The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Jewish Museums in the United States: A Historical Review

Jewish Museums were conceived in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. The earliest examples include the Hebrew Union College Museum in Cincinnati, founded in 1913, and the Museum of Jewish Ceremonial Objects at the Jewish Theological Seminary, NY, founded in 1931. Located in academic centers and theological institutions, these cultural places played an educational role and were used as a meeting point for Jews and non-Jews, scholars and laymen.

The 1930s immigration of Jews from Europe as a result of the rise to power of the Nazi regime in Germany brought a wealth of knowledge and creativity to the United States. The city of New York, became a central meeting place for immigrants, through which scholars and artists managed to form a circle of connections and support. As more information spread about the situation of the Jews and their cultural property in Europe, several individuals resorted to salvage. Amassing large collections of artifacts by making efforts to obtain each item arriving from destroyed Europe served as a form of commemoration, rescue and preservation of this critical historic moment. This progressed in the aftermath of the war, when the New York-based organization, the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, got involved in the process of redistributing items from the central collecting points set up by the Allied forces in central Europe.

This massive exodus of objects and their transfer to the U.S. prompted a necessary transition from ad-hoc collections to formal institutions and led to the founding and growth of important Jewish Museums across the United States such as The Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, CA, and The Jewish Museum in (City), Maryland. American Jewish Museums were supported by local community members and survivors, who saw the founding of these institutions as an education process for future generations.

In this presentation I will describe these early museum developments and examine their evolution since the mid-20th century.