Museum Storage of the Collection at The Magnes Museum
Museums Save Ordinary as Extraordinary

The Magnes Museum Collection Cradles Extraordinary Objects and Textiles

Aryn-Shelander-Harriete-Estel-Berman-at-the-MagnesRecently, I had the opportunity to see behind the scenes at the Magnes Collection with my daughter. 

The staff allowed us to see drawer after drawer of this extensive Judaica Collection.  One practice that I observed right away was that all objects, whether ordinary to extraordinary, are stored and cared for with superb diligence. 


In the above photo, a selection of shofars are housed together in one drawer. A shofar is a ram's horn blown to make a noise similar to a trumpet. It takes a great deal of experience and practice to make a sound. Consider it an ancient horn of the Maccabee's and tribal cultures.

I also noticed that the registrar always wears gloves before touching anything.

Fingerprints are terrible for all materials. Be sure to include gloves in your shipping boxes to prevent fingerprints just in case you are sending your work to an exhibition location lacking museum standards.


The photo above shows a painted wooden shofar box. This would be a very rare object as I think most shofars would have been carried in a pocket anticipating the occasion for its use at the High Holidays.


In these drawers every object has it's own niche so it can't move when the drawers are opened and closed.


Inventory numbers identify the object within the extensive documentation to establish provenance and preserve value.


This drawer shows a number of different Ester scrolls. These small fragile objects are stored rolled. "Since the Talmudic period, it has been customary to write the Book of Esther on parchment in the form of a scroll, and the rules governing its production and writing are basically the same as those for a traditional Torah scroll."  Click on the previous link if you are interested in more information and images of Ester Scrolls from the Magnes Collection.  


The registrar, Julie Franklin, decided what to show us next.  I am not sure how she decided this next revelation. Each drawer holds a historical textile.


Above we are looking at a well preserved textile in a drawer. Look at the arrangement of the embroidered Hebrew letters.

In the next photo I have turned the photo around for easier viewing to highlight two items. 


The characters with the little dashes above signify the year. The year 2014 correlates to the Jewish calendar year of 5774, so this takes some figuring to date the textile.

The other highlight is to notice how the letters get all squeezed together as they progress to the left (Hebrew reads right to left).  It seems that the embroidering craftsperson was not particularly good at planning.  After 100's of hours, she ran out of room. Imagine that!

Have you considered the investment that goes into protecting each one of these delicate textiles in a separate drawer?   Many of them are hundreds of years old and from different locations around the world.  The museum's investment in storage cabinets, building, space, insurance, registrars, and curators,  probably represents an investment equal or even exceeding the cost of the collected objects if you consider the years of storage.  

The full cost of acquisition of an object goes far beyond the actual purchase price. Think about that next time you wonder why museum's may or may not acquire your work.


Dr. Daniel Viragh was ready to interpret the Hebrew embroidered on the textiles. Many of them had their donors and history elaborately embroidered into the textile.


Reading Hebrew, Yiddush, Hungarian and a few other languages are among Daniel's many skills. In the textile above, the center section was cut from a much older textile, and then framed with newer fabric some 200 years ago. 

The textiles can be removed still flat from the drawer without touching them for further study.


Fragile textiles lay flat out in drawers to protect them from deteriorating in storage. Of course, the hems and edges are the first to fray. Sometimes the materials used to dye the textile eat away at the fabric centuries later. 


Metallic threads in the embroidery also cut the threads.

Fragile silks get brittle and crack which leads to the fabric breaking apart. This is another reason why the textiles are stored flat in drawers. The registrar mentioned that for display, many of these textiles would have to be restored in some way, but stored in a drawer it is available for study and research.  


Protected from insects this Russian wool felt (below) is very durable and would last undamaged for a very long time. I thought it was interesting to see the depiction of Corinthian columns and the folk art styling of the red embroidered flowers and foliage.  I interpret the lighting fixture in the center as an "eternal light" that usually hangs in front of the torah arc. As we viewed the various textiles we were discussing how the Jewish people adopted stylistic influences from the countries that they lived in over the eons.


Moving on....

I found the objects more interesting than the textiles.

P.S. If you want to see an extraordinary textile in a museum at the Jewish Museum Berlin watch the PBS special Part 3 Part 3 Story of the Jews. At about 12:07 minutes a torah arc cover obviously lying flat from its drawer in the museum archive is described as "a masterpiece of synagogue art made from Mendelson's wife own wedding dress."  Talk about reuse! The names of the husband and wife as the donors were parallel to each other in the embroidered dedication of the Torah arc cover.  The curator Michel Friedlander of the Jewish Museum Berlin and lecturer Simon Schama from the program identify the flowers and grass of the Berlin landscape. I recommend watching the entire series of five shows.