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How is The Magnes rethinking its engagement with museum visitors?

Hannah Weisman, the new executive director at The Magnes, says she hopes to create "a place that is radically welcoming and open to different ideas and dialogue."

Hannah Weisman, the new executive director of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, smiles at the camera. She is wearing eyeglasses and a print top with a necklace.

Hannah Weisman is the new executive director of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. (Photo by Ryuji Sukuki)

Last December, Hannah Weisman became the first executive director hired by UC Berkeley for The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, one of the preeminent Jewish collections in the world. 

Now, nearly three months later, Weisman is busy tackling some tough challenges: how visitors can safely and creatively explore exhibition materials in the COVID era; how to satisfy the needs of diverse audiences; and how to ensure that people feel welcomed and open-minded while being exposed to difficult concepts. 

One of her top goals is to make the collection relevant to Berkeley students and faculty, as well as to the public, including younger students and their teachers, and to the Bay Area’s distinct Jewish communities. 

The museum actually houses two collections: a Jewish art collection with paintings, sculpture, photography, works on paper, artist books, and digital and mixed media; and a Jewish life collection with objects representing personal and family rituals, synagogue and communal life, and the social interactions among Jewish and host communities in the global Jewish diaspora throughout history.

As part of a recent interview with UC Berkeley writer Alexander Rony, Weisman, a museum professional who has worked extensively with large collections, most recently at the Boston Athenæum, said The Magnes’ holdings “can tell universal stories or ask universally relevant questions about migration, belonging, ritual and the importance of community.” 

Alexander Rony: As executive director, how do you hope to engage students and the surrounding community with The Magnes?

Hannah Weisman: One of The Magnes Collection’s biggest opportunities right now is finding the balance between being a university resource and a public-facing community resource, and I don’t think those things are or should be mutually exclusive. There is an incredible learning opportunity available to students, with The Magnes being at Berkeley. We have faculty who bring classes here. Our curator, Francesco Spagnolo, co-teaches with other faculty here in the collection, so students are getting this hands-on learning opportunity that they would not otherwise get. 

But there’s also a public community that is very attached to this organization going back to its time as an independent museum. We want to make sure that we are making this a space for them, as well. I also think there can be some goodwill and cross-pollination between campus and the East Bay Jewish community and not just the Jewish community. The collection here can tell universal stories or ask universally relevant questions about migration, belonging, ritual and the importance of community. All these things are stories that we can tell through a very specific Jewish lens, but have relevance for all kinds of people. Then, of course, we want to be a resource to national and international scholars to come do research.

A sign on the exterior of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life spells out The Magnes in steel lettering.

The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life is at 2121 Allston Way in Berkeley. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

How will you approach making historical materials accessible, as you did with the Harriet Bell Hayden Photograph Albums at the Boston Athenaeum?

I worked with a team there to create a learning guide for educators and students. Our team consisted of curators, professors, secondary school teachers and a student. Together, we created a series of eight activities that could be done in a classroom or at the library using these historic albums that belonged to abolitionist and anti-slavery activist Harriet Hayden. We focused on the albums, in part, because they were directly relevant to the school frameworks for the state of Massachusetts, even though that connection was not obvious for people who don’t typically teach with historic photographs. 

Any collection has items that people don’t know are relevant to them, so it’s our job to find those connections. In order to make materials accessible, you can’t just say, “We have these things.” You have to say, “We have these objects, and here are three things you can do with them to make them useful to you,” or, “Here is some context in which you can think about them.” 

Producing digital projects will be very important. This idea is not new to The Magnes. For example, Dr. Spagnolo created a digital component for In Real Times. Arthur Szyk: Art & Human Rights that allows visitors to remix Arthur Szyk’s imagery so they can think about the components of a political cartoon, the anatomy of an image and the messages images convey.  We want to give people opportunities to not only see an object or a collection of objects, but also to think about them, work with them and create something new using them.

The Roman Vishniac Archive was a very generous gift to The Magnes, and there are now tens of thousands of photographic records in your care. What does respectfully stewarding the legacy of these artists, photographers and creators entail?

I can’t take credit for this this all happened before I came but one of the things that The Magnes has done well, especially with the Vishniac Archive, is build an ongoing relationship with the photographer’s family and involve them in the work we do. 

There is a care in not only stewarding the collection the physical material but in stewarding relationships. We can’t divorce the material from the fact that it came from, was made by, was used by, and was important to people. We collect objects, documents and other material things. Why would we have a collection if not to share it with people? 

Remembering that it came from people is an important part of working with it sensitively and ensuring that the people from whom it originated get to stay involved in its care and interpretation. In some cases, it’s an artist or an object’s previous owner. In other cases, it’s less direct. It might be a descendent community that you need to build a relationship with. In the case of The Magnes as an institution, it is the Jewish community of the East Bay. This museum originated as a community entity, and part of our charge now is to stay connected with that group.

mezuzah with blue letters held in a blue-gloved hand

This mezuzah from The Magnes was hung in Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence in late 2021. The sacred object is a doorpost that “makes a Jewish home Jewish,” said Berkeley scholar John Efron. (UC Berkeley photo by Neil Freese)

I imagine that approach takes more work, but you get a much richer context for the people viewing the exhibit.

Traditionally, museums have had this mindset that we’re the experts, we create a story, and we share it with people. It’s a very passive idea: “I’m the expert. You’re the learner. You will learn what I tell you.” We are more successful in helping people connect and find meaning when it’s a more collaborative process. 

We want the audience to feel a sense of ownership, and we want them to be connected to the process so that they see themselves in that work. That creates a richer experience for the audience because there’s a reason to show up. It’s a way that people can feel a sense of belonging here. But it’s also helpful to us as professionals. If our audience engages in our processes, we’re learning from them, too. And that helps us deepen our understanding of our objects. 

I love that our collections team regularly builds and fosters relationships with families who have donated materials to The Magnes. During the development of In Twilight. Ori Sherman’s Creation, Dr. Spagnolo worked with Sherman’s partners. And he and our registrar, Julie Franklin, hosted Sherman’s niece at the museum a few weeks ago. The stories she told about her uncle enrich our understanding of Sherman’s artistic process and his artwork. 

As museum professionals, we know how to care for objects and research them, but community involvement helps us better understand the stories that we’re telling.

What are some other ways you are interested in exploring that could expand The Magnes Collection’s visibility beyond Berkeley?

Maintaining a traveling exhibition schedule will be important for us in terms of getting our name out there, as will continuing to lend objects to other museums. We have an exhibition touring right now, In Real Times. Arthur Szyk: Art & Human Rights

We have a mezuzah on loan to the vice president’s residence in D.C., and we have a painting on loan at the Jewish Museum Berlin. So, connecting with other museums to share our collections is important. 

And then, going back to those digital projects, we want to create ways to connect with people who are not local to the museum and help them find meaning in our collections.

A Torah scroll is displayed at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. It is in a room with all walls painted blue and sits on a blue-covered table.

A Torah scroll from the permanent collection of The Magnes on display in its current exhibition “In Twilight. Ori Sherman’s Creation.” (Photo by Antonio Martin/KLC fotos)

Many non-Ashkenazi Jews have been striving to increase recognition of their community. How does The Magnes work to represent the diversity of the global Jewish diaspora?

The fact that our collection is global is key. And this is a place where community involvement is valuable and needed. Including Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews and Jews of Color in our planning and development processes can help us figure out which stories need to be brought forward and how best to tell them. The Bay Area has one of the most diverse Jewish communities in the United States. So, we have opportunities to partner with individuals and other Jewish organizations.

On a broader level, what is your vision for The Magnes, and where do you see it needing to evolve?

I am still learning about the collection, the museum’s history and its current needs, and perhaps, most importantly meeting people and hearing their stories.

The university is deeply committed to this collection. We want to sustain that commitment and continue to grow relationships with campus and public communities so that we’re seeing more people in our building; that we’re seeing the museum as a lively convening space; that people are here to see exhibitions and attend programs; and they’re here to be social and to engage in discourse.  

I think we want to push people intellectually, but do so in an environment where people can be open-minded when they’re pushed outside of their intellectual comfort zone. So, that means being a place that is radically welcoming and open to different ideas and dialogue. There are definitely going to be times when something that is on our wall doesn’t sit right with somebody, or something a speaker says is going to feel controversial. We want to incubate that sense of intellectual, creative friction, but do it in a way where people are able to engage despite that discomfort.

Hannah Weisman, executive director of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life speaks at a microphone at a conference.

One of Weisman’s top goals is to make the collection relevant to Berkeley students and faculty, as well as to the public, including younger students and their teachers, and to the Bay Area’s distinct Jewish communities. (Photo by Malgorzata Broda)

An obvious challenge with creating a gathering place, or reasserting The Magnes as a gathering place, is COVID. How has the physical comfort level of people changed the calculation for museums and collections?

I’m not sure that we can say with certainty at this point what has changed permanently. Thankfully, over the course of the pandemic, research came out that showed that museums were a relatively safe place to be, COVID-wise, because there tends to be space around you, and you don’t tend to stand in one place for very long whether museums like that or not. Museum professionals talk about how briefly people stand in front of a single artwork or object, and we often try to get people to slow down and linger a little longer. But visiting a museum often involves walking around and being by yourself or with a small group of people, and it’s easy to bypass or avoid another group if you want to. 

We want people to be together and we also want people to be safe. So, for example, when we host a lecture, many people choose to wear masks. We need to create an environment where people feel empowered to take the precautions that are right for them.

Are there any changes on the horizon, such as with staffing or exhibitions, that you are excited to see?

A huge project is processing the Vishniac Archive and then researching it for exhibition and publication. We will bring in new staff to help process the collection. It’s tens of thousands of items negatives, prints, and archival documents that all need very careful attention. Once the collection is processed, our collections team will develop exhibitions and publications and make the materials available to scholars. 

What advice do you have for Berkeley’s undergraduates aspiring to be artists, historians, linguists and cultural scholars and seeking a rewarding career in the arts and humanities?

Be curious about everything. Museums and libraries offer incredible opportunities to connect with both the past and present. We have materials in this collection that are hundreds thousands of years old, but we also have contemporary items, such as a digital artwork by faculty member Greg Niemeyer, that is currently on view. 

If you’re interested in arts and humanities, being curious and being willing to go down a rabbit hole and explore some random thing that catches your attention broadens your worldview and your understanding. It sounds a little trite, but I think curiosity leads to creative problem-solving, and creative problem-solving makes you a good researcher, a good colleague, and a good citizen.