The reason is not only about the fact that this is the world’s largest Jewish museum and Europe’s largest indoor exhibit area: its total area makes 8,500 sq. meters, with 4,500 taken by the exposition. The thing is about technologies which have not been used yet on such a level in the museum sphere on the territory of the former USSR, as well as about the philosophy of exhibition, which is basically new for the CIS.
The museum building is a monument of architectural constructivism of the 1920s, known as Bakhmetyev’s Garage, which was created by Soviet avant-garde geniuses, Vladimir Shukhov and architect Konstantin Melnikov. For a long time it has housed a bus fleet, and in 2008-11 – the Contemporary Culture Center “Garage.” In 2001 the building was transferred for free temporary use to Moscow-based Maryina Roshcha Jewish community. The bid for the development of the museum’s concept went to the American company Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which has created many modern museums and large exhibits.
Interactivity is the basic principle of Appelbaum Company. Without doubt, the artifact, an original item, is important, but the company above all seeks to prompt to the visitor an educational game – to teach and enlighten through entertainment. Incidentally, specialists from Kyiv have also taken part in the work on the project.
It is impossible to give a full coverage for the exhibit: I am lacking space for this. The museum is full of all kinds of equipment which bring information to visitors in most unusual ways. I will stop on the most interesting moments.
The Jewish Museum is first and foremost an adventure. It is a transfer from one space, full of movement, to the other. The peculiarity of the expositions have been also caused by the architecture design of the building: its central axis carries the movie theater, Main Hall Center, thematic expositions, the Memorial of Memory. On both sides of the main hall there are stands and sections which give a consistent detailed overview of the events of the past 1.5 centuries, starting with emerging of Jews in the Russian Empire to their life in present-day Russian Federation. In the focus of each section there is a visual symbol that arouses an extra cloud of meanings.
So, the ancient time is enclosed in two circles: a special amphitheater shows a 4D film dedicated to sacral plots in the history of Jews, from the Creation of the World to Destruction of the Second Temple and the dispersion. Further on, a huge interactive table in the main hall shows the history of the nation’s migration – if you touch certain parts on the map, the information about the life of Jewish diasporas in concrete countries will appear.
The turn of the century is shown at a cafe: the first universities, first Socialists and Zionists, start of internal emancipation, and stratification of the national community, quiet revolution of city pavements. One should sit down at a table opposite to a white mould figure of a well-known politician, activist, or litterateur, touch the book with his name on the table, which is an interactive screen. The wise man will reply with a good quotation. The story – photo- and film chronicle of the turn of the century will be projected on the cafe wall. Then everything blazes up. The tables broke into pieces, the fire covers the screen. This is the chord preceding the future Catastrophe, the pogroms.
The prewar Soviet time is a huge star lying flat on the floor and reflected on the ceiling with the help of red lines. One can pick out one name from the names flickering on the star and read a detailed biography. You can read about different destinies, mostly tragic. There are butchers and victims. A red wheel moved by the desire of total equality in fact made everyone equally helpless before the repressions.
The approach of the museum organizers, apart from interactivity, also includes a special poetics of the museum space, which looks like a fairytale. The guests get into their hands a magic power, which overcomes the entropy of epochs and distances, and the word becomes an object, not only a sign. Therefore an animated Torah is one of the best items: on the right page of the centerfold of the illuminated book one can see translation of a verse about one of the Days of Creation of the World, an invisible choir sings it in Hebrew, and the letters of the original on the left page are turned by a wave of hand into material signs of the world: mountains and trees, fishes and birds, stars, and seas. The level of animation is enchanting; one can watch it on end.
On the whole, the combination of the sound, most frequently a human voice, and an effective picture, which sticks to memory, is a faultless artistic method. The sayings and comic sentences in Yiddish, floating on a big touch screen, are even funnier when pronounced by the music of this language, whose many words have become part of Russian and Ukrainian language. The most banal items become portals to other worlds. A soaked apple, sour cucumbers, and herring on installation barrels open, so that one did not miss under the appetizing surface not only the black-and-white photos of a Jewish town (the composition is called this way – Shtetl, a town), but also the noise of its streets. Conversations on a bench with talkative residents of Ukrainian Tulchyn in Vinnytsia oblast, who in all colorful details describe the traditions of their microcivilization, which has vanished, combined with a number of wonderful black-and-white shots, are not so impressive, but very touching. And the most effective installation of after-war time is a thoroughly reproduced apartment of the 1960-70 with its modest folkway. On its transparent panels the residents of those unstable isles of the Soviet privacy revive, as if part of the interior: they tell anecdotes, rejoice at parcels from foreign relatives, talk to children about school, and do chores.
The World War II and the Holocaust sections were placed at the end of the perspective and the central axis. The war is by far the only section where the organizers yielded to the late Soviet tradition of museum design: the film chronicle, known to everyone, is been shown, the song “The Sacred War!” is played, and under a huge polyscreen, which in fact wonderfully creates the effect of presence, there is a diorama with artificial trenches and helmets, which seems to come from the Soviet 1970s – the strokes are too crude, a fragment of stylistics which is not supposed to be present. Just in the opposite there is the Memorial of Memory. One can enter it only through the broken arch made of vintage, as if burned aircraft steel, see the candles and mirrors which multiply these lights, find one name out of millions in the galaxy of names of the dead. The Chronotope of the catastrophe gets the highest concentration here, in the nuclear reactor of sorrow.
Paradoxical as it may sound, the Tolerance Center is the second strongest pole of tension after the Memorial. From the outside it resembles a standard high-technological lecture-hall with stationary iPads and a big screen. On personal monitors there are films and, most importantly, many-factor texts dedicated to tolerance, which have several complexity degrees and often do not offer evident answers. The task here is more than educational, it is somewhat existential: in a sense, they offer to find out what kind of person you are. Although I got the mark “very tolerant,” I did not feel any calmer, because I was thinking about how many present-day Russians and Ukrainians are failing this test every day in their routine lives, and do so with the feeling of pride and own rightfulness. What use does someone’s individual tolerance make?
However, the fact that this museum exists these days is actually useful. Every nation has a measured trajectory of trials. We, Ukrainians, have things to cry over, rejoice at, and be ashamed of. But we have not learned to properly lead our conversation in the world’s polyphony, without routine, drama, or banality. That is the reason why the Jewish Museum could become for us a good example of how history can be presented. Only in an open space, through dialogue and a flow of thoughts can one get rid of many biases and finally start working on preserving collective memory, so that it did not become a burden for future generations, but remained an active value. We deserve this.
How to achieve this is a different conversation.
Executive director of the Jewish Museum in Moscow Leonid AGRON: Russian society has yet to grow in terms of tolerance
Your museum is based on interaction with the visitors. Can you say that this technology can be good for any museum?
“Based on the experience of travels across different countries, I can say that there is quite a clear trend. It is very important to interpret in modern language the information the museum wants to share: with the help of artifacts, but also by way of resources available to the 21st-century person. First thing I personally recall is Berlin-based Museum fuer Naturkunde, which stands on the same principle: artifacts that come alive, interactive stands; it’s interesting both for kids, and professionals in the sphere. So, this can be a museum on any topic.”
Can technology oust some things completely from the exposition, for example the artifacts?
“We are living in a high-technology time and probably in certain places such substitution really takes place, but a clever combination still works the best. We now do not refuse in any way from material objects, documents, or artwork.”
This is an interesting combination of century dust, so to say, and a computer.
“Absolutely. It is very important that computers and all similar means of transmitting information, such as films, interviews with experts or eyewitnesses, essentially vivify the exposition. We are shown areas and places where some or other items were used, told stories connected with the items. One thing does not cancel another thing.”
Still, in your opinion, what destiny awaits the traditional museums?
“Apparently, most of museums will face modernization. Its level will depend on boldness of administration and the funding. I think even the most conservative museum will add an interactive component, even at a minimum scale.”
Do you have statistics of the Museum’s attendance?
“We have launched the research, and now it is more or less clear that our standard visitors are both Jews and non-Jews, 50 to 50. Speaking about the age, the number of older people prevails, but young people are catching up. Interestingly, according to surveys, many guests leave with a desire to come back again. That is the way we accumulate the regular audience that will visit thematic tours – at the moment we have seven excursions – and other events.”
The Tolerance Center is the most important part of the Museum. Who visit it?
“For the most part, schoolchildren and students. At the same time they raise very interesting questions based on the topics of the films. Screenings are followed by lessons, which give way to discussions we had not expected. Our employees can discuss topics quite remote from the topic of the film.”
In your opinion, how tolerant is Russian society today?
“The appearance of the Museum and the Center has been caused by the reason that the level of tolerance in Russia is rising and there are less problems with this than, say, 10 years ago. Of course, many acute questions remain, but with the help of our small contribution we are trying to help resolve them. Even if a person leaves us with a feeling of disagreement or distrust, it is already a positive result. Nobody has to agree with us. But the fact that the visitor comes up with the questions regarding one or another fact or approach to a fact is good, this is an engine for their personal survey. On the whole, Moscow population and Russian society has yet to grow in terms of tolerance.”
Finally, a purely subjective observation. You present the statistics of Jews’ emigration to Russia which shows millions of migrants. It seems that it is disadvantageous for the country.
“(Smiling.) Our museum tells about the fact that Jewish history is constantly translating the idea of migration. The word ‘galut,’ exile, is about this. Jewish migration is a constant process which has a historical beginning, but hardly has any end. People leave Israel, too. There is a big Israeli community in Moscow. This constant movement of Jews is the fact our museum is essentially about, and Jewish history as well. So, I think our present situation is only a point on a very long and curvy path along which the Jewish people is going. But this path is familiar to any nation.”