Paideia Jewish Museum Project
In the year 2002-2003, Paideia launched a Program for the Directors and Curators of Europe’s Jewish Museums, sponsored by the Keshet Foundation. The idea behind this program, conceived by Barbara Spectre, was to expose such professionals to a greater understanding of a living and vibrant Jewish culture, above all through a confrontation with its texts. The need for such an exposure seemed particularly crucial for two reasons: Jewish museum curators in Europe are not necessarily Jewish and even if they are there is no certainty that their knowledge of Jewish culture extends much beyond their own field of expertise and their often diluted heritage. Either way it seemed important for Paideia that such key activists learn to “swim in Jewish waters”: both for a greater understanding of the world they are supposed to represent and also to ensure that Jewish museums do not freeze “the Jews” in a stagnant ritual calendar and a tragic destiny.
From the onset we felt that Jewish museums across Europe are very specific institutions quite distinct from their American and Israeli counterparts, not only in terms of their personnel but above all in the role they play inside their respective societies. They are key actors in what Diana Pinto had conceptualized as Europe’s expanding Jewish Spaces and often one of the few loci where non-Jews learn about and interact with the Jewish world both past and present. Being that in Europe they fulfill a unique role, we felt that importing Israeli or American Jewish “know how” was not enough. It was imperative that we understand their respective outlooks, problems, and assets from within a European problematic.
We therefore embarked on a three-tiered pilot program that has been recently completed in early September 2003.
Phase One: entering the European Jewish Museum World
(November 24-26, 2002)
Diana Pinto was able to participate in the European Association of Jewish Museums’ annual meeting in Bologna, Italy. She delivered a paper on Europe’s Jewish Spaces and established contact with various museum directors to test the waters for the project and begin the networking. We received a very warm response. Everyone felt the need to discuss broader Jewish issues beyond the technicalities of object conservation and museum planning.
As a result of this first encounter, we decided to create a ‘think tank’ constituted by an inner group of Jewish Museum Directors who were themselves Jewish and thus most knowledgeable both of the European terrain and the wider Jewish world. Those contacted were enthusiastic at the idea of creating a forum where Jewish topics and Jewish museography could be dealt with in depth and beyond the technical preoccupation of their respective institutions.
Phase Two: the Jewish Museum Directors’ Seminar
February 22–25, 2003
We invited ten Jewish/Jewish museum directors to a closed seminar. We purposely chose the museum directors of the top five Jewish museums–Paris, Prague, Amsterdam, Berlin and Vienna — and brought them together with five directors of smaller museums — London, Rome, Brussels, Warsaw, and Stockholm — in order to understand whether they had the same needs and objectives. It was the first time these directors had met informally and in such a small group to discuss the ‘big picture’. After three days of very intensive meetings and exchanges we were able to have a clearer picture of the situation. With the following conclusions:
- There was a distinctive need for the program envisaged by Paideia in order to introduce a living Jewish dimension inside the museums, to overcome the ‘objects collection’ or ‘history of a suffering people’ tendency.
- Museum curators needed a place in which to network conceptually beyond their professional concerns to address issues of meaning and content beyond their daily routines. They even needed to speak with each other in a setting that broke internal bureaucratic barriers.
- Bringing together museum staffs around Jewish texts and ritual also strengthened their ability to think about their responsibilities in a more creative manner. This could best be done by choosing one Jewish religious theme.
- It was crucial to enter a ‘living Jewish space’ in order to pursue these goals, one in which religious and cultural themes were experienced from the inside. This point was brought out when the directors attended a textual study session with the Paideia fellows.
At the end of the meeting we were able to elaborate the second phase of the pilot project around the following lines:
- Organize a full scale program in which each museum director brought another curator or younger staff person along or sent him/her independently to attend the meeting.
- Choose a specific Jewish holiday which would become the theme of the seminar. We first thought of Chanukah but then decided to focus on Pesach instead.
- Give some ‘hands on’ museological teaching role to the museum directors in the ‘think tank’ and then find independent outside specialists to offer the more specific textual lectures.
- Build the program in such a way that it covered both particular and universal concerns, as a way to allow non-Jews to “swim in the Jewish waters” without feeling they were intruders.
Phase Three: the Jewish Museum Directors’ and Curators’ Seminar
August 26-31, 2003
Paideia held its full-scale seminar focused on Pesach over a four day period. An education specialist of the Hagadah lectured every day on the text, complemented by specialists of the Jewish tradition who lectured on Pesach and freedom. (We used lecturers from the Hartman institute who were already in Stockholm as instructors of the Paideia one-year-program). Three European museum directors gave presentations that made the transition between Pesach text, ritual objects, and the significance of the holiday. Workshops were included.
Twenty five participants from ten countries attended. They covered the entire gamut of the museum’s professional ladder: directors, curators, education specialists, as well as interns and junior assistants. Five in the group were not Jewish: three of them had never attended a Jewish function before and only one had been to a Seder. They had all come with some fears about not being able to really interact with the Jewish colleagues in a living Jewish context.
Much to our pleasure the group, despite their very different backgrounds and levels, coalesced very quickly in an informal and highly studious atmosphere with no pecking orders. The level of networking among them was outstanding, for unlike their directors, most had not met each other before. They launched themselves into a dialogue of give and take, sharing of experiences, and creative exhibition planning. They plunged into the texts with rapture as a ‘holiday’ from their responsibilities and as oxygen allowing them to think through issues and questions in an innovative manner.
The participants were fully aware that they were ‘guinea pigs’ in a pilot project. They made important suggestions at the end of the seminar. They felt that the textual study was absolutely central to the seminar. And in order to maximize its impact, they also wanted more historical and philosophical, and even artistic lectures linked to Judaism both past and present. They also wanted more workshop time in which to translate the new ‘ideas’ into the practical realm of museum exhibits.
Perhaps the best proof of the success of the seminar was the fact that as they left, most participants wished they could qualify to come back, while being aware that they should leave their place to others. They not only went home with networking ideas binding together Jewish museum projects in Spain, Poland, Austria, Britain and Sweden, they also understood the complexity and inner beauty of Judaism both as a spiral of evolving questions and as an ongoing ethical and cultural challenge.