A new Jewish world

Beit Hatfutsot museum’s new chief curator, Orit Shaham-Gover, has big plans for the institution.

Planned Jewish Museum521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Planned Jewish Museum521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People will mark its 35th birthday this month, and Dr. Orit Shaham-Gover has been around for much of that time. So it seems entirely fitting that she should be promoted to chief curator of an institution with which she shares such a long – albeit somewhat intermittent – history.
Shaham-Gover joined the museum without too much forethought. “I came to the museum three months after it opened,” she says. “I had just completed my BA and, one day, I was sitting out on the lawn in the sunshine outside the Gilman Building [of Tel Aviv University] wondering what you do with a bachelor’s degree in general history.”
Considering her familial circumstances, she had to get to work. “My husband and I had an arrangement whereby I studied first while he worked and then we’d switch. I also had two small children at the time.” Just then, “a friend met me on the lawn and told me a new museum had just opened and suggested I try my luck there,” recalls the curator.
The new museum was Beit Hatfutsot, which was located just across the university campus lawn. “I had absolutely no interest in museums back then, but I went over to knock on the door and, somehow I got to the deputy director general even without connections.
I later found out that the then-director general was an old family friend.”
Shaham-Gover may have gotten her foot in the door but she didn’t have any relevant experience. She was hired as secretary of the Events Department. That didn’t last too long.
“I was a terrible secretary and the department dispensed with my services after three months. I became a floor tour guide, in English and Hebrew, but I found that boring so I moved on to the Youth Department, which I liked, and I stayed there eight years.”
By then, of course, Shaham-Gover had plenty of experience under her belt and when her husband was posted to the United States in 1985, she took the opportunity to earn a master’s degree at George Washington University in museum studies.
At this stage she had a much better idea of what she did and didn’t want to do in the profession. “I realized I didn’t want to be a museum educator,” she explains. “A museum educator has to go into the gallery after the exhibition has been set up and take on board everything that the curators have left there.
The educator has to convey what the members of the public can’t understand from the exhibition on their own. I decided I wanted to do exhibitions that didn’t need a museum educator to come along and explain what the curator has done.”
That doesn’t mean that she’s looking to add to the country’s unemployment figures. “I don’t want to do away with the position of museum educator, but I think they should add to what people can already see with their own eyes rather than explain what is already there.”
She soon got the opportunity to put her plan into action. “After we came back to Israel I was asked by the Palmah General Association to set up a museum for them, and that led to Palmah House – with an exhibition that doesn’t need anyone to talk about it.
It is a walk-through experience. That was really the start of my career as a curator.”
It was hard work and required a lot of patience. “I always likened Palmah House to the creation of the State of Israel – it will be a miracle, but it will happen.
It took eight years to put it all together, but museums always take a long time.”
Her work at Palmah House did not go unnoticed. “I got a lot of offers after that. I did the Begin Museum and the Herzl Museum and the museum at Masada; I take care of the national legends, to make sure they are not forgotten,” she says with a laugh.
It wasn’t long before she got the call from her former employers. “In 2007, Beit Hatfutsot decided they wanted to upgrade the exhibitions here as part of a program of wide-ranging changes. They asked me to work on the ground-floor display, which I did for a year or so.” In the process, she began thinking on a grander scale. “I told the museum directors that there was no point in redoing the ground floor without at least considering a master plan for all three floors. I couldn’t see the point in sprucing up the ground floor and leaving a couple of outmoded floors above.
Who would bother visiting them?” When that didn’t pan out, she moved on to new pastures but was back in 2009 when Beit Hatfutsot bosses finally gave the green light for the global renewal plan. “Since then, with just a short break, I have been a curator at the Museum of the Jewish People,” she says, and is delighted with her recent promotion.
“I am now responsible for the temporary exhibitions here too. I am now in charge of the entire field of curating at Beit Hatfutsot.”
SHAHAM-GOVER says she has big plans for the institution.
“This is going to be one of the biggest museums in the world that tells a single story. There are much larger museums – what I call the encyclopedic museums – like the British Museum, the Louvre and the Met in New York, but they are all divided into departments. They have a very wide span, but each area is separate and there is no connection between the stories. You don’t go to those museums to get a single story.”
She believes that Beit Hatfutsot is a unique facility.
“There is no other place in the world that tells the story of the Jewish people as a people. There are lots of museums that tell something about Judaica and then something of the local story, about the local Jewish community.”
She recently received support for her idea from one of the most qualified people in the business. “I was just in New York for the annual conference of Jewish museums. One of the speakers was The New York Times critic Ed Rothstein, and he gave a lecture about the ‘identity museum.’ In fact, all Jewish museums are identity museums. He said that one of the aspects that amazes him, time and time again, is that these places do not engage in identity and that they address the universal. If you go to the Holocaust Museum, they will tell you there that it is not just about the Holocaust, it is about intolerance. That’s why most Holocaust museums are defined as tolerance museums.”
Shaham-Gover is evidently not a big fan of the concept.
“There is talk of establishing a tolerance museum in Jerusalem – as if they are going to get our tolerance all sorted out with the Palestinians and, lo and behold, the situation here will be all sorted out. Ed said that those [American Jewish] museums try to show how American they are, instead of trying to explain how Jewish they are.”
The chief curator does not believe you can have a museum devoted to the Jewish people without setting out the ground rules. “I told the people here that you have to explain what Judaism and Jews are,” she recalls, adding that the need to convey that information at Beit Hatfutsot is greater than most people might believe. “We live in the country of the Jews, where many of us do not feel Jewish; they say they are Israelis. And we are all very much involved in looking for our landsmanschaft – which ethnic group we belong to. I hear people saying the whole time ‘I am mizrahi [Eastern]’ or ‘I am Ashkenazi’; ‘I am not a Jew.’ We are looking for identity, but this idea of identity is the landsmanschaft mind-set of a couple of generations ago.”
She hopes the museum will be able to offset that cultural bifurcation. “What we try to say here is that it is fine that we all come from different places, but we all have a strong common denominator, and we should look for that.”
Shaham-Gover is excited about her new position and also about the big revamp plans in the pipelines for the museum. “We are going to issue tenders within 18 months or so and we hope, if everything goes according to plan, to open the new museum in 2016.”
While it is a little early to get into much detail of the renewal scheme, she says she believes the new look will help the institution continue to play an ever-expanding role in the Jewish world. “We are bringing in consultants and designers from America and other places, and we have wonderful workers and curators here; five different teams are working on getting the new plan together. I think everyone will be able to enjoy the new museum and that it will get the right messages across to everyone.” ■