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Category: Interviews »

Subject: Cultural Studies »

Helen Light on Jewish Museum

Helen Light and Mara Moustafine.

Helen Light describes the creation and work of the Jewish Museum



Date Added:

01 March 2009


source not available


mov (Quicktime);

File size:

16.1 MB






The idea of it was mooted by Rabbi Ronald Lubofsky at Bnai Brith in about 1977 about starting a Jewish Museum. And he felt it was really important, he was particularly interested in Judaica but he felt because of the Shoah that it was important for us to collect our history and to teach it and to share it. And it was many years in the planning, different committees formed and they had a couple of exhibitions at different venues one at what used to be Stanmark (sp?), the Caulfield Arts Centre. And one at Myers in their mural hall and then they had a large holocaust exhibition in the tramway buildings. And they eventually formed a proper museum and defined what they wanted and looked for a home. And in October 1982, they opened in what were the classrooms of Toorak Road, Synagogue with the first exhibition, Art and Architecture of the Synagogue.


And it was very clear that it was about sharing and preserving Australian Jewish history and about sharing the heritage with and education about Judaism. Once they opened, they advertised for staff member, part-time, two days a week. And thats my story. So I started in January, 83, just after the museum had opened and we were there for 13 years in that tiny space. We had spent seven of those years looking for new premises but in the meanwhile we had about five exhibitions a year on different ranges of Jewish history and art and expanded our audiences and developed our collection.


And it was a very challenging space, because it was tiny, it was upstairs, but we became known and we established a very good standard and then we bought this building in 80 95 we moved in and weve been here since. And its very much weve got a dual mission and dual audience really in terms of teaching Jews about what it means to be Jewish in Australian Jewish history particularly and nurturing continuity among the Australian Jewish community and building bridges with the wider community and generally encouraging cross-cultural and interfaith dialogue. We had deliberately adopted a pluralist approach. So weve tried to show that Jewish means different things to different people and weve tried to cope with it in the variety of exhibitions we present, in the viewpoints we present because in museums today, museums are fora for ideas, so you can present different voices talking simultaneously.


So we always try to do that. And we try to listen to different people and reflect their views, we are kosher here. We strictly observe and in terms of when were open and when were closed, because we want the ultra-orthodox as well as the secular Jews to be able to come here and feel were their museum. Probably its my greatest pride that its worked. Its the hardest thing we do. Its definitely the hardest. The things you have sleepless nights over. The obvious thing is for instance, about showing nudes, for instance. You have a very distinguished artist, well recognised in our community, very elderly, much loved and a whole body of his work is of nudes. How do you show it in a Jewish museum, what do you do?


Those sorts of things and how do you balance your respect for him and for contemporary art and yet avoid offending other people? In that case, we had a we didnt have it so people who walked in would see it directly, we had it behind you know, we had different panels so wed say, So and sos nudes nude studies. Or something, so people could choose to look.


Those things are very challenging, you know, and if you show single sex relationships and things like that, that its obviously prohibition in Torah law about it, but its very much part of our society and what we say is: were about reflecting Judaism as it is, not as it should be, thats not our role, were not a religious institution.


People talk today about museums as being safe places for unsafe ideas. So people can come here and discuss and debate issues in a completely non-threatening, no-political environment and we provide that opportunity for Jewish and non-Jewish groups to come together to do that. And also for our exhibitions, if we explore similarities and differences and challenges those who come for one week and another will trip upon that and hopefully think about it.


Also, within the Jewish community that we have to build bridges, because as you know, were a very diverse community.


Many bridges have been built.



We one of my favourite stories and I tell it a lot, is we did an exhibition on the Australian Jewish family and we had an exhibition at we did it on different life cycles and we had a film for the married section, and it showed different couples talking about what was Jewish about their relationship and all different, you know, in-marriages, out-marriages, religious and so on and single sex couples and a couple of religious women were watching it and they were watching two women talk about their Jewish marriage, their Jewish relationship and one took turned to the other and nodded and said, I suppose theyre Jewish too. And I thought, Yeah!


End transcript