The Magnes: A Student Manifesto

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Friday May 6 2016

I am delighted to share an essay by Lauren Cooper. Lauren, who is graduating from UC Berkeley this Spring, with a Major in Comparative Literature, and Minors in Spanish and History, has been involved with Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) that I direct at The Magnes for the last two years. During this time, Lauren contributed to the cataloging of the collection, created the digital companions to our catalog, The Jewish World, assisted in creating several new exhibitions, co-curated one exhibition with me (Stages of Identity, on view through the end of June), and presented a public talk in our PopUp Exhibitions Series (on “The Making of From Mendelssohn To Mendelssohn).

In this post, Lauren reconstructs her work at The Magnes over the years, and offers a veritable student manifesto describing what it means to work and explore, week after week, the wonders of one of the great Jewish museum collections in the context of a research university.

Enjoy!

Francesco Spagnolo

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I came to Berkeley with some Bob Dylan albums and a backpack full of books, thinking vaguely of the 1960s and a possible English major. But about a month into my first English class, and a few pages into The Sound and the Fury, I realized that an indecipherable Faulkner presented without historical context was not what I wanted to spend four years studying. At first this was frightening. I had left my home near Chicago and travelled two thousand miles hoping my first year at UC Berkeley would give me an answer to the question of what I would be doing in ten years. Instead, I had more questions than when I had arrived.

But without the immediate pressure of fulfilling prerequisites for a major, the rest of my first year became an opportunity to try a bit of everything. I signed up for classes I might never have considered that gave me incredible opportunities to hand-print a run of books on a nineteenth century printing press, perform ethnographic folklore research, and conduct cultural interviews in Spanish. I saw in Berkeley an opportunity to explore diverse perspectives, while gaining a deeper understanding of the way humans think and express themselves.

I realized during this time that in addition to learning about other cultures, I wanted to know more about my own Jewish culture—something that was defined at that point by Hanukkah candles every December and stories of my great-grandfather, the Talmudic scholar turned junk peddler whose past in the Old Country was all but forgotten. Taking a series of Jewish history classes, I soon acquired both a History minor and an interest in not only preserving, but also resurrecting, lost history.

Having enjoyed the research element of my history classes, I started to look for research positions through the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program at UC Berkeley. It was through this program that I learned about the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, a research center and museum which promised both hands on experience with archival materials and opportunities to contribute to future exhibitions. I quickly signed on as a Research Assistant. Now, two years later, it is clear that this was one of the best decisions I made at Berkeley.

Work at the Magnes started fast. My first day on the job, I was given seven Israeli dolls and the name of the workshop that produced them, and was asked to write catalogue descriptions for them. The lack of information was daunting. With little cultural knowledge of Israel and no experience working with dolls or objects like them, I quickly became a detective, piecing together fragments of information so I could not only describe the dolls, but could recreate their role in the society that produced them.

This type of object research is exciting in itself, but a further benefit of working at a museum is that the research is not confined to the archives—it is presented to the public. Having become the house expert on the Israeli dolls, I was asked to contribute to an exhibition (Living by the Book, Fall 2015) that would include them. I selected several dolls, wrote labels, and created digital companions to the exhibit using social media platforms. When the exhibition opened, I had not only reconstructed histories that were nearly lost, but I was proud to have also had a hand in presenting them, physically and digitally, to a public that could appreciate them as much as I did.

My experience working with the dolls proved to be just a taste of what was to come during the rest of my time at the Magnes. At the beginning of each semester, it seems, I was confronted with some idea I knew nothing about. And each time, I jumped into my new project feet first. This past summer, I received an Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program grant award, which allowed me to stay in Berkeley and not only conduct research for the museum’s main exhibition (From Mendelssohn to Mendelssohn, Spring 2016), but also co-curate a smaller show based on my research on a series of theater posters (Stages of Identity, Spring 2016). This past April, I had my first opportunity to directly engage museum patrons and UC Berkeley scholars with a presentation on the creation of the main exhibition. Every day I am discovering something new and finding ways to share it with a wider and wider audience.

The incredible hands-on experience I have had working at the Magnes has introduced me to the museum field, and has encouraged me to explore it further. Now, in my final semester at Berkeley, I am taking a curatorial seminar in the Art History department, and looking forward to a summer internship at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. I don’t know at this point if I want to have a career in museums. I do know that I care deeply about preserving culture, and about providing a platform for it in order to engage a public outside of the academic world. And I know that I want to find a place like the Magnes, where I am discovering something new every day.

Lauren Cooper (UC Berkeley ’16)

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