Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Friday August 14 2015
This year, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life(2121 Allston Way) launched a series of informative Wednesday noontime lectures involving members of the extended Bay Area academic community. These “PopUp Exhibitions” are one of the newest additions to the Magnes’s programs for the Berkeley academic community and the public at large.
The PopUp Exhibition Series is the brainchild of Francesco Spagnolo, Curator of The Magnes Collection. The series consists of twenty-three unique lectures this academic year, which put into conversation objects from The Magnes with scholars and the public at large. This year’s lectures have been coordinated by Daniel Viragh, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at The Magnes. The objective is to allow members of the audience an up-close and personal look at some of the rare and unique treasures in the Collection, as seen through the eyes of a specialist in the field that the objects represent, or the narratives they evoke. The objects are points of departure for the presenters, who proceed to animate discussion among the audience members.
The presentations focus on historical aspects of the Collection and also showcase a mosaic of different media.
Among this year’s presenters are many Berkeley faculty members: Andrea Sinn, John Efron, Jonathan Sheehan, David Henkin, Carla Shapreau, Keith Feldman, and Yael Chaver, as well as graduate students and undergraduates. Daniel Fisher (Near Eastern Studies) discussedBiblical Lives, an upcoming exhibition at The Magnes, and Yosef Rosen (Jewish Studies) presented on magic and amulets, while Christine Liu, Zoe Lewin, and Anna Bella Korbatov showed off their work conducted in the context of the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP).
Independent scholars, artists, and web developers are also involved in the series. Author Frances Dinkelspiel analyzed a painting portraying members of her family, who immigrated to San Francisco from Germany in the 19th century. Visiting artist Yair Harel (Jerusalem) performed poetry for the Jewish New Year, and Harriete Estel Berman discussed the role of recycled and repurposed materials in folk art. Rabbi James Brandt of the Jewish Community Federation of the East Bay spoke during the Festival of Hannukah. John Fox (Findery.com) and Anne Wootton (popuparchive.com) presented on the platforms they work with, highlighting the intersection between humanities and technology in the context of The Magnes involvement in Digital Humanities at Berkeley.
The series will continue through the end of the Spring semester, and then resume in the Fall. Upcoming lectures will feature Gilad Sharvit, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies, speaking on Freud’s Moses and on related art in The Magnes Collection (April 1st); Emily Gottreich (Center for Middle Eastern Studies) on the extensive holdings of The Magnes that document Jewish culture in Morocco (April 15); Thomas Laqueur (History) on the construction of narrative in museum exhibitions (April 22); and Rabbi David Kasher (Kevah.org) on the intertextuality of Biblical commentaries (April 29). The series will conclude with a presentation by Peretz Wolf-Prusan (Lehrhaus Judaica) on the legacy of Helen Burke, an art instructor whose work is on permanent display at The Magnes (May 6).
The strength of the “PopUp Exhibitions” lies in the presenters’ ability to bring a new and fresh angle to the conversations that museumgoers usually have among themselves. This is achieved at a curatorial level by creating unexpected connections between academic expertise and objects of art and material culture, a combination that encourages immediacy and the exploration of original ideas. It is difficult for any museum to display all of its holdings to the public. The series establishes a way for audience members to converse with those objects that they would not generally encounter in a display case or a museum publication.
Presentations begin promptly each Wednesday at 12:15 pm and end at 1 pm. Refreshments are provided. The Fall lineup will be announced shortly, and can be reviewed on Facebookand at magnes.org. We hope to see you at 2121 Allston Way!
We are delighted to publish an end-of-year report by Alex Makabeh, a pre-med student at UC Berkeley who enrolled in the UC Berkeley Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) at The Magnes during the the Spring Semester.
The day that I began to look for a research apprenticeship I had written up a checklist for myself that contained the suitable criteria: a wet lab geared towards the fields of environmental science and medicine and tailored, if possible, to the pursuit of the development of the modern field of psychology. At first glance, many individuals (I am not an exception) would say that a research position at a museum would have zero contribution on the development of my skillset in order to make me a well-rounded physician. With the background in the following paragraphs you may be surprised to see the true expanse of connections that I have been able to draw through the comparison of these two environments.
At the third largest Jewish Museum collection in the nation, The Magnes, I spent an entire semester strengthening my curiosity about Jewish life, art and culture, my culture. When I initially applied to the program, I had a meek understanding about the history of the Jewish Diaspora, but I told the museum’s curator, Dr. Francesco Spagnolo, that I am willing to learn. If not for my connection to their cause and my dedication to fueling my curiosity, I do not think this invaluable experience would have ever been considered an option. This same driving force is what I feel the field of medicine needs more of and this is what this research program has helped to impart in me. The knowledge that I accumulated throughout my childhood, about Judaism and Jewish tradition, served as the backbone from which this curiosity branched.
At UC Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, I was assigned the task of working with the online catalogue to conduct in-house research on artifacts that I felt personally connected to. I would then add geo-location information to collection records via the Google Maps embed module. Through this method I can use Google Maps to show the street view of the creation place of an artifact, and better understand its provenance and history.
The use of Google Map street view has provided me with an entirely new dimension in grasping the historical context of an object. I also learned how to share the inventoried items across social media platforms, such as Flickr. I worked with the Flickr photo integration software and I developed the skills to understand proper grouping techniques for historical items.
My assignment included creating a set representing a group of artifacts in the Magnes Collection related to “Jewish Life in Iran.” As my parents are both of Iranian descent, this topic felt particularly compelling to me. I conducted research on Middle Eastern Jewish artifacts focusing on the changes in the way religion and society meshed through time. As I worked on documenting a collection of 150 artifacts from Iran, I felt a personal calling to look deeper into my culture, which I found to have much richer roots.
Francesco Spagnolo, my supervisor for my apprenticeship and the Curator of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, provided me with nothing but encouragement to learn about what I felt passionately drawn to. My situation was unique: as an environmental science/ pre-medical Cal student I questioned the value of this research apprenticeship. He provided me with ideas of topics that would be beneficial for me to look into as well, and the more he suggested, the more I became intrigued. Francesco met with me often to not only touch base and to be a form of support but most of all he was a continual source of inspiration to me.
Starting from the day of my interview, Francesco and the rest of the Magnes team truly inspired me. I clearly demonstrated my interest in having the apprenticeship at the museum but I felt there was one big issue: I was not sure if this experience would truly be valuable for someone that is interested in science, medicine and eventually intends to attend medical school. He proved me wrong. Francesco showed me how artifacts can give hints about their own history and that each artifact requires individual scrutiny when conducting research, all of which is in constant development.
Artifacts ironically seem to have a similarity to the patients that come to the doctor for a check-up. When I become a doctor, my patients as well would have a health history and, just like an artifact has a history that includes its provenance and uses across the Jewish diaspora, I will need to conduct research on their illnesses and symptoms.
In the course of my Research Apprentice Program, I also learned how to properly handle artifacts at the museum, under the expert guidance of the Registrar of The Magnes Collection, Julie Franklin. I soon realized that this is a skill that would be very valuable for when I become a physician and need to have a developed bedside manner.
Looking back, I am humored to see how this research experience has defied all of my expectations. The URAP program has been an all-embracing, meaningful experience for me.
On the occasion of the upcoming publication of The Jewish World: 100 Treasures of Art and Culture from The Magnes (forthcoming by Skirà/Rizzoli, texts by Alla Efimova and Francesco Spagnolo), I thought I’d share my summary of a day at The Magnes.
From the Curator’s Afterword:
Inhabiting the curatorial responsibilities of The Magnes Collection at UC Berkeley in the 21st century is a thrilling adventure. It involves discovering and re-discovering hidden treasures on a quasi-daily basis, challenging the descriptive practices of Jewish culture and moving beyond the canonical focus on texts alone, engaging thriving communities of scholars on multi-disciplinary themes, and creating and maintaining global networks of research across the United States, Europe, Asia, and Israel.
An average curatorial “routine” of a day at The Magnes is — as Julio Cortázar would have put it — a veritable “tour of the day in eighty worlds.” It fuses in-depth research across cultural formats, describing, envisioning, teaching, dreaming, publishing, and, above all, continuously asking questions. Our treasures of manuscripts, objects, books, visual documents, archival collections, musical scores and recordings are investigated, , queried, and examined from a multiplicity of perspectives. Mysteries are acknowledged, and sometimes even solved. New acquisitions are discussed with donors, collectors, and art dealers residing in multiple countries. Classes and seminars are taught, with undergraduate and graduate students mentored in the rudiments of research and “collection work,” and thus exposed to an astounding variety of primary sources and modes of knowledge. Senior faculty and visiting researchers are consulted to collaborate on research, exhibitions, and colloquia. Visiting artists present their work, and interact with the inspiring setting of the collection storage, the galleries, and, more broadly, the UC Berkeley campus and its communities. Members of the community take guided tours through their own pasts. Publications, online and in print, constantly flow. Most importantly, core questions of how collecting institutions may continue to represent and perform the role of preserving the cultural past and shaping its future, always remain in play.
Curating The Magnes Collection not only involves exploring the many overlapping, conflicting, and contradictory Jewish worlds, but also, in a way, sketching them, charting them, one object at a time, and providing ways for others to do so as well, across cultural, linguistic, and ideological divides. It is precisely the possibility to both find new directions and to experiment, and to do so collaboratively, that informs the intricate maps that underline The Jewish World.
By Lisa Wurtele
Earlier in June, Andy Shanken, an architectural historian at U.C. Berkeley, visited the exhibition. His interest in cultural constructions of memory has yielded this unique response to the exhibition’s powerful combination of music, images and words that, together, allow us to transcend barriers of time and place so that we might better share in the past.
He shared his reactions in a letter addressed to Moira Roth, creator of Through the Eyes of Rachel Marker:
With the light of historical events washing over my back, I write to you, to me, of you, of me, of us all. Funny, the film of historical events that parallel Rachel Marker’s life, they end before I began. But that is only if we accept the rule of time. I, by sitting in this chair, take away a fragment of Kristallnacht, of the Russian Revolution, of the wars & cultural revolutions of the 20th C.
How sad Berlin seems—much more melancholy than the ruins themselves or the silver mirror or the old clock in Prague that was part of the first pivotal move to make the human animal submit to the idealized, rational time that is our ruin.
So I sit with Rachel Marker’s times (& time) and try to enter history, a time before me. And I wonder how we can turn the angel of history around? What kind of soul, or secular courage, would we require?
Through the montage comes Alice’s piano playing and her oh so klar German. We can close our eyes, but not our ears. And what we hear—notes, rhythms, tone—touches us ever so differently than light or than the clock. Music is time in our viscera, kept in our hearts, our stomachs, our bones. It need not have an iota of culture (in the sense of Dada or Kafka) or history (in the sense of war or revolution) to move us, to move us forward, to move us side to side, where we might bump elbows again with our neighbors, and come back to the time and history we share with them. This, perhaps, is where redemption lies, but could it not also come through playing history like a great orchestra (rather than as a clock), which is what I think Rachel Marker has done.
Andy (Professor Shanken) shared these photos that he took during a recent visit to some spots within the cultural-historical landscape of Rachel Marker’s world:
REMINDER: Please join us TONIGHT, Thursday June 27, 2013, 5:30 PM to 7:00 PM
The Future of Rachel Marker: A Closing Program
Moira Roth in conversation with Alla Efimova and special guest John Farmer
Location: The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley
See you there!
Rachel Marker’s experiences of—and reactions to—20th-century European wars and their aftermath continue to impact those who join her on her journey through the smoke and violence of war, surviving (as Rose Hacker said of herself) “…to explore new possibilities.”
A recent visitor to The Magnes was struck by the similarities to his own, very real, experience of war in Asia, during the Vietnamese conflict, and the narrative presented by Moira Roth that allows us to see Through the Eyes of Rachel Marker.
In a letter addressed to Rachel Marker, Los Angeles physician Mike (Lương) Lý describes his reactions to the exhibition, which he understood through his own experience in a very different cultural environment:
Pasadena, CA, April 30, 2013
It’s an astonishing and fascinating experience that your exhibition gave me during my visit at the gallery this past week in Berkeley. Starting from the beginning with the image of Rose [Hacker] and her father, through the description of your journey through files of documents, to the sound of music that Alice [Herz-Sommer] was playing in the video screen, and the pictures of wars flashing that reminds me of my own experiences as a child growing up in South Vietnam during its civil war.
As a child, my family lived in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. I had witnessed loud noise from helicopters hovering over our rooftop, the dark smoke coming from the building in front of our house, to the bullet sounds piercing through nighttime before the war ends on April 30, 1975.
After the war, my family was sent to Bình Long, An Lộc for re-education, where a village was torn by the massive bombing during what was called mùa hè đỏ lửa, “the Red Fire Summer” [battle] in 1972. Every day, I would pass by the main market of the village called “Chợ Lớng,” a large building which has only 3 walls left with many blown-out holes and a ceiling open to the blue sky as a remnant of the war. After living through many years of poverty, struggling to have enough food on table for a family of 8, my family was granted refugee status, left Vietnam, and spent 6 months in Bataan, Philippines. We lived in a small hut, sleeping as sardines in the hot and humid weather without fan or electricity at night.
However, we survived and moved to the U.S. in May 1987 with 2 sets of clothes on our back and around $100 left to our names. Many years passed, now I am a doctor practicing medicine and infectious diseases in Southern California, happily in a relationship with my partner and appreciate life each day to its fullest.
It’s like walking through your exhibition toward the end, I looked at the mirror on the wall, reflecting many images of war, but when I saw past the mirror, a whole new world is in front of me with numerous opportunities and new and exciting experiences waiting for me. Like Thich Nhat Hanh in his Buddhist teaching that life is impermanent. Impermanence teaches us to respect and value every moment and all the precious things around us and inside of us.
Lương (Mike) T. Lý, M.D.
Dr. Lý sent along a family photo to allow us to better place his personal knowledge in a context parallel to that of the historical personalities in Rachel’s world.
You can still experience Through the Eyes of Rachel Marker | A Literary Installation by Moira Roth before it ends its run at The Magnes on June 28th.
The letters shared below were sent from several continents and written by hand by a mysterious correspondent, “John.” In them, John expressed gratitude that Rachel Marker “took us to places we never would have visited otherwise, from Montparnasse, to an old art supply store that artists from the Impressionists to Yves Klein frequented,…to a large flea market on the outskirts of Paris.” They allow us a peek into the ongoing exchange of letters between Rachel Marker and John.
In his February 10th letter to Rachel Marker, John writes:
“One of the defining events of your life was the war. One of the defining events of mine was the great plague that reached its crescendo when I was a young man living in New York.”
Rachel Marker responds that the Mute Players–a group of “mute” actors she first met in Prague in the mid-1920s, who in 1940 wartime Paris began to perform her “Letters to the Dead” ceremonies to take place over the next one hundred years in cemeteries around the world–are in Paris again, planning a ceremony about French gay culture and “the great plague” of AIDS in the city’s Père Lachaise Cemetery. (There one can visit the graves of Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, and a number of prominent gay writers, filmmakers, performers, and activists who died of AIDS.) Rachel Marker dreams that the Mute Players invite John and his partner to participate “in whatever way you want.”
In his March 24th letter to Rachel Marker, John (writing from Paris) tells her that “Today here in Paris there was a large demonstration on the Champs Élysées against a bill to legalize same-sex marriage and adoption. The demonstration became violent, and the police used tear gas against the demonstrators. The news inspired me to reread some of your letters—the apprehension you felt after you got news of Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass, in 1938; the sense of foreboding you felt as the Nazis approached Paris in 1940. As you were awaiting the Nazis’ approach, you stayed up all night to write Letters to the Dead. Do you still remember that night?
You once asked, ‘How does one write during a war or in its aftermath?’ Thinking about events in Poland and here in Paris, I think I would ask instead, How does one not?”
A few days later in Paris, John receives a letter, slipped under his door, from the Mute Players telling him that they had left him a wooden box on the grave of Charles Baudelaire in the Montparnasse cemetery to take unopened to the Père Lachaise cemetery, and place it on Proust’s grave.
In his March 31 letter to her, John describes the contents of this box to Rachel Marker. “At noon we opened the Mute Players’ box on the tomb of Marcel Proust in Père Lachaise”: (more…)
By Lisa Wurtele
World-renowned art historian and cultural analyst Griselda Pollock visited the exhibition last month and was inspired to write about her impressions in a letter, which she addressed to Rachel Marker:
19 March 2013
Griselda Pollock is Professor of the Social & Critical Histories of Art at the University of Leeds. Her research interests include feminist, social, queer and post-colonial interventions in the histories of art, trauma and cultural memory; representation of and after the Holocaust; 19th-century to contemporary visual arts and film. Pollock serves as Director of The Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory and History (CentreCATH): a Transdisciplinary Initiative at the University of Leeds (http://www.centrecath.leeds.ac.uk). Pollock’s recent project, Concentrationary Memories: The Politics of Representation (http://www.centrecath.leeds.ac.uk/projects/conmem/) explores configurations of politics and aesthetics in cultural memory.
Griselda Pollock in the gallery. Photo: Moira Roth
By Lisa Wurtele
Let’s peek behind the scenes into the search for images to enhance the visitor’s understanding of Rachel Marker’s world. “Moira and Alla knew they wanted a textural and contextual backdrop – a progression of stills and moving images that would represent the events of the 20th Century that Rachel Marker had experienced,” explains Gary Handman, the Public Services Coordinator at The Magnes. To put that together, Moira Roth, Rachel Marker’s creator, and the exhibition’s curator, The Magnes Director Alla Efimova, approached Handman, a founding member of the American Library Association Video Round Table, and a consultant and advisor for several national film and video festivals and organizations.
Handman used the Rachel Marker journals, together with her daily letters to Franz Kafka after his death in 1924, as a chronology, and attached historical footage and still images to the events as they unfolded in the journals and letters. Here are a few:
Hitler at the Eiffel Tower, Paris
Constructing the Berlin Wall
Image of the Prague Astronomical Clock from the film on the gallery wall as reflected in a mirror in the exhibition
As sources Handman used The Media Resources Center at UC Berkeley’s Moffitt Library, one of the largest and most respected video collections in a U.S. academic library. As immediate past Director there (a position he held for close to 35 years, until his retirement in 2012), he is especially well equipped to ferret out appropriate historical media. Handman also looked at YouTube sources and combed the Internet Moving Image Archive (a collection of public domain footage). There he found rare and obscure footage, such as the fall of the Winter Palace in Petrograd during the Russian Revolution, and Sigmund Freud toward the end of his life.
The process of editing involved weaving the selected scenes chronologically. In sessions with Moira Roth and Alla Efimova, Handman looked at the organization of the images, as well as the pacing and rhythm. In order to bypass the narrative documentary genre, no soundtrack or voice-over was added. Instead, only a few titles to identify time and place (e.g., “Prague in the 1920s”) were included. A printed time line accompanies the film to ensure that the viewer may clearly identify the historical events and figures. Thus, the film allows one to visit Rachel Marker’s world by experiencing a dream-like interlude, the state where events unfold with greater immediacy.
Here’s a clip from the film (click on picture):
Please join us at The Magnes to enjoy the film in its entirety!
Here is one of them:February 5, 2013 Tuesday, Berkeley, CA cold, gray, 53°
I am so inspired by your letters to Kafka—the ways in which you weave your own Library of Threads. A filament of fact, a skein of fiction into an epistolary tapestry of history. We are each our own Penelope—and our own Rachel—undoing, redoing, foretelling, forestalling, living on hope and memory.
On your visit to the exhibition (which runs through June 28, 2013), enter Rachel Marker’s world of history, politics, literature and the arts.
There you can encounter Franz Kafka, Vladimir Lenin, Gertrude Stein, and the still-living Alice Herz-Sommer, as well as with other arresting–if fictional–characters, such as Rachel Spiegel, Moira Marker, Maria Sanchez, the Blind Woman, and the Mute Players.
Come pick up a pen at the desk in the gallery! You are invited to contribute your own letter in Moira Roth’s arresting world of Rachel Marker, witness to history.