April 4, 2013
Berlin's "Jew In a Box" Exhibit Needs to Change
What does it mean to reduce the contemporary Jewish experience to a series of quotes, objects, stereotypes and to conclude an exhibit by placing a live human in a glass box to answer the questions of museum-goers (regardless of merit or cultural sensitivity)? On March 22, Jews gathered across the world to observe the start of the Passover holiday, recalling our central narrative of what it means to move from slavery to liberation. On the same day, the Jewish Museum in Berlin opened an exhibition promising to “showcase Jews,” hoping to create a space for dialogue. The show, entitled “The Whole Truth…everything you always wanted to know about Jews,” runs through September 1, 2013. The timing of this exhibition takes on a new level of irony — liberation seems to have taken holiday this month in Germany!
How is this exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin different than all other exhibitions about Jews? Promotion for this exhibition included an illustrated trailer beginning with the moment of conception asking, “What makes someone a Jew?” thus framing the entire exhibition from a biological or racial perspective. A few moments later, a series of changing faces further illuminate the point, asking, “How do you recognize a Jew?” In keeping with centuries of tradition regarding Jewish caricatures, viewers will be astonished to realize the nose is the only thing that does not change with each face and grows larger towards the end of the digital mash-up. View the trailer:
Next up on the list of exploiting stereotypes, as visitors walk though “The Whole Truth” exhibit, a vote is cast using coins to determine if Jews are “good at business,” “smart,” “good looking” or “animal lovers.” The votes are tallied and displayed at the conclusion of the walkthrough. For the finale, you cannot miss the most controversial inclusion of all - a Jew in a box. Yes, that’s right, step on up to an installation in which German Jews sit in a glass box to answer questions posed by curious onlookers.
The museum’s press release explained that the concept of the box was their way of responding to the critique most often levied at them: how can their institution mount artifacts telling the 2,000 year plus story of German Jewish culture in an authentic way, given the complicated reality of a post-Holocaust Germany? Objects in vitrines and museum labels could, in the museum’s words, “unethically use Jews as ‘exhibition objects’ and subject them to voyeuristic curiosity […] Searching for the ‘whole truth,’ visitors now have the opportunity to confront their confused feelings about Jews.” Given the problematic history of Germany, one should be extra careful when considering how to be “provocative.” This was a moment for the Jewish Museum in Berlin to think outside the box, rather, than placing Jews, literally, on display inside of one. Given Germany’s sorted past with the pseudo-scientific practice of physiognomy and racial profiling, we did not need to be reminded of how Jews have been likened to a circus sideshow.
Considering the goal of “The Whole Truth,” is to question Judaism in Germany today. Here are some questions the exhibition causes me to ask: What could the curators, museum administration, and their board hope to accomplish with this show? How does one create an exhibition that serves to make space for a minority group, once victimized, to be asked questions by decedents of the perpetrators that does not perpetuate complicated power dynamics? Most importantly, what, if anything, should the Jewish Museum in Berlin do moving forward? Perhaps the most personal question of all: Why does this exhibition matter to me?
I have dedicated over ten years to creating new approaches to Jewish cultural engagement. Currently, I work as the Co-Director of Shulamit Gallery, which seeks to engage Angelenos through cross-cultural exhibitions and programming focused on the Middle East with a special interest in Israeli, Iranian and Jewish artists. Thus, I want the Jewish Museum in Berlin as the institution preserving the cultural legacy of Jewish people in Germany to get this right! They provide an important perspective reflecting a commitment to remembrance. The building’s architecture and core exhibition produce a strong narrative, translating the complicated themes of destruction and survival. The very creation of a Jewish museum in Germany is meant to highlight the Jewish renewal effort and the continuation of Jewish heritage, post the Shoah, in a powerful way.
They do not have the luxury; as the exhibition curator, Miriam Goldmann, herself a Jew, has been quoted saying, “We wanted to provoke, [. . .] and some people may find the show outrageous or objectionable. But that's fine by us." While Goldmann and others need to be able to respond to trends in popular culture and create opportunities for dialog (between Jewish and non-Jewish residents), they also must be called upon to do so with nuanced sensitivity. Haven’t we been placed under a microscope enough throughout history? It is time: no more barriers, no more walls, no more boxes and no more perpetuating of stereotypes! Raise your voices and ask Goldmann and the Jewish Museum Berlin to remove the box: < firstname.lastname@example.org >.
Tell them that if they want to be radical, they should think outside the box! Set up couches or a table and chairs and have Jewish volunteers and non-Jewish German’s talk to each other as equals. If you want the whole truth the only way to get it is when you treat everyone with dignity and respect.
ANNE HROMADKA is Co-Director of Shulamit Gallery in Los Angeles, CA. She is also the founder and director of Nu ART Projects [Insert Jew-ish Culture Here], and an independent curator, art consultant, and educator. In addition, she manages the Hebrew Union College Jack H. Skirball Los Angeles campus art collection and exhibition program.