Is the Social History Museum a Challenge for a Registrar? – Aldona Modrzewska and Katarzyna Reska, Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews

I think any registrar who’s encountered social history collections would say that they have their own challenges. From establishing good provenance to safely packing and transporting objects that often vary greatly in size and shape and are made of composite and possibly hazardous materials, social history collections are definitely “good fun”. I was curious to learn about the particular challenges that Aldona Modrzewska and Katarzyna Reska face at the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

As you can imagine, the registrars at a museum that preserves the religious and cultural heritage of an often persecuted group face particular challenges relating to how they acquire, document and retain their collections. Aldona and Katarzyna focussed on three particular classes of object:

1. Ritual items

This includes complete and fragmentary torah scrolls, as well as other ritual items. From the perspective of Jewish law, torah scrolls should be kept in an ornate cover, in a special cupboard within a synagogue, and burned and given ritual burial when they are no longer in use. The essential challenge here is whether these items’ religious or historical significance is more important. Normal museum storage and handling procedures, which may be appropriate for preserving the scrolls long-term, nonetheless run contrary to the provisions of Jewish Law. 

While the production and use of such scrolls was central to Jewish life in Poland, the text is identical and they are produced using highly prescribed traditional techniques. This means that a collection of such scrolls will inevitably include a lot of duplication, and if scrolls are found during building work or house clearances without provenance and then presented to the museum, it can be very hard to date them or say anything useful about their history. 

Consequently, the team at the Polin Museum have taken the bold decision not to accession any new torah scrolls or fragments that they are presented with, but to give them to the modern Jewish community to be burned and buried according to Jewish law. They make their policy clear to donors, and fully document and photograph the scrolls before passing them on to the Jewish community. The same policy goes for fragments of scrolls. Not all donors accept this, and the museum is furthermore considering what to do with the scrolls acquired before this policy was adopted. The team have taken the decision to preserve the scrolls’ role as ritual items and treat them according to Jewish Law: like teams working with First nations collections in the USA and New Zealand, they recognise that the imperatives of conservation and collections management are not the only salient demands on a social history collection

2. Items made from recycled or desecrated ritual items

The museum takes the decision to retain these kinds of items for a number of reasons: firstly, this kind of “recycling” can be the only way that otherwise ephemeral structures, such as sukkah, survive, enabling them to preserve and communicate an important part of Jewish life and culture. Secondly, the museum sees itself as having a duty to preserve the history of the desecration of Jewish culture and tell these stories, however difficult.

The ethical challenges inherent in collecting such items is reflected in matters as seemingly cut-and-dried as cataloguing: where you have an insole or a sieve cut from a torah scroll, do you record it primarily as an insole or sieve, or as a desecrated ritual object The item is clearly both, and the story of how it was transformed from one to the other stands as testament to the desecration of Jewish culture. These questions also have a bearing on questions of due diligence: the museum, for example, holds a whetstone made from a Jewish gravestone. While the gravestone itself is not a sacred object, graves are sacred. The donor found the whetstone and donated it to the museum: under Polish law, he was entitled to do so insofar as it is a whetstone, but did the person who took it from the cemetery have the right to do so? It is likely that this involved desecrating a grave. While third party claims are unlikely to be an issue, a museum may not wish to involve itself in collecting items which, by their very nature, must have been forcibly removed from their original owners as part of the process of transformation. The museum keeps such items to allow them to discuss these desecration processes and has clear procedures to ensure both their primary and secondary functions are recorded.

3. Memorabilia and items associated with Jewish daily life

Here we’re on ground more familiar to those of us working with social history collections with slightly less fraught recent histories. Where a private donor comes forward and offers you an item emblazoned with a star of David, how certain can you be that it really is connected with Jewish life, particularly Jewish ritual buildings? The Polin Museum team have developed rigorous “scenarios” which are to be followed when interviewing donors to establish an item’s provenance, which is then backed up with external research, if necessary.

This procedure has revealed, for example, that some tiles bearing a six-pointed star which they were offered as floor tiles from a synagogue were actually made by a tile manufacturer who happened to use this star as a trade mark and were nothing to do with a synagogue at all. This enables them to establish provenance and tell stories with a rigour comparable to that practiced by curators of Old Master paintings, tracking down their works’ history through sale catalogues and country house inventories.

It also enables them to interpret some otherwise opaque objects, such as Celina Glücksberg’s ‘loft calendar,’ three visiting cards on which she marked off the days spent in hiding, along with periodic notes of where the front had reached. Although the calendar finishes in 1944, when the town in which she was hiding was liberated, the start date is lost: she would rub the marks out and start over again once the cards were full. It also enables them to tell some really poignant stories: an ordinary-looking samovar, for example, was donated to them by a man who had been adopted by a catholic family and later became a priest: the samovar was the only item he had from his Jewish biological parents.

This was a talk that gave me a lot of food for thought. They emphasised the subjectivity of memory and belief, yet the importance of respecting the demands of religious law alongside secular conservation practice and representing the individual’s experience. They also made me think about how the interplay between witness and donor accounts shed light on objects’ significance – but the need for strict procedures to collect objects and testimonies rigorously and store them in an accessible manner. Although the histories represented in the collections I work with are different, the critical openness to a number of perspectives is one I am keen to explore further in my own work.

Written by Susannah Darby, National Museums Scotland