Open for Research: Jewish Culture and the Digital Humanities in a UC Berkeley Undergraduate Apprenticeship at The Magnes

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Friday July 4 2014

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.

Alex Makabeh

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • email
  • PDF
Collection Maps: A Day at The Magnes

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Wednesday March 19 2014

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.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • email
  • PDF
Filed under: Collections andExhibitions
Attempts to Enter History: Bending the Rules of Time in Rachel Marker’s Spaces of Memory

Posted by Alla Efimova on Thursday June 27 2013

A recent visitor to the world of Rachel Marker could not help but muse about the redemptive effect of “playing history like a great orchestra (rather than as a clock), which is what I think Rachel Marker has done.”

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.

Andy putting pen to paper

He shared his reactions in a letter addressed to Moira Roth, creator of Through the Eyes of Rachel Marker:

Dear Moira,

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.

Warmest,

Andy

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:

Drohobych Synagogue, Ukraine—The 2nd largest extant synagogue in Europe

Frowning Hangman Jew, Zamość, Poland

Moira's friend, Vika, at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, where we went with Moira, and where time begins

Jewish Cemetery in the village of Fryzstak, Poland, where Vika's grandmother was born

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!

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • email
  • PDF
Filed under: Random Musings
Seeing the Same Sky Through the Remnants of Different Bombed-out Buildings

Posted by Alla Efimova on Friday June 7 2013

By Lisa Wurtele

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

Dear Rachel,

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.

Much love,

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.

Please join us on Thursday, June 27, 2013 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. for the closing program featuring Moira Roth, creator of this project, in conversation with The Magnes Director Alla Efimova and special guest John Farmer, who has been affected by Rachel Marker’s journey for well over a decade.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • email
  • PDF
Filed under: Random Musings
A mysterious correspondent reports on a visit to Père Lachaise, the Mute Players, and Act-Up

Posted by Alla Efimova on Monday April 22 2013

By Lisa Wurtele

Not all those who have spent time with Rachel Marker have connected with her through the portal of the physical exhibition at The Magnes. Rachel has also had a deep impact on those who have entered her world by crossing time and place.

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.

Box on Baudelaire’s grave, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

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…)

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • email
  • PDF
Filed under: Random Musings
Griselda Pollock Enters Rachel Marker’s World

Posted by Alla Efimova on Wednesday April 10 2013

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:

Griselda Pollock penning her letter to Rachel Marker in the gallery. Photo: Moira Roth

19 March 2013

Dear Rachel Marker,
I have heard your name before but now
I sit in an installation dedicated to showing me
the twentieth century through your eyes. Images
flow over the table where I sit, a soft voice speaking
German in the background, punctuated by 109-year-
old fingers bringing music forth from a piano.
Terrible scenes of violence, war, destruction
are playing to the sound of Alice Herz-Sommer’s
exquisite life-long coinhabitation with music.
Your letters take me on a journey through times
and spaces freighted with history, art, literature
and above all imagination. You are a subtle guide,
a thoughtful witness, a gentle presence that
makes history become vivid and troubling at the
same time. You are conscience speaking through
the twentieth century about art and artists, imagination
and writing, hope and conversation amidst
catastrophe while Rose Hacker and Alice Herz-Sommer
remind me of the fact that the twentieth century was
also one of the great centuries of and for women—
Thank you for bringing that—my constant issue—joining
of trauma and hope through women together once again.
Yours as ever     Griselda

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

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • email
  • PDF
Filed under: Random Musings
Drawing us into Rachel Marker’s world with images

Posted by Alla Efimova on Wednesday March 20 2013

What goes into the staging of an exhibition–especially one like Through the Eyes of Rachel Marker?

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

WWI trenches

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!

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • email
  • PDF
Filed under: Exhibitions andRandom Musings
Entering the World of Rachel Marker

Posted by Alla Efimova on Friday March 8 2013

Last month, many of our exhibition visitors were moved to sit down at this desk in the gallery and pen a message to Rachel Marker.

Here is one of them:

February 5, 2013
Tuesday,
Berkeley, CA
cold, gray, 53°

Dearest Rachel,

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.

Love,

Laura

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.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • email
  • PDF
Filed under: Random Musings
Rachel Marker Project #1: Moira Roth on Alice Herz-Sommer

Posted by Alla Efimova on Tuesday December 4 2012

In conjunction with the upcoming exhibition at The Magnes, writer and art historian Moira Roth will post a series of texts from the ongoing narrative about her fictional character Rachel Marker. The first post is dedicated to Alice Herz-Sommer, one of the inspirations for the Rachel Marker narrative. A Prague-born Jew now living in London, a renowned pianist, and survivor of Theresienstadt, Herz-Sommer has just celebrated her 109th birthday.

ALICE IN THE MOONLIGHT

for Alice Herz-Sommer with love

Moira Roth, November 26, 2012

I sit

In California

Thinking about Alice’s constant love of the piano

Over the decades.

1924

2011

About where and when she has played—

in public and private spaces,

in times of peace and war.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGkUWrt2RFw

About how,

When Rose Hacker and I would visit her in London,

We would stand outside the door of the building,

Hearing the sound of the piano,

And then ring the bell.

The piano would stop, and Alice, smiling,

Would appear to welcome us warmly.

I love the story in her biography, A Garden of Eden in Hell,

When Alice,

A young child in Prague at the time,

Secretly played the piano

One night in the moonlight

(because her father had turned off all the gaslights in their flat),

Resolving then and there to be a musician.

That was some time ago,

But in certain ways she hasn’t changed.

She is still (I suspect) beautifully stubborn,

Although she may no longer play secretly

In the moonlight

And now plays the piano

In London not Prague.

I wonder, will she play the piano today

On her 109th birthday?

Alice Herz-Sommer, November 26, 2012

Photograph by Ariel Sommer

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • email
  • PDF
Filed under: Random Musings
Alice Herz-Sommer turns 109 today

Posted by Alla Efimova on Monday November 26 2012

Alice Herz-Sommer, a Czech Jew, a pianist, and a survivor of Terezin Concentration Camp, is one of the inspirations for the upcoming installation by Moira Roth at The Magnes: Through the Eyes of Rachel Marker, opening January 22. She is the subject of A Garden of Eden in Hell: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer (Macmillan, 2008).

Share and Enjoy:
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • email
  • PDF
Filed under: Random Musings