iron gate with moon and star of David

In Plain Sight: Jewish Arts and Lives in the Muslim World

On View:
Aug 27, 2024 - May 15, 2025
Magnes Collection of Jewish Life and Art
2121 Allston Way | Berkeley , CA
The Magnes
Gallery Hours:

Following the rise of Islam in the 8th century CE, Jewish communities developed under Muslim empires, from North India to Spain. They constituted the largest Jewish population in the world until the Modern Era, waning with the decline of the Ottoman empire in the 20th century. Their cultures—spanning centuries, regions, and languages—retain traces of the Muslim world even after subsequent migrations to Israel, Europe, the Americas, and Australia.

The echoes of the Jewish-Muslim encounters are, in fact, at the core of today’s Jewish experience. They speak of human connections across divides, prompt reconsideration of assumptions that shape our public cultural and political debates, and map the precious possibilities (and inherent fragility) of coexistence, mutual appreciation, and belonging to many cultures at once.

In Plain Sight: Jewish Arts & Lives in the Muslim World

In Plain Sight draws a selection from over 1,400 objects in the Magnes Collection originating in Muslim lands, organized to reflect cultural affinities and common threads. Their display highlights rootedness in diaspora, shared graphic forms and visual landscapes, attitudes towards sacred texts and human bodies, and networks of trade and knowledge exchange, all centering around the fundamental role of light in Jewish and Muslim prayer spaces. The juxtapositions create further associations and narratives—through shapes, colors, materials, and techniques—that move across cultures and geographies.

This exhibition also represents the culmination of over five years of curatorial collaboration. As curators of Jewish and Islamic art, we examined objects together, studied primary sources ranging from visual culture to architecture and music, and read secondary literature in several languages—at times flanked by UC Berkeley students and scholars in various disciplines. We spent many hours in the fashion of the Talmudic chavruta: two students—with complementary, divergent, and contradicting views—training ourselves in the other’s perspective, seeing the same object with the other’s eyes, and forming, day after day, a shared perspective, a common sensibility.

What emerges here aims at making the familiar unfamiliar and fresh, at seeing what was unseen, and at engaging viewers in a path of discovery in which the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

~ Qamar Adamjee and Francesco Spagnolo



The Magnes: Collecting Beyond Borders

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Magnes (est. 1962) actively shaped its collections beyond the scope of most Jewish museums in the United States. The museum’s founders skirted a then-prevailing approach that centered the Jewish experience on European history, arts, and aesthetics, and on the Ashkenazi world. They instead organized self-directed “rescue missions”: expeditions aimed at collecting the cultural heritage of vanishing Jewish communities worldwide, with a focus on Muslim lands. While more and more Jews left their historic homelands—as refugees escaping persecution and as immigrants seeking better living conditions—the very objects that they had been forced to leave behind or sell were brought to Berkeley. Museum staff and volunteers traveled across North Africa (most notably to Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt), the Eastern Mediterranean (Greece and Turkey), Central Asia (Bukhara), and India, and also acquired objects from families that had immigrated to the United States from Iraq and Iran. The inclusion of material culture from the Muslim world makes the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life a prime representative of the cultures of the global Jewish diaspora.


Image at top: Ira Nowinski, Karaite synagogue, Cairo, Egypt, 1985. Gift of the artist. The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley, 85.49.8 © Ira Nowinski/Stanford Libraries.

Francesco Spagnolo

Visiting Curator:
Qamar Adamjee

Undergraduate Curatorial Assistant (URAP):
Paris Grae Bailey

Julie Franklin

Assistant Registrar:
Andrea Calderon

Head Preparator:
David Sullivan

Jennifer Cole

Carole Jeung

Undergraduate Research Apprentices (URAP):
Abe Jellinek, Walker Laughlin, Kayla Cohen, Philopathear Iweda, Felix Rosen, Cynthia Rahman

Press Release

Media Kit | In Plain Sight. Jewish Arts and Lives in the Muslim World

Related Programs & Events

September 5, 2024 Exhibition Opening | In Plain Sight: Jewish Arts and Lives in the Muslim World

In Plain Sight is generously supported by the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, David Berg Foundation, Kenneth Kofman and Andrea King, and an anonymous donor.

The curators wish to thank Karen Barkey, Emily Gottreich, and Ethan Katz (UC Berkeley); Noam Sienna (University of Toronto); Filiz Çakır Phillip (Aga Khan Museum); Deena Aranoff and Carole Bier (Graduate Theological Union).

Research for this exhibition project was made possible, in part, with assistance from UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP).

Excerpts from Shemuel Aron Romanelli’s travelogue, Travail in an Arab Land (originally published in Hebrew in 1792, English translation by Yedida Kalfon Stillman and Norman A. Stillman, University of Alabama Press, 1989), appear throughout the exhibition. Musical selections include recordings from the National Sound Archives of the National Library of Israel and the Library of Congress.

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