Memories go digital in Magnes lab

You know those old family snapshots boxed up in the attic? Now they can be transformed from forgotten clutter to a piece of Jewish history. All it takes is an appointment with the Memory Lab.

The Memory Lab is a project of Berkeley’s Judah L. Magnes Museum. More than a year in development, it allows individuals, families and even Jewish organizations to compile photos, documents and oral histories, and turn them into digital historical narratives that would make Ken Burns jealous.

“It’s a hub between the [Magnes] collection, the public and the rest of the universe,” says Francesco Spagnolo, head of research for the Magnes. “It’s a lab and a public space. Patrons can book time, bring in their documents and memorabilia, and turn them into family albums published online.”

Drawing on its collections spanning Jewish history in California and around the world, the Magnes jumped into the Memory Lab first. Creating what it calls Jewish Digital Narratives, the museum posted online displays on topics like the history of Jews in China and the life of Reuben Rinder, the longtime cantor at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El who died in 1966. Those digital displays include rare photos, documents and artifacts.

But regular museum patrons and Jewish community members do not need to show up with museum-quality artifacts to create their own Memory Lab digital narratives.

Volunteers work with individuals and families to organize their memorabilia into a story. Each document is captioned and tagged. Then the narratives are put on display not only at the Magnes, but also on the museum’s Web site and database, as well as on Flickr, a popular photo-sharing Web site.

According to Spagnolo, the Web 2.0 component is what makes Memory Lab special.

“We are among the first to use Flickr, not only for photos but for documents,” he says. “It enables any user to share any digital image.”

By uploading to the Web both its own collections and the digital narratives of Memory Lab patrons, the Magnes is “democratizing access,” Spagnolo says, “opening the way to the unknown.”

To prove his point, Spagnolo notes that within minutes of posting its Jews in China narrative on Flickr, a museum official in Australia wrote to congratulate the Magnes.

Those who prefer their museum exhibitions the old-fashioned way can visit the Memory Lab itself, now housed in the Magnes Museum’s Koshland Gallery. There, images from various narratives are projected on the wall, while a bank of Apple computers stand ready for visitors to mouse their way through Jewish history.

Thanks to funding from the Walter and Elise Haas Foundation, Spagnolo and his colleagues were able to develop the Memory Lab concept. They partnered with software designer John Fox, whose Memory Minder program powers the lab’s Jewish Digital Narratives. The Magnes Museum’s database, which officially goes online next month, uses software originally developed in Israel.

Local families and institutions with digital narratives already posted or soon to be posted include the Haas Lillienthal family estate and the Jewish Music Festival.

There is no charge to use the Memory Lab, although donations are gladly accepted.

The lab has drawn attention from others institutions. A USC-sponsored project, “The Jews in the Golden State,” will partner with the Magnes to expand its scope. Members of the Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society have also stopped by to explore pooling resources.

A native of Milan, Italy, Spagnolo is a musicologist by training, having studied at the Jewish Music Research Center in Jerus-alem and at Hebrew Univer-sity. He is married to Cantor Sharon Bern-stein, of San Francisco’s Con-gregation Sha’ar Zahav, and tries to play music whenever he can (early Jewish music from Italy is his specialty).

Unfortunately, his duties at the Magnes lately have kept his lute locked in its case. But Spagnolo doesn’t mind, as he seems energized by the Memory Lab.

Says Spagnolo, “It’s a great resource we’re putting on the table.”

For more information on the Magnes Museum’s Memory Lab, visit the museum’s Web site,, or call (510) 549-6950. The Memory Lab exhibition is now on display at the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell St., Berkeley.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.