Surfing for Jewish art Magnes collection hits the Internet

By Labor Day, admirers of the Judah L. Magnes Museum will be able to see much of the institution’s art collections whenever they want. Even on their iPhones.

The Berkeley museum’s years-long project to digitize and display much of its vast collection online has reached fruition, meaning 13,000 items — from ketubahs to paintings to historical documents — will soon be a mouse click away.


Eleanor Haas at her wedding

The Magnes has joined other museums around the world in an effort to digitize and post their collections. “We’re in the 21st century,” said Magnes acting director and chief curator Alla Efimova. “There is an expectation that for researchers, the public and students, access needs to be provided online.”


“This is tremendously exciting, both for the Magnes and for researchers and scholars around the world,” added Frances Dinkelspiel, the museum’s board president. “Over the last 45 years, the Magnes has created a tremendous collection. Much of this stuff has been unknown and unexamined, except for the select scholars who are able to come into the building and examine them.”

With a grant from the Toole Media Fund, the project began a few years ago by digitizing several hundred objects and records from the museum’s North African and Indian collection, including manuscripts, ceremonial objects and folk art.

Later, as more funding was secured, the scope expanded to cover the broad spectrum of Magnes collections, including its modern art and decorative art holdings, as well as documents from the Western Jewish History Center.

Users can search and retrieve information on thousands of art objects, pieces of Judaica, manuscripts, photographs and the like, spanning the whole of the Jewish diaspora.

Employing state-of-the-art software developed in Israel (the same sort used by Yad Vashem and the Israel Museum), the Magnes online catalog offers several novel features, according to Francesco Spagnolo, the museum’s director of research and collections.

The digital programs at the Magnes also receive support from the Hellman Family Foundation and the Bernard Osher Foundation.


Children’s Synagogue Central Hebrew School, San Francisco, 1928 photos/from the judah l. magnes museum archives

Not only are many of the 13,000 items illustrated and described in detail, a combination of links, search engines and interfacing with social networking sites (such as Flickr and Twitter) offer multiple approaches to the Magnes’ treasures.


“Because the collection is so diverse — manuscripts, archival materials, objects, art, documents — we needed a way to catalog everything,” Efimova said. “We wanted to make sure there was a kind of ease. That was the premise: easy to use and search.”

Even though the official launch won’t occur until the end of this month or in early September, users can give the site a whirl at After the launch, the catalog will be linked to the museum’s main Web site at

Many of the items in the online archive rarely make it to gallery exhibitions, which should make the online catalog all the more appealing, not to mention democratic, according to Efimova.

“It’s a way of releasing control of a collection,” she said. “If you’re the only one who can go into the vault, you have a certain hierarchy of likes and dislikes, but once you put it out there, you realize people begin to love different images. Their attention is piqued by things different from the curator.”

The digitization project has spun off into several side projects on the main Magnes Web site, such as narratives about notable Jewish families,  personal stories about objects in the archives and Flickr slideshows of smaller collections (some of them bequeathed by local families). All of these help paint portraits of Jewish life in California and beyond.

Efimova also sees the digitization project as a form of conservation, because objects don’t need to be over-handled, thus protecting them if they are fragile or sensitive to light.

Of course, that brings up one of the pitfalls of an online museum: The “wow” factor might not be as strong as it might be when coming face-to-face with a piece of art.

“An object has an aura, a texture, you will not see online,” Efimova conceded. “But digitization is not meant to preclude that experience.”

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.