The National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah (MEIS) is now officially open, following the inauguration this week of a major temporary exhibit on the Jewish experience in Italy from ancient Roman times until the Middle Ages. The inaugural ceremony — on the first day of Hanukkah — was attended by President Sergio Mattarella and other VIPs.
Called “Jews, an Italian Story: The First Thousand Years,” the exhibit will run until September 16, 2018.
It represents the first stage of a multi-year program of exhibitions and major construction that will culminate in the planned fullscale opening of the museum at the end of 2020.
“With this exhibition, a dream has been achieved and a great void filled,” Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, a longtime supporter of the museum, said at the official opening events on Sept. 13. “A few years will be needed before MEIS sees its completion; however today we have made an important step forward.”
MEIS was established by a law passed by Parliament in 2003 and amended in 2006. Construction has been fully funded by a €47 million allocation from the state. Franceschini said that he hopes that further resources will be provided to cover operations and maintenance: operations will be expected to amount to €2.5 million a year. At the same time, officials said the museum will be seeking private, foundation, and other donors, in Italy and abroad.
The museum is located in a former prison complex opened in 1912 in Ferrara, in northeastern Italy — a city whose Jewish history dates back to early medieval times and which still has a small Jewish community. For years Ferrara had a local Jewish museum, housed in the 15th century building in the heart of the old Jewish quarter that encompassed two synagogues, but this has been closed to the public since suffering earthquake damage in 2012.
To date, two original prison buildings have been renovated, and the “Jews, an Italian Story” is mounted in the larger of them.
The smaller building, at via Piangipane 81, forms the entrance to the complex and has been open to the public since 2011: smaller exhibits and events have been held there. It now houses a new introductory video presentation, “Through the Eyes of the Italian Jews,” as well as a center for cataloguing Jewish cultural assets and some educational facilities.
Construction will begin in 2018 on the modern part of the museum, where the permanent core exhibition will be located — transparent buildings that resemble five giant books and are meant to evoke the five books of the Torah.
In addition to the core exhibition, the museum complex when finished will also comprise a shop, restaurant and cafeteria, meeting rooms, auditorium, library, an archive and documentation and cataloguing center, educational suites, and other facilities.
The core exhibition is still in the early stages of development.
The “Jews, an Italian Story” exhibit will be followed by two further major temporary exhibits, one on the Renaissance period and one on modern times, which will be open while the new buildings are being constructed and the permanent exhibition organized.
These exhibits will “prefigure” the core exhibit, said MEIS Foundation president Dario Disegni.
Curated by Anna Foa, Giancarlo Lacerenza and Daniele Jalla, the “Jews, an Italian Story” exhibit, includes more than 200 objects — among them 20 manuscripts, seven incunabula and sixteenth century editions, 18 medieval documents, largely from the Genizah of Cairo, 49 Roman and medieval epigraphs and 121 items such as rings, seals, coins, oil-lamps and amulets.
Some of the objects are original, and some are reproductions; since many were loaned by other museums, archives, and institutions, including the Vatican Library, it is still unclear how much of the exhibit will be incorporated into the permanent core exhibition.