New Aspects in Historical Curatorship

The Iranian Jewry Exhibition as an Example of Potential
By Hagai Segev, Chief Curator of Beit Hatfutsot Museum, Tel Aviv

In today’s media world, it seems the museum field revolves only around art, and for the most part, contemporary art. However, a quick glance at the list of museums in Israel and the world at large shows that most museums are historic and thematic: nature and science museums, historic houses, children’s museums and of course museums dedicated to peoples and geographic regions.
The public’s increasing awareness of art museums stems from these museums’ ability to attract the public and mostly the press, by giving them the “cool innovation” they are looking for. Yet historic and pioneer settlement museums continue to enjoy plenty of visits from organized groups (mostly through the schools’ educational programs) as well as vacationers and tourists.

These numbers indicate a real need for the continued cultivation of this specific type of museums. We need to continually renew the display methods and make-up of both permanent and temporary exhibitions.

In search of interesting, new ways to display exhibits, we decided to create “Light and Shadows – The Story of the Iranian Jews”, a new exhibition coming to Beit Hatfutsot in 2010. For the most part, exhibitions dealing with communities use two conventional presentation methods: a chronologically ordered narrative that follows the main events in the community’s life; or a thematic narrative that follows the circle of life of the Jewish community members, from birth to death. Wishing to find new, thought-provoking exhibition methods, we chose to tell the story of the Iranian Jewish community differently.
Our research process located the main issues essential for understanding the things that make this community unique. An analysis of these components pointed to two main periods: the early days of the Jewish community in Iran, and the dramatic changes that had taken place in the turbulent times of late 19th and early 20th century. Within these two broad themes are several important subjects, which we set off to present and illustrate.
gallery 1 roots and identity general viewThe unique components of the Iranian Jewry formed over the centuries, slowly emerging from the interaction between the members of the community and the non-Jewish environment they had lived in. Thus, from an endless sea of possibilities, a sequence of chapters was taking shape: roots and identity, reciprocal relations between Jews and Muslims or “a culture within a culture”, the special music and literature of Jewish Iranian artists, and finally – rituals, ceremonies and customs.
198 Item_16The second part of the exhibition is dedicated to the 20th century and the dramatic changes it brought to Iran and its Jews. Here, we chose a different curatorial approach: historic reality, most of it photographed, merges with memories and past traditions, expressed in later art – the artists’ memories of their past in Iran.
The first part of the exhibition brings together varied means of artistic expression and materials, creating a tapestry of cultural products. The goal is to show that the story is complex and multilayered, that each and every member of a community contributes to the making of its story. Thus, archeological exhibits – testimonies of the Jewish life in the Persian region over 2500 years ago – are displayed displayed side by side with contemporary art. This juxtaposition of radically different means of expression shows the influence of past culture, its sites, and the art of its people on the here and now – and no explanation is needed.
Item_50_altThe exhibition demonstrates that all means of physical expression affect each other and are connected, making up the greater whole. The exhibition also used multimedia, allowing the general public to see, for the first time, worlds that had previously remained out of their reach. Screens placed among the exhibits allow visitors to flip through ancient manuscripts kept in libraries, or watch footage found in various archives many years since they had last been seen in the broad context created by this exhibition.
As a whole, the exhibition creates a broad, comprehensive perspective of the community’s experience – not necessarily an academic perspective, but rather a sweeping, sensual experience that pulls one into a fascinating story and provokes feeling, thought and memory.

Published in the “Light and Shadows – The Story of the Iranian Jews” exhibition catalogue, Beit Hatfutsot, 2010. Curator and Catalogue Editor: Hagai Segev.

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