Whither Jewish Museums?

general
June 1, 2001
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Mark E. Talisman

Museums are dying. Attractions are taking over. The public is now drawn to interactive, elec-tronic, digitized displays that take little thought and little time to transverse. All too often museum directors seek only the so-called blockbuster exhibitions, trying to compete with the public extravaganzas in places like Disneyland, Universal Studios, and Six Flags. Envisioning time-ticketed lines arching around city blocks becomes the goal to ensure that bills are paid and the museum has a future. If all this is true for a general museum, one can only imagine the greater challenges for a Jewish museum.

Costly Jewish blockbuster exhibitions are difficult to mount and generally made impossible by lack of funds. Drawing large and diverse audiences into Jewish museums is problematic even though popular exhibits should be able to compete for the disposable time and income of Jewish households.

While a special cadre of funders who support Jewish museums exists, the group is small given the demands of many excellent Jewish museums across the country. As well, the organized American Jewish community has not shown any serious commitment to fund, in an ongoing way, artistic and cultural presentations at Jewish museums. All too often, interest in building a building does not translate into a serious commitment to the building’s contents – giving breath and life to the exhibits.

Another serious consideration relates to the museum audience. All too often, the community assumes that Jewish museums exist only to educate and entertain the Jewish community. In fact, some funders are emphatic that their contributions are exclusively for the Jewish community. Yet, it is essential to realize, like some museums do, that a Jewish museum should also draw the general community. Isn’t it time for Jewish museums to do what they do best not only for a Jewish public but for non-Jews as well?

Ironically, many general museums, including some at the country’s top tier, acknowledge the benefit of hosting Jewish-content exhibits and invest the funds to attract attendance and curry favor with the local and regional Jewish community. While the “Precious Legacy” exhibition was refused by numerous museums, nine of the ten host museums were general museums. Having Jewish content in such museums validates the materials’ intrinsic value to wider audiences. In short, Jewish art, artifacts, cultural icons, and history have arrived at a golden period of normalcy worthy of broad and wide dissemination.

This has not always been the case. The Cleveland Museum of Art was adamant in refusing the exhibit. It was particularly annoying to me because I grew up taking art classes and spending a great deal of time among its precious collections. The Guelph Treasures was a centerpiece of the museum’s magnificent early collection and one of the exhibit’s most important objects was a 15th century chalice. The silver chalice, ironically, looked very much like a kiddush cup from the vast holdings of Judaica gathered by Hitler in Holocaust-era Prague – a centerpiece of the “Precious Legacy” exhibition. While the Guelph chalice was perfectly acceptable to display under glass in an honored place at the top of the grand-entry stairway, gleaming as the focus for every entering visitor to see, the Perlsticker kiddush cup – equally dazzling in its beauty, design, and universal meaning-was shunned. Jewish objects apparently weren’t worthy of such attention. Fortunately the overwhelming reception to the “Precious Legacy” by Jews and non-Jews dispelled that assumption.

Attendance records and the pattern of visitors to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D. C. also underscore the fact that Jewish content museums have an obligation in this world to reach out to a vastly diverse audience of potential visitors. Such exhibitions succeed when quality governs what and how objects are displayed. Meaningful outreach to the wider community, however, will remain impossible with the current limited budgets.

Electronics, digitization, and animation attract the advocates of building “attractions” rather than museums. Although I began this essay worrying that museums were becoming little more than mega-attractions, proponents of morphing museums into attractions have a point. Often today, children won’t be caught dead in a museum with its pedantry and stultified atmosphere. In fact, the National Association of Attractions (such a lobby group really exists) will not even tolerate the word “museum” in its printed matter.

Is the fate of Jewish museums thus doomed? No! Much can be done to make Jewish museums attractive to wider audiences. For example, the computer game software so popular and profitable among young people – along with other unconventional interactive modalities – could be applied in museums to tell stories and explore artifacts. The future will only be bleak if proper funding and visionary thinking are inadequate.

While I am not an advocate of attractions, some imaginative technology will prove fruitful to museums. An informal census of the talent within the electronic arts community finds a heavy and highly creative Jewish presence. There are hundreds of young Jewish people founding, working in, or funding the cutting-edge companies producing the very icons against which Jewish museums are competing. We must harness this Jewish talent on behalf of the needs of the global and local Jewish communities. We must persuade these talented and entrepreneurial young Jews to use their skills to revolutionize the field of Jewish education – specifically in informal settings like Jewish museums.

This pyramid of Jewish museums, general museums, and attractions compete for the same audiences. Is it not time for Jewish museums to join forces with the funding community and commit to developing places where young Jewish and non-Jewish children can learn via the imaginative electronic, digitized use of objects, materials, and paper-artifacts and gadgetry that speak to a child’s curiosity and magnetically transform learning within the parameters of the present day museum cube? If not, Jewish museums will become irrelevant and die.

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Mark E. Talisman is President of Project Judaica Foundation, Inc., a 25-year-old foundation committed to the conservation, preservation, and dissemination of Judaica (www.judaica.org). Mr. Talisman is Founding Vice-Chairman of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Council and Founding Director of the Council of Jewish Federations' Washington Action Office, which represents the Federations to the U. S. Government.

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