The great museums of the 18th and 19th centuries — the British Museum in London (1753), the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg (1764), the Louvre in Paris (1792), the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (1891), and many others — were encyclopedic in scope and ambition. Born, in part, of an imperial impulse, they aimed to demonstrate the geographical and intellectual range of great national powers by becoming repositories of some of the most precious objects on earth. Simultaneously, they were shaped by the Enlightenment conviction that both the natural and human worlds could be understood and even mastered by subjecting their diverse offerings to scientific analysis and discerning the universal laws at work in the midst of miscellany. The Enlightenment museum tried to answer great human questions: where did we come from? what is the significance of what we see? how have we come to be its overseer?
For humankind such questions are important and should regularly be posed. At the same time musea should be a reflection of peoples and their culture. One expects than enough artefacts, letters, paintings and objects that can be a witness of the culture spoken about.
By the turn of the 20th century everywhere, interest in ethnicity and folk heritage was growing. In 1908, the composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály traveled the Hungarian countryside, memorializing the music of Magyars; the American ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore, foremost American authority of her time on the songs and music of American Indian tribes, and widely published author on Indian culture and life-styles, was recording, for the Smithsonian, 3,000 wax cylinders of songs by Indian tribes. In Eastern Europe, Shlomo Zanvl Rappoport (pen name S. Ansky), educated in a Ḥasidic environment was as a young man attracted to the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala) and to the populist doctrines of the Narodniki, a group of socialist revolutionaries, became conducting an ethnographic survey among the rural Jewish communities of Russia and Poland.
Along with the amassing of music and oral testimony came the amassing of objects. At the Smithsonian, a Judaica collection was begun in 1887 by Cyrus Adler, who, having obtained the nation’s first doctorate in Semitics at Johns Hopkins University, would found the American Jewish Historical society in 1892. In 1904, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York received a gift of 26 artifacts that it displayed in its library; they became the seeds of the Jewish Museum, which after World War II would move into its current home in the Warburg mansion on Fifth Avenue. A similarly small-scale collection, mainly of family heirlooms, was housed in the Hebrew Union College, the seminary of Reform Judaism, in Cincinnati. In 1913, the holdings became incorporated as the first Jewish museum in the United States; today its successor is the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles.
Such were the halting beginnings of the Jewish museum in the United States, and once again a difference is to be observed. In other museums, collections of artefacts were often associated with a culture’s thriving continuity; the objects were there to testify to that culture’s power and range. By contrast, a Jewish religious object put on exhibit was no longer playing its vital role in synagogue or home; taken out of its context and function, it had been turned into a relic, more closely resembling the artefacts of a fading Native American tribe in a museum of natural history than a 17th-century Dutch portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Jewish Museum was founded in 1904 with only 26 pieces and was originally located in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. In 1946 the museum moved to the Felix Warburg mansion (see Warburg family) located on New York City’s “Museum Mile.” The Jewish Museum is one of the foremost museums of its kind.
The present exhibition and the position of the museum is reviewed in the article: New York Jewish Museum’s Discomfort with Religion