The Italian publisher Electa has released a new volume of essays about the nature and role of Jewish Museums in Europe based on the proceedings of a conference dedicated to the topic held in Bologna in May, 1996. Musei ebraici in Europa: Orientamenti e Prospettive) is edited by Franco Bonilauri and Vincenza Maugeri and is the product of the Jewish Culture Program, a partnership between government agencies in the region of Emilia-Romagna and the Jewish community of Bologna begun in 1991.
The volume consists of 23 entries in Italian or English, of a variety of topic and locales, including Basel (Nadia Guth Biasini), Toledo (Carmen Betegon) and Prague (Leo Pavlat). Much of the book, however, deals with the situation in Italy, where in recent years there has been a quiet revolution in the appreciation and public care and presentation of Jewish culture, including historic archives, artifacts and sites. This has resulted in the national consolidation of cataloguing and care of much of the Italian Jewish historical patrimony, and also widespread organization of new regional Jewish Museums, and the restoration of synagogues and cemeteries.
Since the late 1980s when the Italian State became officially religiously pluralistic, the national and local governments in Italy have increasingly taken responsibility for Jewish historic sites – from the catacombs in Rome, to historic synagogues throughout the country. This assistance has included partial and even total funding for security and restoration. Tullia Zevi, who has just stepped down as president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities deserves much of the credit for setting the tone for these developments, and for lobbying successive Italian governments for proper recognition of the Jewish role in Italian history and culture, and of the responsibility of government to protect this national culture.
The new book includes discussion of several of the Italian Jewish museums – Bologna, Ferrara, Florence, Livorno, Rome, Soragna, and, of course, Venice. Franco Lattes also addresses the question of what is to be done with former synagogues – especially those exquisite examples in Piedmont – and the relationship between museums and synagogues.
Recognizing the growing numbers of Jewish museums, or museums with permanent
exhibitions about Jewish themes, not all are enthusiastic. Recognizing
that more is not necessarily better, Daniel Dratwa of Brussels complains:
"Indeed most of these little Jewish museums are boring because they present,
most of the time, the same objects; moreover they prevent visitors, by
holding some important objects out of range, from understanding the story
of the Jewish community of a given country and region." Fortunately,
Dratwa and others offer some solutions. Not surprisingly, most are
based on cooperation between institutions – sharing resources, sharing
exhibits, and working together to cultivate new audiences.
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