NEW YORK — Stepping into the third floor gallery of New York’s Jewish Museum is like walking into a life size curio cabinet where hundreds of objects, some never before seen, beckon.
Here a model of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem in a bottle, there a newly acquired Torah case donated to the museum from the JFK International Synagogue. There’s a beer stein decorated with a Star of David, and a tiny gold heart given from a son to his mother.
It’s a curators’ conundrum: how to decide what goes on display and what stays boxed away. Ironically, for the staff at the Jewish Museum, knowing there are more than 30,000 objects spanning 4,000 years of history in the museum’s permanent collection makes the process harder.
Curators must avoid repetition — how many pairs of Shabbat candlesticks are just enough to get the point across? And they aim to tell stories through artifacts — so as rare as an object might be, if it doesn’t fit into a particular narrative it won’t be added to the exhibit. All this means only a fraction of the museum’s permanent collection is on display at any given time.
For the next year the third floor of the museum will serve as a Jewish cultural attic of sorts, as over 650 works from antiquities to contemporary art are on display — many for the first time.
But the new exhibition is about more than the sheer number and breadth of objects in the museum’s inventory. “Scenes from the Collection” reveals how these items fit in to the larger story of how Jewish culture intersects with art.
“Instead of presenting a single narrative, each piece suggests a different filter through which you can see art,” Claudia Gould, Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director of The Jewish Museum, said of the exhibit, which was five years in the making.
The display allows visitors to explore the history of the museum’s collection and to consider what, why, and how the museum has collected what it has.
“There is no one path you must take in the exhibition. There is not a single way to go through it. We didn’t want to impose a narrative; we wanted to let the objects speak for themselves. We didn’t want to have that authoritative voice to tell you what it all means, we just wanted to give enough information to stimulate your thinking,” said Susan L. Braunstein, the museum’s senior curator.
So that visitors don’t leave feeling overwhelmed, the curators organized the exhibit into seven different sections, or scenes. Although the exhibition as a theme will be on view for a few years, its contents will not. The objects in five of the seven scenes will rotate every so often so different artifacts can be shown.
“Judaism doesn’t seem to stand still. It changes, and we wanted the exhibition to have that flexibility to show there doesn’t need to be a single narrative,” Braunstein said.
Single works from the museum’s collection will be on display in “Masterpieces and Curiosities.”
The centerpiece of this scene is a charm bracelet that Greta Perlman crafted while a prisoner in Theresienstadt concentration camp in what was formerly Czechoslovakia. Despite horrific conditions, she gathered the 20 charms and badges that now delicately hang from the bracelet. There is a miniature pot inscribed with the dates of her birthday and deportation and there is a bullet to remind her of where she was.
As poignant as the bracelet is, the story of the gold heart from a son to his mother on Mother’s Day is devastating. Manfred “Fredi” Ehrlich of Vienna was a teenage prisoner at Theresienstadt. He gave his mother the pendant on September 5, 1943. Three weeks later the 17-year-old was sent to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. His mother survived.
“Signs and Symbols” explores the way a particular iconic element or motif might appear in a variety of works. It explores the meaning of the Star of David within Jewish contexts as well as the way other cultures interpreted the six-pointed star.
There’s a Bohemian Hanukkah lamp that uses the star as emblem for this Czech Jewish community to Persian and Indian Judaica that feature the symbol as an expression of the Zionist sentiment. There’s a late 1800s ceramic beer pitcher with the star attesting to secular use of the hexagram as symbol for beer in Europe.
How are Jews portrayed and how do Jews portray themselves?
That’s the question associate curator Aviva Weintraub sought to answer in “Friends and Family,” the first iteration for the scene “Television and Beyond.”
For the next six months this scene will feature a selection of rotating television clips that explore how shows such as “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Transparent” and “Orange is the New Black” deal with issues of religion, ethnicity and diversity.
“There are so many interesting Jewish characters on television now. With this one, [Friends and Family] I wanted to disrupt the traditional family sitcom. I wanted to look at how the very idea of family is questioned or disrupted,” she said.
“Constellations” features 50 of the most significant works in the collection, including pieces by Chantal Akerman, Mel Bochner, Eva Hesse and Camille Pissarro. About a dozen Hanukkah lamps and several other ceremonial objects including Torah covers and spice boxes, as well as a sterling coffee pot by the Colonial American silversmith Myer Myers help set the scene.
And while there is no overarching story to the exhibit, a sort of invisible thread stitches it together.
“We wanted it to be harmonious, for people to feel the interconnectedness and to feel that everything relates to some aspect of what it is to be Jewish,” Braunstein said.