08 June 2013

Jewish museums - their locations and functions

Firstly I would like to consider some of the world's existing Jewish museums.

The Jewish Museum of Vienna is a museum of Jewish history, life and religion in Austria, starting with the first settlements at Judenplatz in the C13th. Founded in 1896, this was the first major Jewish museum anywhere, supported and run by the Society for the Coll­ect­ion and Preservation of Artistic and Historical Memorials of Jewry. Im­mediately after the Anschluss by Nazi Germany in 1938 the museum was closed, and its contents were sent to the Museum of Ethnology and to the Natural History Museum. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that most of the objects came back to the Jewish community. Today Vienna’s museum is located in Palais Eskeles where there has been an active programme of exhibitions and outreach events since 1993. Today the museum's aim is to highlight the past and present of Jewish cult­ure in Austria. Visitor figures in Palais Eskeles and the museum’s other site reached 59,600 during 2011.

Palais Eskeles, Vienna
Built in the 11th century and modernised many times.
Since 1993, this has been the Jewish Museum of VIenna

Re-opened in March 2010 in Camden, the Jewish Museum of London feat­ures exhibitions that tell the story of Jewish history, culture and religion and reveal the vital contribution that the Jewish community has made to British life. The history of the country's extremely strong Jewish community stretches back to 1066, when the first Jews arrived with William the Conqueror's invading Norman army. Then the museum covers the total expulsion of the Jews by King Edward I in 1290.

Dis­played across four permanent galleries are objects, films and per­s­onal stories that explore the critical issues of immigration and settlement. London’s Jew­ish history is beautifully evoked in displays such as the recreation of an East End tailor’s sweatshop. There is also a C13th medieval mikveh/ritual bath, recently discovered in the City of London. The Holocaust Gallery explores the impact of Nazism through the experiences and personal items of Auschwitz survivors. Through impor­t­ant historical artefacts and films in the Judaism: A Living Faith gallery, visitors can start to understand what it means to be Jewish in modern, multicultural Britain. It must be working; the museum had 60,000 visitors in its first year after the renov­at­ions.

The Manchester Jewish Museum in Cheetham Hill first opened its doors in 1984. The fascinating journey through Jewish history in one of Europe's most vibrant cities has thrilled tens of thousands of vis­itors. The museum is a stunning former Spanish and Portuguese Syn­agogue, a cultural and architectural gem in its own right, the only British museum of its kind outside London.

The former Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, 
designed by Edward Salomons and built in 1873-74.
Now the Manchester Jewish Museum.
Photo credit: The Victorian Web

The Jewish Museum of Australia was established in Melbourne in 1982, focusing on exhibitions that depicted and described Jewish festivals, Sabbath, food and ritual objects. But above all, its collection focused on the history of the Jewish community of Victoria and the places from where these Jews first arrived. In 1992 the Jewish Museum of Australia purchased a purpose-renovated building in Alma Rd St Kilda opposite one of Melbourne’s most beau­tiful synagogues, the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation. School and other groups are invited to tour the general collection and the special exhibitions, and some of these exhibitions travelled nationally.

The Sydney Jewish Museum in Darlinghurst started by identifying the 16 Jews who arrived in Australia on the First Fleet and describes life for those people in the early days of settlement of Australia. Then the Museum moves on to record Jewish settlement throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and documents and teaches the history of the Holo­caust. It does this over three floors of exhibitions, video presentations, newspaper clippings, pictures, narrations, letters and first hand accounts. There are also guided tours.

The Jewish Museum of Berlin is located on Lindenstraße. The Museum first opened its doors in 2001 in a unique building complex. The complex is known for its architecture with a mixture of the old baroque Collegienhaus, the postmodern Libeskind Building, and the new Glass Courtyard. The exhibitions give visitors the opportunity to exper­ience Jewish German history and culture over many decades. Par­ticular highlights of the museum include the Holocaust Tower and the Fallen Leaves of the Memory Void. For refreshment, Café Schmus within the Jewish Museum specifically offers traditional Jewish cuisine.


I was delighted to read “Mushrooming Museums” in The Jerusalem Report of 3rd June 2013 by Shula Kopf. She appropriately discussed the open­ing of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and the revitalised Jewish Museum of Berlin, and pointed out that European Jewish museums are just now recovering the histories that have been lost. The Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam also got a brief mention because of its innovative, interactive exhibits that explore aspects of Jewish life and history. As did the Sephardic Museum of Granada in Spain, for obvious reasons. These museums are largely targeted to non-Jewish audiences, since their Jewish citizens are fewer in number than they were before 1939.

But her question “are there too many Jewish museums?” seemed to be focused exclusively on the American situation. The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, designed by the brilliant architect Daniel Libeskind, is exhibiting the secret musical history of black-Jewish relations. The long established Jewish Museum in New York had a great programme called “Houdini: Art and Magic”. The National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia has “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish refugee scholars at Black Colleges in the USA’s south”. The Skirball Jewish Museum in Los Angeles was designed by the brilliant architect Moshe Safdie and opened in 1996. The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland Ohio opened in 2005. 

Sydney Jewish Museum

She should have been focusing on those parts of the world that had thriving Jewish communities until the war, like Vienna, Berlin and Warsaw. Or on communities that grew largely because of Jewish survivors leaving Europe after the war, Melbourne. Their target audiences will be very different, I suspect, from the target audiences of Jewish museums in New York and Los Angeles.

Let me consider one last Jewish museum that Kopf didn't mention. The Communal Historical Museum of Argentina is in the town hall of Moisés Ville, 600 ks from Buenos Aires. The first Jewish immigrants came from Kamentez, Podolsk (now the Ukraine) in 1889 and settled in the area, thus turning Moisés Ville into the birthplace of Jewish life in Argentina. So the museum’s history starts with Baron Maurice Moshe Hirsch’s biggest settlement and the development of institutions and continues with the changes in community life ever since. There are five permanent exhibition halls and two temporary ones which illustrate Jews’ rituals and religious belongings, and the history of the town, described in documents, photographs and objects. Plus an impressive research library.

Moisés Ville used to be a largely Jewish town, having Argentina’s first Jewish cemetery and its first rabbi. But now there are only a few hundred Jews left. So almost by default this has become a VERY important museum, talking largely to non-Jews about memories, heritage and integration.

Communal Historical Museum of Argentina, Moisés Ville


Andrew said...

It doesn't seem like too many museums to me. Those that are supported will survive and those that are not won't. But I would rather have one really good museum than many. Victoria has a few quarter baked tram museums. NSW has one excellent one.

Pat said...

I studied Museum Studies in the 1990 era. Every museum had to have a mission statement that nominated who the target audience was and how that target audience was going to be attracted to the museum.

Home computers may have changed all that.

Hels said...


Good man! There can never be too many (good) museums :)

The only disappointing museums I have seen are those started by a passionate single collector with no outside curators and historians. I don't mind "small"...as long as the the objects tell a coherent and important piece of history.

Hels said...


A mission statement is still important, even in the age of computers. For example, if a museum is set up to tell the story of Federation and national development, then it makes sense to bring in bus loads of modern history students from the schools. And even more sense to have speakers address the students, while they are in the museum's lecture theatre.

Mandy Southgate said...

I love that there are so many Jewish museums across the world but despair that so often they are there to chronicle pogroms and atrocities. I must make a time to visit the museum in London although I do visit the Wiener Library (on the Holocaust and genocide studies) every month or so for talks.

Hels said...


I was on the Acquisition Board of the Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne for a decade where we were acutely aware of your issue. Any Holocaust document, object or photo that came in.. was immediately redirected to the Melbourne Holocaust Museum about 5 ks away.

But that means the Acquisition Board had to keep the mission statement firmly in mind. What do we collect? Who is our audience? What objects will best meet our needs?

Mandy Southgate said...

This puts me in mind of our discussion about a month ago. It seems crazy to me that I know more about the Holocaust than our own cultures and traditions. Granted, my upbringing was highly secular partly because my dad is Christian and I was brought us as a Methodist until I was about 13. But my mum did try expose us to it from that point on. I guess it is further muddled by us never attending the one Sephardi congregation in Johannesburg.

Perhaps what makes me so interested now, as an adult, is that I identify as "culturally Jewish" rather than religiously so.

In any event, I do enjoy your posts on Judasim and Jewish history as I always learn something.

Hels said...


Thank you... that is an important issue that I didn't mention. People identify as Jewish in so many different ways eg by maternal descent, language spoken, religious practice, the schools they send their children to, theatre/music/literature etc.

The Jewish museums have to collect the objects/texts/photos of all these groups AND have to appeal to very different audiences as well.