Jump to Content

< back

2005 Australia-Israel Hawke Lecture

Changing headsets: the impact of museums on social thinking

Dr Helen Light AM, Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne

My colleague and friend Viv has spoken eloquently about the role museums generally can play in shaping social thinking today. I intend to look at a specific group of museums – namely Jewish museums, but most particularly at the museum I know best, the Jewish Museum of Australia.

In the pluralist societies of the New World, the major issue facing museums such as ours is the question of minority identity within the multicultural mosaic. For the minority group it is the issue of the maintenance of its own identity. For the nation as a whole it is the preservation of a vibrant, rich and diverse society.

Jewish Museums have two distinct audiences – the Jewish and the wider communities. Their interaction with each, differs, as does also their role in developing changes in social thinking in their two audiences.

Let us first consider the impact and role of Jewish museums within the context of the Jewish world today. In order to do that, let us look at the situation of Jewish communities in the New World – such as Australia. We are looking at a post-Holocaust, predominantly secular, liberal democratic, western world Diaspora. Jews in these societies are struggling with the question of what Jewish identity means today, both as individuals and communally.

Emily Blinski of the Jewish Museum NY, explains:
(From the mid 1960s) "... a new need was felt within the Jewish community, a need to explore the myriad components of Jewish identity. In the wake of the civil rights movement, Americans from many different ethnic backgrounds began to question the desirability of the 'melting pot' ethic. Pride in the unique cultural legacies of parents and grandparents and the wish to keep those legacies alive for the benefit of future generations, supplanted the earlier desire to blend inconspicuously into the general fabric of American life. For Jews, this trend was further enhanced by pride in the accomplishments of Israel and by developments in Holocaust education. The necessity of coming to terms with the enormity of what had been lost lent new urgency to understanding and preserving what remained. For affiliated Jews, culture became another arena for the expression of the revitalization of their communities. For those Jews who had rejected religious traditions, Jewish culture and history became a medium through which Jewish identity could be reaffirmed..." [end of quote]

In this environment, Jewish Museums have burgeoned and gained a new authority. They have become positive contributors to the continuity and shaping of Jewish identity.

In January 2003 I attended a Conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums. One of the key note speakers was Dr Jonathan Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University, who defined clearly the role he sees for American Jewish Museums and I must say his words ring true for me for the Australian situation also.

Sarna stressed that persecution, expulsion and mass murder are not themes central to American Jewish life. Instead, the central theme is how Jews have flourished in a pluralist society. Pluralism and openness to religious tolerance are enshrined in the American constitution.

The challenge, according to Sarna, is the transformation of Jewish life because of freedom, and the perils that freedom pose to Jewish life, in that Jews are being “loved to death”. He quoted the sobering statistics of intermarriage and a diminution of the American Jewish population from 3.7% to 2 %. And yet he contrasted this with a cultural vibrancy among American Jews that has led to a cultural renaissance, reflected for instance in the large number of Jewish museums.

In Australia the intermarriage rate is about 25% and rising, and so the issue of Jewish continuity has resonance here as well.
Professor Sarna defined the paradox facing American Jews, and by extension American Jewish museums: how can we reconcile the values of integration with the simultaneous value of difference?

It is indeed to Jewish museums that many Jews come to seek to understand what being Jewish means to them. And therefore the onus is on the Museum to provide an informative and non-threatening environment for such explorations of identity. And this happens frequently at our museum, where Jews who live on the margin of the community or who are seeking to reconnect or redefine or understand what being Jewish means to them, not only visit but become involved as volunteers and as staff.

The JMA is deliberately inclusive and pluralist in the Judaism which it displays and defines. It reflects the religious core of Judaism, but in ALL its strains of observance, as well as Jewish culture and history, the heritage that all Jews share. It explores our collective memory and validates personal memories.

By showing that being Jewish is enriching, and by celebrating being Jewish in Australia, a Jewish museum can confirm the value of identifying as a people, a culture, or a religion. How one identifies then becomes the choice of the individual. Also the educational possibilities inherent in museum exhibitions and public programs encourage more Jewish learning and a better-educated, more knowledgeable Jewish community.

The JMA adopts an informative but not judgemental approach because Jewish museums are not religious, but CULTURAL institutions. They therefore reflect on a community as it is, not as Jewish law dictates it should be. It is therefore democratising – accepting all Jews as they are, opening doors and opening minds. Gay and lesbian Jews, for instance, are represented and therefore can feel at home within the Museum’s story.

Beyond the personal influence, a Jewish museum can be most effective in enhancing a sense of community, especially if it is a community museum such as the JMA.

The Australian Jewish community is not static, not homogenous, but multifaceted in religious expression, political affiliation and Jewish identification. It is dynamic, vibrant, passionate and indeed fractious. It is the Museum’s responsibility to strive to reflect the diversity of this community, so that all Australian Jews can feel that we reflect their experience and speak with their voice - to be inclusive and pluralist in the Judaism we represent.

As George MacDonald has said, "If museums are to play a useful and relevant role in a multicultural society, they must be institutions that represent the viewpoints of all their constituents. These views may often be at odds with one another; but if we can accept the notion that no interpretation is truly definitive, that all are subjective, it will be easier to develop a tolerance for ambiguity and dissonance."

Only thus can we as a museum provide a safe environment where the different factions within our community can together reconsider, debate and redefine what it means to be Jewish and Australian at the beginning of the 21st Century.

This is what we aim for in many of our programs.

(i) Community exhibitions – The Russian Jewish community, for example, came to us asking for an exhibition about their history and their migration story, because they have felt marginalised from the rest of the community. They hoped that through this exhibition the rest of the Jewish community would learn about them and would see that their story is part of the continuum of the Australian Jewish story. The exhibition, From Russia with Hope, engendered a collaborative partnership with the museum and successfully built bridges between the Russians and the wider community.

(ii) Contemporary art – the JMA actively includes contemporary art within our agenda so that artists and their younger audiences can contribute and develop a sense of connection with the museum and with the issues that the museum explores.

(iii) Social issue exhibitions – e.g. Under the Covers: Love Sex and Intimacy in Jewish Life (in 2003) and this year we are planning Death, Burial and Beyond – exhibitions that explore basic issues from religious, historical and contemporary perspectives.

(iv) Historical exhibitions about the Australian Jewish community, such as Schmatte Business – Jews in the Garment Trade, Bagel Belt – The Jews of St Kilda and Caulfield, Holidaying in Hepburn Springs

The JMA is most effective in creating pride within its community by representing the community through an excellent program, a welcoming institution and an ambitious, successful outreach program. We strive to be a museum that our community is proud to own.

The other audience for a Jewish Museum is the non-Jewish public – in the case of the JMA - the 99.6% of other Australians.
As Jews congregate in urban centres and make up a tiny percentage of the population, many Australians have never met a Jew. Also, frighteningly, anti Semitism is on the rise globally, even in Australia where in 2003, there were 481 reported anti-Semitic attacks, almost double the numbers reported annually since WW2. It is therefore increasingly urgent for us to reach as many people as possible who are ignorant of Judaism.

It is important for the museum to demystify Judaism and dispel misunderstandings. We at the JMA aim to ensure visitors an accessible, educational and engaging experience which will leave them a clearer appreciation of the rich diversity of Judaism and of Australian Jewish life. Therefore state and church schools are one of our major target audiences for whom we develop many education programs.

For a non-Jew, a Jewish museum in Australia is about Australia itself, firstly because it represents one part of the country’s mosaic; secondly, a Jewish museum demonstrates, by example, how Australia could enable all marginalized groups to make a difference, to change the course of history and to transform their own piece of the world.

By presenting the complex relationship between minority and majority communities within a culture, a Jewish Museum can work to underscore the need for every individual to make moral choices for the benefit of the entire society. In a country in which we have found a home, which we call our own, we must, as Jews, strive to ensure that the rights enjoyed by us are enjoyed by all citizens. As Jewish museums we must emulate Talmudic values ethically and morally - to do unto others as we wish them to do unto us.

So, a primary role of the Jewish Museum of Australia is to promote the value of diversity, the blessings of living in a free and liberal society.

To this end, it is important as museums to explore, from the perspective of our own history, the costs of racism, of scapegoating, of prejudice. This particularly applies to our Holocaust museums.

Last year, both the Migration Museum in Adelaide and the JMA proudly presented the exhibition: Art Spiegelman: Maus. We did so, not only because of the artistic and comic genius of Spiegelman, but more importantly because this story of a Holocaust survivor has a universal application in harrowingly conveying the ultimate costs of racism, of stereotyping, of bullying, of prejudice, but through the comic medium accessible to younger people. And indeed it was successful in attracting a large number of young people.

Such a work as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and the exhibition which unveiled its historical and artistic origins, provided a timely lesson of how dangerous it is to lose respect for those who are different. Our pluralism is fragile, easily threatened and most precious to strive to preserve.

We at the Jewish Museum therefore also celebrate positively the values of living in a multicultural society. We open our doors to cross-cultural dialogue and provide a safe environment for discussion and debate about such issues.

Our next exhibition is a case in point Intersections: Reading the Space: Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a contemporary art exhibition featuring the work of three women artists who all work within their cultural traditions: Irene Barberis – an Australian Christian; Parastou Forouhar, an Iranian Muslim living in Frankfurt, and Jane Logemann a New York Jew. As well as showcasing their own work the three artists have created a joint work which has circulated between them over one year and has provided an artistic venue for communication. This exhibition is about exploring how art can challenge cultural boundaries without eliminating the beauty of difference.

The Museum is also developing a Schools Harmony project to complement the exhibition. 5 groups of girls from Jewish, Catholic, Islamic and state schools, and a group of Koori girls are coming together to create an art exhibition in our access gallery at the same time as Intersections is on display. This project will encourage the students to work together, creatively celebrating their differences.

There is no question about the intent of Museums to affect social change. But how can one know if museums are successful in influencing their visitors’ preconceptions, biases and ideas, and if their visitors carry away the values and ideas intended by the Museum curators? No-one can yet confidently guarantee that any of these activities or indeed any museum displays actually have long term benefit and change social thinking in a large sense. One cannot quantify and measure social impact, although some leading experts in museum evaluation are working on it now.

But one can quote anecdotal evidence and hope that this indicates that the thinking and attitudes of some individual visitors have been permanently influenced.

So let me finish with three such anecdotes within my experience at the JMA.

(i) Quote from visitor book of Russian visitors during the Russian exhibition

“My husband and me have no words to express our impression. It’s wonderful and great and very on time. We are very proud of all Jewish people. In Russia we have never dreamt that we would have an opportunity to see it. We are so grateful to all the organizers” (16/10/02 Maya Jarmulnik)

(ii) At an exhibition about the Australian Jewish Family entitled “Circles and Cycles” in 1998, two orthodox Jewish women were viewing a video depicting different kinds of couples talking about what was Jewish about their relationship. When they had listened to a lesbian couples’ views, one remarked casually to the other “I suppose we have them in our community too”. - Quite significant in light of the perceived prohibition against homosexuality in Jewish law.

And finally:

(iii) A student who visited our museum wrote: The Jewish Museum I lornt that every person in the howl world is diferent and speshil

Back to 2005 Australia-Israel Hawke Lecture