Jewish museums and Jewish identities

In February 2016 art critic Edward Rothstein wrote in an essay in Mosaic Magazine, entitled ‘The problem with Jewish Museums’: “Alas, …I can’t hold out much hope. Nothing, it seems, will shatter their paltry view of Judaism, Jewish history, and Jewish public responsibility. Minimize your profile, mute your pride; be overly indulgent, even perversely so, of the tastes and priorities of the surrounding culture; resist any hint of “difficult” scholarship or religious thought; avoid any sort of self-assertion that might infringe the dictates of political correctness or intellectual fashion: these are the defining characteristics of the modern Jewish identity museum.”

The issue of Jewish identity in Jewish museums in Europe is very relevant today. Many Jewish museums are not ‘owned’ by Jewish governing organizations, many smaller museums rely on public, non-Jewish support and cannot identify themselves as Jewish institutions and many museums owned by Jewish organizations face pressure of the Jewish community, often negatively influencing both their curatorial and their financial independence. There is the definition of collections and there are the complicated issues surrounding acquisition and provenance, especially, but not exclusively, after the Holocaust.

There are other identity-related issues, the biggest one being without doubt the role of the Holocaust. Jewish museums cannot NOT deal with the Holocaust, but they may well disappear if they define their existence SOLELY through the Holocaust. Both Jewish and Holocaust museums should always communicate with the surrounding society, but the nature of universalistic approaches should be discussed constantly. And Holocaust education can and should play an important role in Jewish museums, but it should always be balanced by education on other topics. In sum, the Holocaust is always there, also when it isn’t.

This paper will discuss these and other identity-related issues.