For 25 years, the permanent exhibition at the Jewish Museum
, on New York City’s Upper East Side, offered a stately procession through 4,000 years of Jewish history. It included illuminated siddurim, or prayer books, and Torah scrolls; an 1808 portrait of a well-to-do Jewish woman painted by
; a display case that showed anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews; a newspaper screaming the headline “J’Accuse…!” (the writer Emile Zola’s famous defense of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish officer wrongly accused of spying during the late 19th century); and a cigar box belonging to Freud. The display marched on to the Holocaust and the founding of Israel.
This grand narrative was the driving force, with the objects serving to illustrate that story. Now, the museum’s defining exhibition has been reimagined.
With around 575 pieces on display, the new “Scenes from the Collection” leans much more heavily on modern and contemporary art to provide an introduction to the museum’s holdings, touching on Jewish culture and identities in numerous ways without succumbing to didacticism. This time around, each object is allowed to tell its own story, with context and contrast often provided by adjacent objects. As a result, and in step with our times, the exhibition has moved away from any perception of a singular Jewish experience, instead underlining a variety of evolving traditions and experiences relating to Jewish faith and culture. The multifarious presentation will also change every six months or so, in order to show a greater variety of objects, with the repeat visitor in mind. (This new format is itself expected to last only some five years.)