Jewish museums are good for the Jews and for everyone

I have shlepped my children to museums across London in the ambitious hope of helping them to understand other cultures.

I have also dragged them to the Jewish Museum in London to supplement their Jewish education and reinforce their identity, for that is how I understood the purpose of a Jewish museum — a place created by the Jews, for the Jews and about the Jews.

How misguided I was. In many European cities, Jewish museums are major attractions for the non-Jewish public. Figures from those in Amsterdam, Paris, Budapest, Berlin, Rome, Athens, Vienna and Prague suggest that the overwhelming majority of visitors are not Jewish, and further, these museums have extensive educational programs for non-Jewish schoolchildren.

So what are Jewish museums for? Are they just a holding place for relics of the past? Recently, I have been thinking extensively about the role of Jewish museums in Europe — how, for example, a Jewish museum embedded within its own local Jewish community is different from a Jewish museum that exists in a vacuum, devoid of a community, deracinated of a Jewish presence.

In an essay on the role of Jewish museums in the 21st century, Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, former chief curator of the Jewish Museum of Vienna, wrote that “today’s Jewish museum is, or should be, a memorial space that, through its holdings, both preserves and activates memory, an institution that educates by means of stimulating or even disconcerting its viewers, and a witness for the prosecution in the ongoing dispute between past and future.”

I would suggest that a philanthropic foundation like mine, which is mandated to support Jewish culture, is caught in that awkward space between past and future, for it must function in the present.

Firstly, as the guardians of important Judaica collections, Jewish museums must be supported with the resources to ensure that there are proper inventories, provenance research, adequate storage and display facilities, and professional staff with the skills to manage the collections.

Secondly, Jewish museums, especially those in multicultural Europe, have an important sociopolitical role to play: To what extent can other communities learn to reflect on their own experiences of immigration, acculturation and assimilation from the Jewish experience?

Finally, Jewish museums involved in their own local Jewish communities are potential avenues for identity building, particularly where the formal structures within the community are rigid, paternalistic and impervious to new ideas of educational innovation. Foundations that encourage and support the varied use of museum space to nurture community engagement and Jewish education are harbingers of new and creative expressions of Jewish life.

Sally Berkovic
is chief executive of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. This essay first appeared at http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/jewish-museums-are-they-good-for-the-jews/