Saved by the Bay: The Intellectual Migration from Fascist Europe to UC Berkeley, the exhibition currently on view at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley through June 27, may be a bellwether of that institution’s recent metamorphosis.
The new, reconfigured Magnes is no longer a privately funded museum housed in a mansion on a suburban Berkeley street. In the past three years it has moved to a distinctly urban location on Allston Way in downtown Berkeley and is now a part of UC Berkeley.
Under the aegis of Cal’s Bancroft Library, the Magnes’ remarkable collections of Judaica, art, and archival materials documenting the history and culture of Jewish communities in the American West — 15,000 items in all — are dispersed among various libraries on campus and in orderly climate-controlled storage areas in the new Magnes.
Most dramatically, The Magnes no longer identifies itself as a museum. It is now The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life: a research and study unit of the Bancroft Library aligned with the teaching and research mission of the university, with exhibition spaces and a meeting room that are open to the public.
This transformation has allowed The Magnes to survive financially and fulfill its mandate to document, safeguard and add to its collections, which are now catalogued and available online as well as physically accessible to students and scholars. Sharing its resources with the university’s, and vice versa, has opened up new opportunities for collaboration and cross-pollination among disciplines, university departments, other institutions and independent scholars.
“It gives the collections a new life, a new purpose, potential,” says Alla Efimova, The Magnes’s director. “To open [these objects] up to graduate students and faculty to play with and to create new interpretations, new contexts and new meanings is very exciting!” In turn, she adds, The Magnes can bring a particular focus, a Jewish lens, to interpret existing University collections.
Saved by the Bay illustrates the potential benefits and rewards of this radical transition, while suggesting its possible downside as well.
Subtitled The Intellectual Migration from Fascist Europe to UC Berkeley, Saved by the Bay was organized by Magnes curator Francesco Spagnolo with UC Berkeley undergraduate curatorial apprentice Elena Kempf. It traces the stories of the many European Jewish academics who fled Fascist Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s to find refuge and a nurturing environment at the University of California, Berkeley and in turn profoundly shaped its intellectual climate.
They include Hans Hoffman, artist, art theorist and influential teacher; physicist Wolfgang Panofsky; art historian Peter Selz, who was founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum; mathematicians Hans Lewy and Alfred Tarski; musicologist Alfred Einstein; and physicist Edward Teller, to name a few from this illustrious roster. Some of them were my professors when I was an undergrad English major at Cal in the early 60s: Alain Renoir (English) and Thomas Rosenmayer (Classics) among them.
Mining hundreds of documents and photographs archived in Cal’s Bancroft Library and the Jean Hargrove Music Library, the research team conducted numerous interviews with current and emeritus faculty and held a public workshop at The Magnes. The result was this exhibition.
Deploying text panels, photographs, a video (which wasn’t working when I visited) and other didactic material, it surveys the political/ideological context of that period in Europe, explores what would-be academic refugees had to do to get here, notes the people who helped them, and traces the stories of some of the remarkable individuals who made it here.
You can get a good sense of Saved by the Bay by visiting its website.
Displaying the findings of a collaborative research project by Cal undergraduates guided by UC Berkeley history professors Martin Jay and Thomas Laqueur, this is an exhibition you read, study and absorb. While its subject is compelling, there’s no eye candy here, no visual pleasure.
It’s text-heavy, information laden, and densely crowded. Most of the documents and photographs shown are reproductions, not originals. Despite efforts to arrange it thematically, its organization is confusing. Its rewards are academic, intellectual and possibly emotional, especially if you have personal connections with this facet of Euro-/Bay Area history, but not aesthetic. Saved By the Bay is an outline for a book in progress spread out in the three-dimensional space of The Magnes’s modestly sized sole (and therefore doubly precious) exhibition gallery.
According to Alla Efimova, Saved by the Bay is the “middle stage” of the research project which originated it. “It will potentially become a book,” she explains. “This is a way of presenting it to the public in an interim stage, where the materials have been processed but before that ultimate transformation. It’s also a way of showcasing what the students have done, and a way of expanding the subject by publicly soliciting new material and new names for the project.”
The show is a worthy academic enterprise, intrinsically important for having gathered and interpreted these materials. It was doubtless fascinating for the students involved. Its subject deserves further research, development and elaboration. It clearly serves the academic mission of the university. And it exemplifies the fertile mutuality that supporters of The Magnes hoped for when the institution merged with UC Berkeley.
It exemplifies too what worried some of us at the time: would the whale swallow the minnow? In my opinion as a curator myself and someone with strong personal ties to The Magnes, Saved by the Bay does not meet the high professional standards of the exhibitions that the institution presented in its former incarnation. In particular, it falls short of its commitment to communicate visually with people both inside and outside the academic world. It’s not particularly welcoming to the viewer.
Inevitably, Saved by the Bay raises questions about the future of The Magnes as an important, and cherished, public institution that engages a broader audience. Will its grand bargain with academe make it increasingly more insular and inward looking? Or will its leaders find a way to navigate between its dual allegiances to the University and to the larger community beyond?
I hope for the latter option. Stay tuned.
Saved by the Bay runs through June 27 at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley.
The Magnes galleries are open to the public Tuesday-Friday, 11 am-4 pm.
At Magnes, fictional woman illuminates 20th century life (02.21.13)
Magnes Collections get new downtown Berkeley home (10.13.10)
Magnes Museum collections will move to UC Berkeley (06.21.10)
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