The World’s Oldest Jewish Museum Looks to the Future

The Palais Eskeles reopens its doors, with its corridors yielding an open space for new exhibitions, and conversations

The permanent exhibition shows Judaica from across the Habsburg Empire Photo: David Reali

The restored marble entrance of Vienna's Jewish Museum Photo: Jüdisches Museum Wien

Jewish Museum Judaica Exhibition Habsburg Empire

The permanent exhibition shows Judaica from across the Habsburg Empire Photo: David Reali

Light and luminous. That is the impression conveyed by Vienna’s “new” Jewish Museum, which re-opened in October after a nine month face-lift that cost a total of €2.6 million. The darkness of the Holocaust recedes from view, while gleaming Torah crowns in illumined showcases recall the wealth and vibrancy of Jewish life in the Habsburg Empire.

That was in fact the museum’s original purpose: Founded in 1895 by the private “Society for the Collection and Conservation of the Art and Historical Monuments of Judaism”, it was the first Jewish museum in the world. While following the folklore collector-mania of their time, the founders also wanted to demonstrate the Jewish community’s contributions to Viennese cultural life in order to ward off growing anti-Semitism, former chief curator of the museum Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek told the Wiener Zeitung.

Similarly, today’s temporary exhibition highlights a cultural arena that was decisively shaped by Jews. “Bigger Than Life: 100 years of Hollywood”, tracks the emergence of the most successful film industry in the world, which began with a group of Central European Jewish immigrants in 1911. Among them were some of Hollywood’s most famous figures: Adolph Zukor of Paramount (Hungary), Louis B Mayer of MGM (Ukraine), Carl Laemmle of Universal (Germany) and the Warner Brothers (Poland). In the dark, yet cosy gallery space, a collection of film clips show Groucho, Chico and Harpo pulling off another exploit as the irresistible Marx Brothers, while Vivien Leigh is whisked away by Clark Gable in a horse and carriage to escape Atlanta in flames. The exhibition boasts five hundred movie posters and artefacts, such as a stool from Rick’s Café in Casablanca or the baseball bat of Eli Roth from Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds, documenting the influence of the Jewish immigrant community on the film industry.

But just as the original collection was born out of concern over the rising spectre of anti-Semitism, the museum’s history is inexorably intertwined with the fate of Vienna’s Jewish community. First housed across several venues in the 1st and 2nd Districts, the museum was immediately closed upon Austria’s Anschluss to Nazi-Germany in 1938. Its collection of 6,474 items was distributed to other Viennese institutions, with some of the acquisitions used by the Natural History Museum to stage the 1939 anti-Semitic exhibition entitled “The Corporeal and Spiritual Characteristics of Jews”.

Only in 1988 was the present incarnation of the Jewish Museum re-established with the support of Helmut Zilk, then mayor of Vienna. In 1993 the museum moved into its present lodgings in the Palais Eskeles. The palace is named after one of its many owners, the 19th century bank Arnstein and Eskeles, run by the Jewish banker Bernhard von Eskeles, who among other things founded the Austrian National Bank. Today, a disturbing collection of anti-Semitic objects in the museum’s permanent exhibition recalls the Jewish Museum’s traumatic history.

The restored marble entrance of Vienna's Jewish Museum

The restored marble entrance of Vienna’s Jewish Museum Photo: Jüdisches Museum Wien

The renovations have greatly improved the Museum’s technical facilities, and a larger main hall for public events has been created. At the same time, the building’s original bold marble entrance has been restored.

The Museum’s spacious new form, however, came at a high price: In February, the former centrepiece of the permanent collection – 21 holograms of destroyed and vanished Jewish monuments in heavy glass cases – were smashed because they could not be dismantled. In protest, Heimann-Jelinek leaked photos of the destruction online, causing international outrage among directors of Jewish institutions, but also leading to her resignation.

The controversy highlights that, 66 years after the end of the Holocaust, Jewish museums the world over are still struggling to find a balance between honouring the community’s painful past and finding novel forms of expression to attract a contemporary audience.

“Among the challenges is that the distance is growing to the Holocaust and the generation of witness has nearly vanished” Deidre Berger, Director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, told The Vienna Review.

Since the mid-1990s, Austria has seen a belated increase in the effort to inform people about the atrocities of the Holocaust. In 1997, the parliament declared 5 May the “Day of Remembrance Against Violence and Racism in Memory of the Victims of National Socialism”, coinciding with the day that the Mauthausen concentration camp was liberated. Moreover, the Ministry of Education has established specialised training on the Holocaust for schoolteachers.

Despite these first steps, Berger believes that “much remains to be done to promote a better understanding of the Holocaust and Jewish life among young Austrians today, as is the case in Germany”.

Danielle Spera, the director of Vienna’s Jewish Museum since 2010, sees an additional challenge in the fact that audiences have become more diverse, which requires new forms of engagement.

“The structure of society has changed,” she says. “Especially among our young visitors we see many more with an immigrant background who have a different perspective of Austrian history. This requires us to rethink our exhibitions in terms of content and appearance.”

As such, Spera wants to make the museum more interactive and accessible to a young audience. “I want the Vienna Jewish Museum to set a leading example, enabling visitors to participate in and engage with Jewish culture,” she says.

Like the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which has become a major centre for social and cultural discussion, Spera intends to develop the Vienna Jewish Museum into more than just an exhibition space It will not only show artefacts of a bygone era, but will be a space for encountering the living and evolving community. The current “Bigger that Life” exhibit is a fine beginning.

Sun.–Fri. 10:00–18:00

1., Dorotheergasse 11


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