US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The latest museum exhibit—the Jewish people on display

By Caitlyn Schmid | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

As an avid museumgoer and a volunteer at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for three years, I’ve seen my fair share of objects behind glass. The Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, however, has taken its own twist on an exhibit. What many have dubbed “Jew in a Box,” this exhibit features a man and woman who are of Jewish descent.

The idea of having a living person on display is not a new concept. The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago has housed a few people for their Month at the Museum program and British actress Tilda Swinton slept in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for a performance-art piece known as "The Maybe."

The concept of having a Jewish person sit in an open, glass box where he or she can interact with the museum’s visitors has been very popular. Of the 82 million German citizens, only an estimated 200,000 of them classify themselves as Jewish. Many Germans have never met a Jew before and this exhibit allows visitors to talk to the man and woman and to ask him or her questions.

Mariam Goldmann, the curator for the Jewish Museum, says that religion, Israel, and the Holocaust are touchy subjects for Jews and non-Jews alike. Her goal was to spark a conversation and she hopes that this “in your face” approach will help some of the wounds that are still healing.

The exhibit has also been quite controversial, and many critics are raving in protest. ”It’s a horrible thing to do—completely degrading and not helpful,” said Eran Levy, an Israeli living in Berlin. Another said it was “idiotic” and “humiliating” and claimed that they are not exhibits but human beings.

Although the delivery is an interesting way to promote awareness, I believe that the exhibit is taking it a step too far. Even with all of their good intentions, the curators of the Jewish Museum are treating the Jewish people as something to be gawked at. However, it would be far worse if it was any other museum portraying them as a species behind glass.

Given their history in Germany, is the exhibit treating the Jewish people with respect or is it exploiting them? What if this was a Roman Catholic on display in a museum without a prevalent Catholic population?