The renewed Core Exhibit of the Hungarian Jewish Museum, which opened September 17, presents the museum’s collection of Judaica and other objects in a way that deliberately integrates physical display with new technology.
The new core exhibit is called “Tamid” — meaning continual, or constant.
It includes about 400 objects — some 80 percent of which were also displayed in the old exhibit, which had been in place there for decades as a traditional display of objects in glass cases, with a heavy focus on ritual items and little information as to the history or contexts of the objects.
In the new exhibition, very little textual information is provided about the objects on display — visitors are expected to download an app, which has detailed information about each item. (To date, only the Hungarian version of the app is available — the English app only includes an audio guide description of 40 objects.) For visitors without smartphones, the museum will provide a device.
In addition, several guides are on hand to answer questions — they wear badges encouraging visitors to ask.
Museum director Zsuzsanna Toronyi, chief curator of the exhibit, describes the new exhibition as a “slow museum” — where visitors are meant to take their time to explore the exhibits. There are plans to install “smart benches” with audio and digital texts, as well as to program brief “pop up” talks: short, targeted discussions by guides explaining specific facets of the exhibit.
The museum originally opened in January 1916 in a private apartment; at that time its collection already included nearly 1,500 objects. Today it occupies a wing of the Dohany st. synagogue complex that was built for it in the 1930s — on the site of the house where Theodore Herzl was born.
Between 100,000 and 500,000 people visit the museum each year — the vast majority of them foreigners, according to a survey of Jewish museums published last year by the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe. Visitors to the museum also can visit the synagogue.
The exhibition space is the same that was occupied by the old exhibit: a long, narrow room with a larger space at the far end. There is only one entrance/exit, so visitors must go through the collection in a circular fashion.
The exhibit is anchored by two large cylinders, one, at the entrance, representing Jewish Time, and the other, at the far end of the long exhibition room, Jewish Space (including diaspora).
It is also anchored by two quotations, written high up on the walls.
At the beginning of the exhibition, there is a quotation from Ecclesiastes 1:9:
“Only that shall happen which has happened, only that occur which has occurred; there is nothing new beneath the sun! “
And at the point where visitors have to turn back, there is a quote from Arthur Koestler:
“There is no other example in history of a community which has been chased round the globe quite as much, which has survived its own death as a nation by two thousand years, and which, in between autos-da-fé and gas chambers, kept praying at the proper season for rain to fall in a country on which they have never set eyes, and drinking toasts to “Next year in Jerusalem” during the same astronomical stretch of time, with the same untiring trust in the super-natural.”
The exhibition space is bright, with white walls and a lot of light. Objects are arranged in a way to teach about the Jewish festivals; they include ritual as well as “everyday” objects.
Toronyi stressed that the texts — which include some longer texts by Budapest Rabbi Istvan Darvas, who was part of the curatorial team — are written in the present tense and use terminology that underscores that Jews and Jewish culture are living experiences, not something that belongs to the past.
One big difference compared to the old exhibit is the elimination of a specific Holocaust memorial room — instead, the new exhibit incorporates a window that overlooks the garden courtyard of the neighboring Dohany st. Synagogue, which is the mass grave of more than 2,000 Jews who died in the wartime Budapest Ghetto.
Here are two images of the same view — showing the new core exhibit and the way it looked before it was revamped.