The Space between: Tracking history in the digital age accessible and elusive

When Francesco Spagnolo, curator at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, began teaching at U.C. Santa Cruz, he was shocked by the response of a student complaining about history.

“He said to me in class, ‘I don’t want to know about the past. I don’t want to know where my family came from. I’m just here now,’ ” Spagnolo recalled after a morning teaching a class on Jewish liturgy in U.C. Berkeley’s music department. Growing up in Milan before earning a Ph.D. in musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Spagnolo had been saturated with history.

“I grew up in a city where you can find remains of a Roman circus,” he said. “I had a friend, a Syrian Jewish writer, who for a long time lived in a medieval nunnery. His living room was the cafeteria, and he slept in the bedroom of the mother superior. The past is very much not only in your face, but under your feet. You walk on it every day when you live in a place like Italy. It’s part of your DNA.”

The student’s attitude was one Spagnolo had never encountered before and was “like a cold shower.” But after 10 years in California, it’s one he is starting to appreciate. “There is something refreshing about wanting to do away with the past. I was raised with the idea that holding on to the past is a very important thing. But I think fresh approaches, fresh looks, even dismissive looks can at times be very important and very regenerative.”

This question of what from the Magnes’ enormous collection of art and Judaica should be presented — and, in a digital age, how — animates much of Spagnolo’s work at the Magnes, which merged in 2010 with the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley after almost 50 years as the independent Judah L. Magnes Museum.

The mixing of traditional and digital collections, and old and new ways of understanding the past, are visible in the Magnes’ “Case Study No. 2: The Inventory Project.” Developed in conjunction with professor Jeffrey Shandler at Rutgers University, the new exhibition is both a fascinating display of list-making objects from the Magnes holdings and a “meta-exhibition” about what it means to collect and organize.

A stroll through the museum’s Warren Hellman Gallery reveals objects as diverse as a 19th-century holiday prayerbook from Egypt, dividing the community into categories; an 1895 list of trustees from Congregation Ohabai Shalome in San Francisco; a seating chart for a synagogue in Slovakia; and a list of daily activities for one Stephen Zellerbach (1927-2011) at Camp Kelowa near Lake Huntington, Calif.

Francesco Spagnolo

The key questions provoked by the exhibition include: What does an individual or institution keep, and why? How does an archive value those decisions when it collects or displays something? And how carefully should I store my kid’s mementos from summer camp?

For historical perspective, Spagnolo points to the Cairo Genizah. When this traditional site for unusable Hebrew texts (which could not be thrown away, no matter their content) was discovered in Egypt in 1896, the items included “ten centuries of … middle-class Jewish detritus — its letters and poems, its wills and marriage contracts, its bills of lading and writs of divorce, its prayers, prescriptions, trousseau list, Bibles, money orders,” write Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman in their recent book “Sacred Trash.”

This list is echoed today in what we create and communicate online. “In a way, the Internet as a whole is a potential geniza,” Spagnolo explained.

Working with his longtime collaborator Alla Efimova, the Magnes’ director, Spagnolo recognized that shared digital tools were an important way not just to organize material culture, but also to share it across disciplines, countries and languages. Spagnolo raised a few eyebrows when the Magnes started presenting images of its holdings on Flickr, which most people associated with snapshots of kittens. “That was risky business,” he admitted, talking about an ancient past — the George W. Bush era — during which the words “social” and “media” had never been combined.

These days Spagnolo goes even further, viewing “elusive” digital archives like YouTube as a critical — if nontraditional — platform for tracking history.

“I love going on YouTube to find old recordings,” he explained. “There’s not a good way to share sound online, so people use [services like YouTube] to find things like rare 20th-century recordings.”

Spagnolo acknowledged that the dynamic and unstable essence of YouTube is problematic:  “Some days the materials are there, and then they’re not anymore.” But on a deeper level, that elusiveness points to a central truth about collections and history — as well as individual and cultural memory.

“Uncertainty is inherent to” this enterprise, he said. “My main preoccupation is how much is forgotten through archives.” And like a trapped humanity in Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel,” in which every piece of information is available to everyone, we can suffocate if too much is available to us — as any casual online user understands.

And so perhaps an archive  — analog, digital or whatever comes along next  — could be seen as both a tool to collect and “a device to forget.”


Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.