Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Slovakia -- I find Bratislava's Museum of Jewish Culture disappointing

 These portraits of rabbis in the museum are prominently signed  but it is far from clear if those signed "Boruth A." were actually done by the Slovak painter Andor Boruth, who died in 1955 -- and it's really doubtful those signed "Szekely" were done by the Hungarian academic painter Bertalan Szekely. Yet there is nothng to identify the artists, the subjects, how and why they got to the museum collection. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber.

I paid a visit yesterday to the Museum of Jewish Culture in Bratislava, a branch of the Slovak National Museum that was reopened in 2009 following the revamping of its original exhibition, which dated from 1993, when the museum opened.

Alas, I found the new exhibit a big disappointment. The wonderful collection of ritual objects, everyday materials, textiles, artwork and more is laid out well -- but the items on display are exhibited with almost no contextual or other information about them: no information on the date, the provenance,  who donated the object, the place of origin; nothing  even on the artists and titles of paintings, even when these are known.

 Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

A collection of photographs of Slovak synagogues identifies the towns but omits even rough dates as to when the pictures were taken, not to mention the names of the architects, information as to when the synagogues were destroyed, etc etc etc. One item on display is a decorative paving stone rescued from the great Neologue synagogue next to the Cathedral, which was destroyed in 1969 when the old Jewish quarter was razed during construction of the New Bridge. But the stone just lies there, a decorated lump, without any explanation as to why it is included in the exhibit...

Nor, in a "symbolic Jewish cemetery" in the basement, an installation of fragments of tombstones, is there information provided as to which cemeteries the stones came from, or about the number of Jewish cemeteries around Slovakia. There is rudimentary information about burial practices, and a bit about inscriptions, but that's it.

What's more, no distinction is made between photographs and copies (such as that of a ketubah) and original objects. And some of the items that did have labels (albeit generic ones) were incorrect: it seem as if meal coupons issued by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee are identified as  certificates issued to guarantee kashrut!

All in all, it was very frustrating -- a sadly wasted opportunity.

Modern museum practice does not seem to have entered here: the only provenance shown was a label on an oil lamp bought in Israel guaranteeing that it was ancient. The objects shown could have come from anywhere: there was little sense of their connection with Slovakia, and even when this connection was presented, it was not elaborated.

The young woman who showed me around could answer only some of my questions -- she went somewhere to consult when I asked her who the artist was of a very lovely water color of a Jewish cemetery. (She found the name of the artist, but nothing more: other, Holocaust-related, works of his, too, are hung with no identification, as is a nice installation of collaged photographs of the Chatam Sofer memorial.)

She told me she informed someone on the design team about my concerns and said he assured her that labels were being prepared. But I have my doubts.

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