Jewish Museum Vienna, Austria

The Jewish Museum Vienna (Jüdische Museum Wien) is a museum for Jewish history, Jewish culture and Jewish religion in Austria. The museum has two buildings, the Palais Eskeles in the Dorotheergasse as well as the Misrachi-Haus at the Judenplatz. The exhibition and event program deals with the past and present of Jewish culture in Austria. The Jewish Museum of the City of Vienna is a place of encounter, confrontation, and understanding, which seeks to raise awareness of Jewish history, religion, and culture.

Founded in 1895 in Vienna, the first Jewish Museum was the first of its kind in the world. It was supported by the “Society for the Collection and Conservation of Art and Historical Monuments of Judaism”. The museum focused mainly on the culture and history of the Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, especially in Vienna and Galicia, while the collections of objects from Palestine more reflected the political debate about the Zionism of that time.

Before the museum was able to move into the rooms of the Talmud-Thora-School in the Leopoldstadt in 1913 with 3,400 objects, it had already passed several moves. Immediately after the Anschluss of Austria to Germany by the National Socialists in 1938, the museum was closed and the objects were distributed to the Museum für Völkerkunde, the Natural History Museum Vienna and other museums. The Natural History Museum used the new objects to design the anti-Semitic exhibition “The physical and spiritual qualities of the Jews”. At the beginning of the 1950s, most of the inventory was restored to the Jewish Community of Israel (IKG). Further objects found their way back into the Jewish possession in the 1990ern.

On December 31, 1964, a small Jewish museum was opened in the then newly built Desider-Friedmann-Hof in Tempelgasse 3, which was hardly noticed by the public. In 1967 it was closed due to renovations and was not reopened. In 1986, the then Mayor of Vienna, Helmut Zilk, announced the founding of a new Jewish Museum in Vienna at the opening of the exhibition “Vienna 1900 – Art, Architecture and Design” in New York. The founding committee was composed of renowned representatives of the Austrian Federal Government, the City of Vienna, the Jewish Community of the Jewish Community (IKG), the Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein and Helmut Zilk.

After its founding in 1988 under the leadership of Director Christian Cap, the museum was entrusted with the management of the Max Berger Collection and the IKG Collection. In 1993, the Austrian collector Martin Schlaff donated his antisemitic collection of the City of Vienna, which includes around 5,000 objects and spans a period from 1490 to 1946, to catalog the collection and prepare it for a large exhibition.

In 1993 the auction house Dorotheum placed the Palais Eskeles in the Dorotheergasse in Vienna. Julius H. Schoeps, Director of Moses Mendelssohn Center for European Jewish Studies at the University of Potsdam, was appointed Director of the Museum. On 24 November 1994 Paul Grosz, President of the Jewish Community of Vienna opened the Museum Library. Shortly thereafter, in the years 1995 and 1996, the Viennese architects’ office eichinger or knechtl was commissioned to create more exhibition areas, to enlarge the depot and to create a visitor cafe as well as a bookshop for technical literature in the premises of the Palace Eskeles. In 1998 the museum archive was made accessible to the public through its ever-growing collection of material about the history of Jewish Vienna. On 25 October 2000, the second building of the Jewish Museum opened its doors at the Judenplatz on the occasion of the unveiling of the Holocaust Memorial. The memorial at Judenplatz is to remind the Austrian Jewish victims of the Shoah.

The Museum am Judenplatz documents the social, cultural and religious life of Viennese Jews in the Middle Ages. It is located in Misrachi-Haus am Judenplatz, the former heart of the Jewish community in medieval Vienna. The exhibition spaces opened on 25 October 2000 are smaller than those in the Dorotheergasse and completely modernized, very bright with polished concrete elements and underground corridors leading the visitor to the foundation of the mediaeval synagogue which is 4.5 meters below the road level. During the last years, the Museum am Judenplatz was the venue for various contemporary art exhibitions with spiritual or specifically Jewish themes such as installations by the remarkable Austrian artist Zenita Komad and several photo exhibitions, for example a photo essay by Josef Polleross about Vienna’s small but flourishing Jewish community.

In November 2009, the long-standing ORF journalist Danielle Spera was appointed director of the museum. She started her office in July 2010. In interviews at the time of her appointment, she talked about her plans to make the museum accessible to a broader public and to create spaces in which fears and prejudices are being dismantled and non-Jews both the traumatic past and the vibrant presence of the Jewish community Austria. It was also a special concern to reach young people through targeted projects for schools, but also to attract more tourists. “Much has become normalized. But there are still plenty of people who have trouble pronouncing the word “Jew”, and instead say “our Jewish fellow citizens”. I want to make the museum more public so that people can get to know Judaism better, “Spera said in an interview. In order to meet the new orientation of the museum, Spera immediately declared the renovation of the Dorotheergasse premises a priority. The funding of official Austrian posts, as well as donation calls to Jewish emigrants in the USA, were immediately tackled. The work, which lasted from January to October 2011, included the complete refurbishment of the museum’s technical infrastructure, as well as reconstruction of the exhibition rooms and the visitor facilities.

During the renovation work in the Dorotheergasse, a set of glasholograms, showing three-dimensional depictions of the Jewish everyday life in old Vienna, was destroyed during the excavation. An employee of the museum photographed the destroyed holograms and sent them to blogging curators and local media. This resulted in an international wave of protests, and critics thought that important cultural artifacts had been destroyed here. The museum responded to the allegations with the expert’s report of a court sworn expert who stated that the holograms could not have been dismantled or removed without damaging them since they had already been bonded about 15 years before. The museum also indicated that a second set of these holograms, which have not yet been issued, still exists and is in perfect condition. This will be stored in the depot for future exhibitions.

On 19 October 2011 the museum was reopened in the new premises of the Dorotheergasse, with great public interest. The changeover exhibition “Bigger than life – 100 years of Hollywood”, which was designed for the reopening of the world, was a public magnet. The facade of the palace had also been renovated during the renovation work. The purpose of the building was emphasized with the help of a large lighting installation by the Austrian artist Brigitte Kowanz, in which the word “museum” is projected onto the wall in Hebrew. On the ground floor, a bright, spacious foyer was set up, as well as a spacious exhibition space in which the exhibition “Vienna. Jewish Museum. 21st century “. This room also houses the “Nancy Spero – installation of the memory” wall frescoes. From 19 November 2013 the new permanent exhibition “Our City! Jewish Vienna to the present day “. 25 years after its (re) foundation and 20 years after its entry into the Palais Eskeles, the Jewish Museum Vienna sets new standards. On the second floor is the large room for events and the exhibition “Our City!”. Also a small exhibition “From Alef to Tav – From the Beginning to the End”, which documents the Jewish life cycle through museum objects and everyday objects, is shown at this level.

The second storey depot has also been completely rebuilt and now houses the Museum of Judaica in the museum. There, individual objects are highlighted and explained by windows at the showcases, each window being connected to a certain place, such as the “Leopoldstadt Tempel” in Vienna. In the showcases in the middle of the room are exhibited pieces from Austrian and Viennese prayer houses, synagogues and other Jewish institutions, from the Jewish Museum before 1938 and to a small extent from private households. The exhibition pieces in the side showcases are concentrated on the period after 1945. Here are objects of the Judaica collection Max Berger with Austro-Hungarian focus, the collection Eli Stern, which consists mainly of everyday objects from Eretz Israel, and new acquisitions as well as donations, Which document the history of the Jewish community of Vienna from 1945 to the present day. The collection of antisemitic objects by Martin Schlaff, which can also be seen on the second floor, has been positioned in the display cases so that the front of the object can only be viewed through mirrors at the rear walls of the showcases. This forces the viewer to simultaneously deal with his own reflection.

Since its reopening, the museum has seen much more visits, both at regular exhibitions and at its evening events, such as book presentations, artist talks and film screenings. The number of visits to the two properties amounted to 59,471 in 2011, and in 2015 it was around 118,000. Currently, the Jewish Museum is one of the top 30 Viennese attractions.

Since 19 November 2013, the Jewish Museum Vienna has offered its visitors the new permanent exhibition: “Our City! Jewish Vienna to this day “. The journey begins with the year 1945 and leads up to the Viennese Jewish present. The difficult path of a totally destroyed Jewish community, which in 1938 – seven years earlier – was still the largest German-speaking and the third-largest municipality in Europe, is sketched to its today’s manageable but extremely lively presence.