach out to the uncommitted, and intensify to one’s Jewish experience. They have also become an important way for non-Jews to learn about Jewish history and the Jewish experience. And because any good museum must become an ongoing living institution, temporary exhibits become a means for the proliferation of scholarship and learning and their presentation to the interested public. The flourishing Jewish museums are a sign of the ongoing vitality of learning and the continuing discussion of Jewish life.

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Michael Berenbaum, a Sh'ma Contributing Editor and Visiting Professor of Theology at the Academy of Jewish Religion, is a consultant working on the development of historical films and museums. His most recent book The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? was recently published by St. Martin's Press.

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