Italy’s Culture Ministry has restored €25 million in state funding for the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah (MEIS), enabling the museum, located in the northeast city Ferrara, to complete its ambitious building complex and exhibition. The funding was granted in 2016 but had been frozen earlier this year by Italy’s previous government.
MEIS director Simonetta della Seta said work on the first of the complex’s five planned new buildings should start this month.
Culture Minister Dario Franceschini made the announcement Saturday, stressing it was important to support the institution, given the current upsurge of racism and antisemitism. He called MEIS a “museum for knowledge and dialogue, because the encounter between cultures is the best antidote to the risks of these times, to the fear of diversity, to hatred and intolerance.”
He specifically underscored outrage over the case of Liliana Segre, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor Italian Life Senator, who has recently been put under police protection after a rash of antisemitic internet attacks including death threats.
“We owe it to Liliana Segre, to her personally and to what she represents,” Franceschini said.
Franceschini had already hinted that the decision on the funding was imminent, during a ceremony two weeks ago at which a formal cooperation agreement between MEIS and the Colosseum archaeological park in Rome was signed.
MEIS officially opened in December 2017, with a large temporary exhibition on the first 1,000 years of Jewish experience in Italy. That exhibit now forms the core of the first part of the planned permanent exhibit.
The museum is located in a former prison complex opened in 1912 in Ferrara — 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 house exhibits.,
Plans for the museum call for the construction of five modern buildings, resembling huge books and representing the five books of the Torah.
MEIS will host the annual conference of the Association of European Jewish Museums later this month.
The the protocol signed last month between MEIS and the Colosseum’s Archaeological Park is aimed at promoting knowledge of the presence of Jews in the ancient Roman Empire.
As reported by the Italian Jewish newspaper Pagine Ebraiche, Franceschini said its goals included “joint research and promotion projects, expertise exchanges, integrated digital communication strategies aiming to spread knowledge of the history of Judaism from the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus.”
It quoted MEIS President Dario Disegni as noting that the Jewish community in ancient Rome “stood out for its resilience and strong identity, and some archaeological areas are very significant for the history of Italian Judaism.”
Among ancient Jewish traces are the Jewish catacombs in Rome and in the southern town of Venosa (which we have written about at length), as well as the ruins of ancient synagogues at Ostia Antica near Rome and Bova Marina in Calabria, in the far south of Italy.