Collection Maps: A Day at The Magnes

On the occasion of the upcoming publication of The Jewish World: 100 Treasures of Art and Culture from The Magnes (forthcoming by Skirà/Rizzoli, texts by Alla Efimova and Francesco Spagnolo), I thought I’d share my summary of a day at The Magnes.

From the Curator’s Afterword:

Inhabiting the curatorial responsibilities of The Magnes Collection at UC Berkeley in the 21st century is a thrilling adventure. It involves discovering and re-discovering hidden treasures on a quasi-daily basis, challenging the descriptive practices of Jewish culture and moving beyond the canonical focus on texts alone, engaging thriving communities of scholars on multi-disciplinary themes, and creating and maintaining global networks of research across the United States, Europe, Asia, and Israel.

An average curatorial “routine” of a day at The Magnes is — as Julio Cortázar would have put it — a veritable “tour of the day in eighty worlds.” It fuses in-depth research across cultural formats, describing, envisioning, teaching, dreaming, publishing, and, above all, continuously asking questions. Our treasures of manuscripts, objects, books, visual documents, archival collections, musical scores and recordings are investigated, , queried, and examined from a multiplicity of perspectives. Mysteries are acknowledged, and sometimes even solved. New acquisitions are discussed with donors, collectors, and art dealers residing in multiple countries. Classes and seminars are taught, with undergraduate and graduate students mentored in the rudiments of research and “collection work,” and thus exposed to an astounding variety of primary sources and modes of knowledge. Senior faculty and visiting researchers are consulted to collaborate on research, exhibitions, and colloquia. Visiting artists present their work, and interact with the inspiring setting of the collection storage, the galleries, and, more broadly, the UC Berkeley campus and its communities. Members of the community take guided tours through their own pasts. Publications, online and in print, constantly flow. Most importantly, core questions of how collecting institutions may continue to represent and perform the role of preserving the cultural past and shaping its future, always remain in play.

Curating The Magnes Collection not only involves exploring the many overlapping, conflicting, and contradictory Jewish worlds, but also, in a way, sketching them, charting them, one object at a time, and providing ways for others to do so as well, across cultural, linguistic, and ideological divides. It is precisely the possibility to both find new directions and to experiment, and to do so collaboratively, that informs the intricate maps that underline The Jewish World.

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