| One era ends, another begins for underappreciated Magnes Museum

7/12/10 1:25 PM

One era ends, another begins for underappreciated Magnes Museum
Thursday, July 8, 2010 | by Frances Dinkelspiel

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In the fall of 2004, when I was a relatively new member of the board of directors of the Magnes Museum, I got a tour of the museum’s rare book collection. Among its many volumes was a small book from Cochin, a now-defunct Jewish community in India. The book was handwritten in Malayalam and Hebrew and contained poems written by women and sung in temple. Only 13 of these poetry books are known to exist, and family members hold most of them. The Magnes, though, got one when it sent a group to India in the 1960s to gather material that had been left behind when the bulk of the Cochini community immigrated to Israel. I remember feeling astonished as I held a book that probably had been held by another Jewish woman 60 years earlier and a half a world away. Then I thought to myself, why hasn’t anyone written a dissertation on the Jews of Cochin, drawing on the Magnes’ extensive collection? Why don’t more people know about the museum? Therein lies the conundrum of the Judah L. Magnes Museum — and why it sought a merger with U.C. Berkeley. Go overseas, to Amsterdam or Berlin or Jerusalem, and you could easily find Jews who would rave about the Magnes’ collections and its almost 50 years of contributions to preserving and interpreting Jewish life, culture, art and history.

Frances Dinkelspiel

But go to San Francisco and mention the Magnes and you’ll hear, “Oh, yes, I’ve heard of it but I have never been there.” Tucked away on a tree-lined residential street in Berkeley, the Magnes Museum was one of the Bay Area’s best-kept secrets. It had a 10,000-piece world-class collection of Jewish ritual objects, paintings (think Moritz Daniel Oppenheim), prints (think Marc Chagall), photos (think Leonard Nimoy) — as well as letters, diaries, photos and other material from early Jewish settlers. The museum’s founder, Seymour Fromer, loved to cultivate budding artists, scholars and archivists, so the museum became the incubator for many things now in the Jewish mainstream: the klezmer music revival, the renewed use of ketubahs in Jewish weddings, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and the Jewish Music Festival, among others. Still, most people didn’t know about the place. The staff and board of the Magnes fought valiantly for years to change this. The museum designed exhibitions that were critically praised and traveled to Jewish museums in New York and Amsterdam. The museum briefly, and unsuccessfully, merged with the Jewish Museum of San Francisco in 2002. The board tried to move the museum to downtown Berkeley, most recently to an old school building
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j. | One era ends, another begins for underappreciated Magnes Museum

7/12/10 1:25 PM

on Harold Way near the Shattuck Hotel. When the 2008 economic downturn made it clear that the Magnes could not raise $36 million to renovate that building and establish a sufficient endowment to stay fiscally sound, some staff and board members approached U.C. Berkeley to talk about a partnership. The idea was to merge the Magnes’ collections with the scholarly mission of a great university. The Magnes would increase its visibility, and the university would get a world-class collection to complement its distinguished Jewish studies program. From the start, the partnership went smoothly, unlike the museum’s earlier attempts to transform itself. When things go so easily, it’s a sign that the direction is right. A number of donors who had pledged capital campaign contributions for the Magnes’ planned Harold Way building agreed to let their money go to remodel another building the Magnes owned, one on Allston Way, a block from the U.C. Berkeley campus. Warren Hellman, Tad Taube and the Koret Foundation were enthusiastic about the Magnes/U.C. partnership from the very first time they heard about it. They saw the possibility of preserving and enhancing the Magnes’ mission in a sustainable way. And U.C. staff and faculty immediately saw how the Magnes’ collection would enhance and compliment the university. The archives of the Magnes’ Western Jewish History Center, for example, will be stored at the Bancroft Library, which has a stellar collection of California material. The papers of different family members will be united. Rosalie Meyer Stern’s papers have sat at the Magnes while the papers of her daughter, Elise Stern Haas, have been at the Bancroft. They will finally be together. And even though the new Magnes is not independent, but rather part of U.C. Berkeley, it will still retain much that made it special. It will not be just a place for scholars. It will be open to everyone — youth, sisterhoods, and those who have always enjoyed the Magnes’ program and exhibits. The Magnes board and supporters have established a foundation under the auspices of the Jewish Community Federation of the East Bay to continue supporting programs for the community. The director and chief curator, Alla Efimova, and other key staff will be part of the new entity, now called the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the Bancroft Library. Change is not easy, and I know there are many who are mourning the loss of an institution that had been part of this community for 50 years. But the new Magnes, anchored in a prestigious university, connected to thousands of students, alumni and community members, now has a renewed opportunity to expose its collections to the world. Frances Dinkelspiel of Berkeley was president of the Judah L. Magnes Museum until June 30, when it was absorbed by U.C. Berkeley, and now serves on the Council of the Friends of the Bancroft Library. The Magnes’ collections can be seen at http://www.magnes.org.


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