- Memory and Ethnicity: Ethnic Museums in Israel and the Diaspora ed. by Emanuela Trevisan Semi, Dario Miccoli, and Tudor Parfitt
Israel has the highest number of museums per capita in the world, with a total of 200, and millions of visitors annually. The essays in this volume focus primarily on museums that have been created in communities of non-Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants. In fact, after two introductory articles analyzing the approaches taken by two exemplary and general history museums, the focus is primarily on museums emerging in the communities of North African Jews living in Israel. The articles are the result of ethnographic research in a number of museums by scholars, rather than reflexive research by those working in the museums.
The first two chapters introduce the overall philosophy taken in larger, overarching museums, which represent the story or stories of the Jewish people. How the past is represented is the focus of these studies. Tamar Katriel’s contribution, “Homeland and Diaspora in Israeli Vernacular Museums,” addresses how the past has been preserved and interpreted in Israeli museums. It serves as an excellent introduction to the wide variety of history and ethnography museums from the large Beit Hatfutsot, to kibbutz museums, to museums established by diaspora communities that have returned and established themselves in Israel. Her discussion hinges on what version of the past is presented in several heritage museum settings.
The thematic exhibits, especially at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv, serve as the context to discuss the role of historical exhibits to communicate cultural realities in chapter 2, “Invented Exhibits: Visual Politics of the Past at the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora.” Shelly Shenhav-Keller carefully reviews the permanent exhibits in this museum and the philosophies behind their conception and creation. Of course, deeply embedded in this discussion is the narrative of diaspora, which is essential to the Jewish ethos. Smaller than life-size dioramas, which focus heavily on this theme, transport visitors to different eras and different locales, without the rich visual support of objects. Her main critique of the stable exhibits is that they are presented as reality, which they might not actually represent. In conclusion, Shenhav returns to the absence of objects that affirm the stories represented in the exhibits, thus asking the question: “What is at the heart of the message conveyed by this museum?”
Chapters 3 through 6 address the title theme of ethnic museums in Israel, looking at museums that represent Moroccan immigrants, and Jews from Libya and India, as well as Jewish museums in Morocco and the United States. Emanuela Trevisan Semi addresses issues of memory, especially in museums representing Moroccan Jews in Israel. She asks what the role of ethnic museums is in presenting different versions of memory. Four museums dedicated to the Moroccan Jewish diaspora form the core of the discussion of what she considers frozen memory. The Jewish Moroccan Museum and Archive for Living Culture at moshav Sedot Micah and The Moroccan House at moshav Tirosh, both struggling entities at the time of publication, display objects representing Jewish life in Morocco. In contrast, The Yaacov Hazan Museum of the Founders was established to preserve the memories of Moroccan Jewish contributions to the establishment of Israel. Objects from the diaspora are displayed in the context of 1960s Israel. The final museum discussed by [End Page 105] Trevisan Semi is the David Amar World Center for North African Jewish Heritage in Jerusalem, which she characterizes as an aesthetic museum.
Of the four museums, the last is the only one that has received state funding; the three previous museums were the private creations of individual founders. With four different institutions, memory, of course, varies.
The fourth chapter, by Piera Rossetto, analyzes the representation of Libyan Jews in Israel. Rossetto contrasts the work of the two Israeli museums/cultural centers, the Centre for the Heritage of Libyan Jewry and the Or Shalom Centre, to the Sala libica (Libyan room) in the...