The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme or mahJ (French: "Museum of Jewish Art and History") is the largest French museum of Jewish art and history. It is located in the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan in the Marais district in Paris.
The museum conveys the rich history and culture of Jews in Europe and North Africa from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Its fine collection of religious objects, archives, manuscripts, and works of art promotes the contributions of Jews to France and to the world, especially in the arts. The museum's impressive collections include works of art from Marc Chagall and Amedeo Modigliani.
The museum has a bookshop selling books on Jewish art and history and Judaica, a media library with an online catalogue accessible to the public, and an auditorium which offers conferences, lectures, concerts, performances, and seminars. It also provides guided weekly visits in English during the tourist season (April to July) for individuals as well as students and teachers, and workshops for children, families, and adults.
The Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme is as a non-profit organization. It is a public museum subsidized by the City of Paris and the ministry of Culture. Its board of directors is made up of five representatives from the ministry of Culture, five from the City of Paris, six from Jewish institutions; and four people chosen by the Fondation Pro mahJ.
In 1985 Claude-Gérard Marcus, Victor Klagsbald, and Alain Erlande-Brandenburg launched a project to create a museum of Jewish art and history in Paris, backed by the City of Paris and the ministry of Culture, represented by Jack Lang, Minister of Culture. The project had two goals: first, to provide Paris with an ambitious museum dedicated to Judaism and second, to present national collections acquired from the reserves of the national museum of the Middle Ages. At the time, only a modest museum devoted to Judaism existed in Paris, on the rue des Saules.
The project was led by Laurence Sigal starting in 1988. The mayor of Paris at the time, Jacques Chirac, provided the Hotel de Saint-Aignan in the Marais as a site for the future museum. The Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme finally opened in 1998.
The decision to set up the museum in the Marais was a conscious one. Since the end of the 18th century, a large population of Jews has lived in the Marais. At first, these were immigrants from Eastern Europe, and later from North Africa during decolonization. Today, the Marais has been profoundly transformed: traditional shops have been largely replaced by trendy designer boutiques. However, the neighborhood is also a cultural center for museums such as the musée Carnavalet, the musée Picasso, and the Mémorial de la Shoah (Memorial for the Holocaust).
The two architects in charge of redesigning the interior of the building, Catherine Bizouard and Francois Pin, not only crafted the areas for the permanent collections but also created a media library, an auditorium, a bookshop, and an area dedicated to educational workshops.
The museum provides areas for temporary exhibitions, educational activities, and research, making it a dynamic and innovative cultural venue.
At its creation, the museum outlined five missions that it seeks to fulfill:Present two thousand years of history of Jewish communities in France and contextualize them in the overall history of Judaism.
- Conserve, study, diffuse, and promote the museum's collection, archives, and documents relating to Jewish history and art.
- Make the collection as accessible as possible to a large public.
- Organize the diffusion of all forms of artistic expressions relating to Jewish culture in all its diversity.
- Create and execute educational operations, activities, and enterprises to promote Jewish culture.
The mahJ chose a time period covering Jewish history from its beginnings in France until the birth of the State of Israel, without including the Holocaust. The project for the Mémorial de la Shoah, which is now located 800 yards from the museum, already existed when the mahJ was created, with the goal of commemorating the Holocaust. The mahJ and the Memorial complement each other. The museum explores Jewish history and identity without the memory of the Holocaust being the main element. The Holocaust is such a singular and momentous event that it can overshadow the rich heritage of Judaism outside of it, and deserves its own focused space.
Furthermore, the museum favors a historical approach to Judaism. The museum collection is organized in a chronological order and the works of art presented are always situated in their historical context. Differently from other European Jewish museums, the mahJ does not follow the phases of religious life. It is not a didactic presentation of the religious cycle in Judaism, and is neither a community nor a confessional museum, but instead shows the historical destiny of Jewish communities through time and space.
The museum also explores fundamental questions about Judaism and Jewish identity. Is Judaism a religion, the history of a particular nation, a culture or a civilization? Is there a unity that transcends the diversity within Jewish communities?
Finally, a considerable part of the museum's collection is made up of works of art from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century. Thus the question: What is Jewish art? Is it liturgical or religious art; art depicting Jewish themes and ways of life; or is it enough if the artist is Jewish?
The museum's permanent collection was assembled from three main sources.
The first is the Musée d’art juif de Paris, whose collection was given to the mahJ. It consisted mainly of European religious objects, graphic works by Russian and German Jewish artists and artists from the School of Paris, and architectural models of European synagogues destroyed by the Nazis.
The second source is the Musée national du Moyen-Age in Paris, known as the musée Cluny. This collection was built up by Isaac Strauss, a French Jew from the 19th century. He collected 149 religious objects during his travels throughout Europe, including furniture, ceremonial objects, and Hebrew manuscripts. A Holy Arch from Italy from the 15th century, wedding rings, and illuminated ketubbot (marriage contracts) are examples of artefacts in his collection. Strauss in regarded as the first collector of Jewish objects. Part of his collection was displayed during the 1878 Exposition Universelle, provoking a strong interest. After his death, his collection was acquired by Baroness Nathaniel de Rothschild in 1890. She then gave it to the State to be donated to the Musée Cluny. Sixty six rare medieval funeral steles, discovered in 1894 rue Pierre-Sarrazin, are on a long-term loan from the musée Cluny.
Finally, the third source is a set of long-term loans from museums such as le Centre Pompidou, the Musée d'Orsay, the Musée du Louvre, and the Musée national des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie. The museum's collection was also enriched by loans from the Consistory of Paris, the Jewish Museum in Prague and donations from the Fondation du Judaïsme français. The museum also acquired a large photography collection. The collection has over 1500 photographs, mainly of Jewish communities from the past and present, of historical events, and of Jewish architectural heritage.
The museum created an online platform in 2006 dedicated to the Dreyfus affair, giving the public access to more than three thousand documents, letters, photographs, and historical archives, donated by Captain Dreyfus’ grandchildren. These documents are all accessible on the webpage Fonds Dreyfus. The donations made by his grandchildren are the most important contributions to the historical collection of the museum since its creation. The museum has one of the largest collections of documents concerning the Dreyfus affair in France, including letters written by Alfred Dreyfus and his wife to each other, legal documents and photographs of his trial, writings by Dreyfus during his time in prison, and personal family photographs.
The finest pieces of this exceptional archive are displayed in a dedicated area in the museum as part of the permanent collection. The museum's library has over three hundred publications related to the Dreyfus affair.
An 8-foot tall reproduction of a statue of Alfred Dreyfus holding his broken sword, made by the French artist Louis ‘TIM’ Mitelberg in 1986, stands in the center of the museum courtyard.
Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, Wikipedia.