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July 6, 2014 - July 12, 2014

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.

Museum Storage of the Collection at The Magnes Museum

The topic of how museum collections are stored has always fascinated me.  What do the museum professionals do with artwork and artifacts during the indefinite periods of time until the next exhibition? How do museum's protect their collections for the long term? 

After organizing the 2014 Professional Development Seminar "Collectors, Collection and YOU" with Brigitte Martin for the SNAG Conference, I was all the more curious for insights into how collectors and museums store their collections.

Fortunately, social networking recently fulfilled this dream as Dr. Daniel Viragh invited my daughter and me to view the collection and behind-the-scenes storage at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, CA.   I immediately said "Yes, yes, yes."


Only a year or so ago, The Magnes moved into a newly renovated building in the heart of downton Berkeley.


The Magnes Collection is one of the largest collections of Judaica in the world. In fact, collecting and research is their primary focus. Now, as part of the University of California at Berkeley, they have a new home and renewed capabilities.

The new building houses most of the collection on site. The display areas are fascinating, of course, but to my special delight, the exhibition space includes built-in observation windows for visitors to view into the collection storage space (below). 


Those large beige steel monoliths in the background of the photo above, are enormous movable cabinets on rollers with adjustable shelves and drawers. Because the storage cabinets move, valuable space can be dedicated to storage, and only one walkway is open at a time.


Storage is serious business for a museum. They take this responsibility very seriously. The investment in the collection merits an investment in the storage equipment as well.  For example, all the steel cabinets were on tracks.  In these photos, look just behind the registrar's feet. Notice the track in the floor which enables these cabinets to slide across the floor. They can move to be closely packed yet open up a walkway and access space as needed into more drawers and cabinets.


At the push of a button, the registrar, Julie Franklin, moved an entire cabinet, and opened drawer after drawer for us to see the contents. (More about the items in the cabinets in a future post.)  

Curator, Dr. Francesco Sagnolo, opened a few more cabinets just to offer us a taste of the treasures contained within. 


The variety of mechanisms and devices to store the vast diversity of works in the collection was amazing. 


Of course, the entire room was climate controlled. It felt refreshingly cool and dry.


Inside the drawers were marvelous antiquities and historic objects, all protected for posterity.


Notice that each object is nestled in it's own protective cubby made from foam and cardboard so it can't move around.


Every item has an inventory/acquisition number which corresponds to The Magnes Collection Flickr album of the collection.  In this drawer the cups with multiple handles were for ritual hand washing. The multiple handles allow the user to switch hands.

Note the paper tags in the above photo. The registrar didn't even want the paper to touch the metal to avoid a reaction between the two materials. She would try to prop the paper tag on the edge of the cubby.


Some objects were stored on shelves to make them more accessible for viewing without opening a cabinet or drawer.


Every object on a shelf had a custom made foam core box so it could not move or fall over.

If the curator wanted to look more closely at some object, he could pick up the foam core support and padding without actually touching the object. 


Our special guide, Dr. Daniel Viragh, Post Doctoral Fellow at The Magnes, earned his doctorate in Jewish History from UC Berkeley. He could read the Hebrew for us on 100-200 year old textiles and provided very knowledgeable context for many objects.  

Tomorrow's post and for the next few days ....objects from The Magnes Collection, many more surprises and insights regarding the storage of museum collections.

P.S. -Post-ScriptI will be lecturing at The Magnes Collection on October 29, 2014 at noon.  Please come to this short lecture, and  participate in the intimate conversation.


Related Posts: 

Tzedakah Boxes at The Magnes Collection

The Magnes Museum Collection Cradles Extraordinary Objects and Textiles

Museums Save Ordinary as Extraordinary