Plans for a New Zealand Jewish Museum

March 11, 2019 by Miriam Bell
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In the battle of memory against forgetting, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is a formidable warrior. The New York-based scholar is the chief curator of the core exhibition at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and the author of many books on Jewish subjects.

“Reconstruction of the timber frame roof and painted ceiling of the 17th-century synagogue that once stood in Gwoździec, today in Ukraine. The synagogue was destroyed during WWI.”

Her books include Image before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864–1939; They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust; The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times; and Anne Frank Unbound: Media, Imagination, Memory.

Among her host of achievements, she has been honoured for lifetime achievement by the Foundation for Jewish Culture and is internationally recognised for her contributions to Jewish studies. She also serves on advisory boards for the Council of American Jewish Museums, Jewish Museum Vienna, Jewish Museum Berlin, and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow.

Now Barbara is in New Zealand with her equally formidable husband of 55 years, the renowned New Zealand artist Max Gimblett. While here, Barbara is giving a series of lectures at universities, museums and galleries around the country on a range of topics related to her specialities.

She will also be consulting with those working on plans for a new New Zealand Jewish museum, which will be based in Auckland. So it seemed timely to meet her for a chat to get her thoughts on what makes a good museum.

New Zealand has been at the forefront of developing some fantastic and innovative museums, Barbara says, pointing to Te Papa when it first came on the scene as an example. But to develop a compelling and effective Jewish museum there are certain questions and goals that needed to be considered and worked towards.

“First up, the key to the success of any museum is a need and a sense of urgency. With the POLIN Museum, that urgency came from the sense that a part of history has been lost. In Poland, 90% of the Jews living there pre-Word War Two were murdered in the war. And the world they created was lost with them and was then lost again to memory.”

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

We have a moral obligation to remember the history of the Jewish people, she says. “That is often overshadowed by the Holocaust, which is understandable. But we have a responsibility to honour and remember how Jewish people lived, their culture, their world, their legacy as well as commemorating their death.”

That means it is necessary for those leading the development of a museum to have a strong overarching concept, to know what they want to say, how they want to say it and also who they want to say it too. After which they need to build an excellent team of scholars, curators, planners, designers and writers to help bring the concept to life.

With the POLIN Museum, that process resulted in an award-winning permanent exhibition telling the 1,000-year story of the Jewish community in Poland. Barbara says their task was transforming the diverse array of primary texts and visual material from various periods they had collected into a compelling, connected story. “We did so and created a unique multi-media, narrative experience – a theatre of history.”

But what every society needs is different, she continues. So when developing a museum, a team must identify and understand what the local community, and not just the Jewish community but the wider community, needs.

“Look at the points of reference: is it Israel, the Holocaust, a sense of being Jewish in New Zealand and what that means. Is it more or other than being Jewish or Israeli? And, if so, how best to cultivate and enrich that? And what does that means for the younger generation?”

As a smaller-scale example of a museum project which she believes has done this and is on track to create something special, she cites, The Lost Shtetl Museum which is in Seduva, Lithuania.

Seduva is a town of 3,500 people which no longer has a Jewish community. But it did for around 400 years – until the early years of the Holocaust. The project has been driven by the town’s desire to commemorate its lost Jewish community.

Scheduled for completion in 2020, it’s dedicated to the history and culture of the Jews in Seduva. Barbara says it highlights that no matter how small and remote a community might be it is still possible for it to create a beautiful and meaningful museum.

The role communities play in the development of museums is a reoccurring theme in our conversation. She herself was shaped by community: her parents were Polish Jewish immigrants to Canada and she grew up in an immigrant neighbourhood of Toronto.

That background flowed into her professional interest in Jewish studies. “When studying I became interested in the culture of my family and the Jewish community, what they had bought from the old country and how they had transformed it within their new immigrant community. It became the focus of my graduate work.”

It also led to many career opportunities including, ultimately, her work on the POLIN Museum over the last 13 years. To this day, Barbara juggles crazy hours working between Warsaw and New York (where she is Professor Emerita of Performance Studies at New York University).

But her passion for her work is as fierce as it has always been: it informs everything she says about museums and the theory surrounding them.

Museums are more than a place to preserve the past, she says. “They create inspiring environments for particular experiences – and experience is key. They are a place to engage the public on important issues. And they offer a chance for shared and active learning and meaningful experiences.”

Barbara says that means that for a museum to succeed, it should be memorable and it should engage the feelings of its public. “In order to be worth remembering, it should be thought-provoking and inspire discussion and debate.

“So those leading a museum project should identify what it is about the project that is engaging, as well as what could make for positive change. They need to think about the stories the museum will tell and who it will serve.”

At their best museums can provide uniquely stimulating environments that make people learn, think and feel, she adds. “They can be highly inspirational places and they should be.”


One Response to “Plans for a New Zealand Jewish Museum”
  1. Peter Gaspar says:

    New Zealand’s First People have a great affinity to the Jewish People and I applaud this initiative.

    NZ is one of the “corners” of the earth and also for this reason the establishment of a Jewish Museum is an important symbolic gesture.

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