Prague’s Jewish Museum Branching Out

Czech Position

Looking to reach more visitors, the Jewish Museum in Prague is presenting modern as well as historical aspects of Jewish life

Striving for a more open and contemporary feel the Jewish Museum in Prague has some big plans underway. From music to film to art, organizers say 2011 will be a year of major transformation. The museum is going to completely rebuild all five permanent exhibitions, with the new exhibitions including more interactive elements.

“We want the Jewish museum to be an institution, not just inward to the past, but open to contemporary events, and especially the contemporary visitor,” Barbora Patocková, who’s in charge of public relations for the Jewish Museum in Prague, told Czech Position. “The museum is kicking off a five-year plan to implement a number of changes that should lead to transforming the museum into a modern, open and dynamic center of Jewish culture in Central Europe.”

Israeli connection

Their pilot project this year is “Israeli Season in the Jewish Museum” and is a result of several recent personal encounters of the museum’s curator of visual art, Michaela Sidenberg, with Israeli curators, artists, filmmakers, and musicians.

“So far there have been only isolated events featuring Israeli artists in the Czech Republic,” she said. “By organizing a whole season that emphasizes various aspects of contemporary Israeli art should allow us to bring more attention to the complexity of Israeli culture and society that for many Czech residents still remains quite unknown.”

Patocková believes one of the highlights will be Cinegogue (cinema + synagogue).

“This is a silent film series in which we offer a unique annual projection, accompanied by live music in the marvelous stage set of the Spanish Synagogue,” she said. This year’s program is called “Eccentricity Factory: Kozintsev – Trauberg – Jutkevitch and FEKS.” The restored Soviet film “New Babylon” (1929) by two Jewish authors will be shown accompanied with original music composed by Dimitri Shostakovich and performed live by the Berg Orchestra.

The other Czech Baroque

Their first exhibition of the new year turns the spotlight on the Czech Republic and the country’s Baroque synagogues. Small but informative, the exhibition tells the history of synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia through photos and descriptions.

“These are the oldest samples of authentic remains of the old Jewish communities in the Czech Republic, giving us the rare possibility to look into at least a part of the authentic environment of their lives in the past, their culture and art,” curator Arno Parík spoke to Czech Position. “It is a very interesting contribution to our knowledge of Jewish art and tradition.”

The descriptions point out a variety of interesting features in the synagogues, for example the Baroque ark from 1696 in the Kolín Synagogue. Then there is the fascinating contrast between the ornate Spanish Synagogue in Prague and the simplicity of the synagogue in Rousínov, which is now used by the Czechoslovak Hussite Church and the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren.

One of Europe’s best-preserved examples of synagogue architecture is the Major Synagogue in Boskovice, built in 1639 by Italian architect Sylvester Fiota. The painted motifs are its most noteworthy feature. Many synagogues were used as warehouses after 1938, but new life has recently been breathed into them. Since the mid-90s many of them were returned to the Jewish community and renovations are either complete or ongoing.

The synagogue in Ledec nad Sázavou is now used as a concert and exhibition hall and the one in Kasejovice is now the Kasejovice Municipal Museum. The Rakovník synagogue is exemplary for its Late Baroque decoration including a carved wooden ark and decorative wall paintings. It is one building that continued to serve its purpose — after 1938 it was used by both the Jewish community and the Czechoslovak Hussite Church. Parík is pleased that the synagogues are continuing to be useful.

“Some of them are already used for cultural and educational purposes, in some places at a very high level, some others for exhibition and museum purposes,” he said. “They tell local people more about Jewish tradition and spirituality, the history of the local communities and to remember the victims from the local region, in the places themselves, which is more important then to remember abstract numbers.”

In researching this exhibition, Parík says they discovered many interesting things. “For example, very rare documents and artifacts, many things about how the arks were built, about women’s galleries and their stairs,” he said. “It teaches us that history is always much more complex and rich then what we know only from written documents.”

Parík says the Jewish Museum has future plans for the exhibition, which will be at the Robert Guttmann Gallery until Aug. 24.

“Because the exhibition shows in detail some 23 monuments from Bohemia and Moravia, we hope it will travel to various places, and be exhibited in several old synagogues,” he said. “Maybe it will find a permanent place in one of those synagogues.”

Overall, it should be an eye-opening year of events at the Jewish Museum. “We want to present the Jewish Museum as a lively place of interesting encounters – not only with the past but also with living culture,” Patocková said.