Explore Selected Exhibitions

Museums have an unprecedented opportunity to engage, reinvigorate, and strengthen world communities. Explore some of these stories below.


There is a long, well-documented history of Jewish artists and writers turning to comic books and magazines as a colorful medium of expression. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, are the most famous Jewish contributors to the comics canon. But there is also a legacy of more subterranean Jewish publications, some of which emerged in the 1930s and 1940s as a response to the rise of Nazi rule and its virulent antisemitism. The Warsaw underground press, published from 1940 to 1944, is one such example. Vedem, a magazine published by young Jews in the Terezin Ghetto, is another remarkable print operation from this period. Vedem first came off the presses in 1942 as the brainchild of a few teenage boys. With more than 83 weekly issues, Vedem holds the title of “longest-running underground magazine printed inside a Nazi camp,” a feat of tremendous creative resistance.


Vedem’s pages are filled with chillingly beautiful remarks on the harrowing struggles of life under stifling Nazi rule, and they are also peppered with satire, cultural criticism, and cartoons, offering a rich, complex portrait of teenage rebellion in the face of violence and death. It is thanks to Sidney Taussig, one of Vedem’s young correspondents who buried hundreds of pages of the publication and later returned to retrieve them, that this indispensable record of history survives. 


In 2016, documentarian Rina Taraseiskey, joined forces with art director Michael Murphy and journalist Danny King to develop an exhibition about this extraordinary publication. VEDEM UNDERGROUND premiered at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles in 2016 and continues to travel across the country, including installations at schools. 


The exhibition colorfully and compellingly reconstructs over 800 salvaged pages of the magazine, splicing together magnified images of its poetry, illustrations, and prose to create a composite of Vedem as a work of subversive art and social commentary. Peering up close at the enlarged pages, visitors can intimately engage with the ink footprints of Vedem’s writers and artists. The exhibit employs an innovative format to explore life in the Terezin Ghetto, using both pop art and punk aesthetics to add urgency and visual flair to this narrative display of first-hand historical accounts. 


VEDEM UNDERGROUND’s mission of educating the public about the history of the magazine and its resonance today is spearheaded by the Vedem Foundation, which buttresses the traveling exhibition with educational workshopsa feature film, and a forthcoming graphic novelVEDEM UNDERGROUND is triumphant in its visually stunning presentation, which includes textual translations, archival photographs, and videos to help visitors contextualize and navigate the mosaic of underground journalism in the gallery space. It is also exceptional in conveying with clarity and specificity this dark chapter of history, while also leaving visitors with a powerful universal message: the pen is a weapon of resistance.

External Witnesses: Dimensions in Testimony

The experience can be quite uncanny at first. Lean into a microphone, ask a question, and wait. A few seconds transpire, allowing language-processing wheels to turn, and then an answer.  


“My family were murdered in Majdanek.” 


These are the words of Pinchas Gutter, who survived six concentration camps. Gutter was part of a pioneering cohort of witnesses who sat down to answer thousands of questions about their lives and experiences before and during the Holocaust. These Q&A sessions were held not for a school assembly, but intended for perpetuity. 


This is the aim of Dimensions in Testimony, an initiative of the USC Shoah Foundation to create and disseminate interactive virtual testimonies that will outlast the dwindling time we have to converse in the flesh with Holocaust survivors. Pinchas Gutter sat down with Lesley Stahl to describe his intense recording process for a 60 Minutes special, and Eva Schloss, another survivor interviewee, allowed The New York Times to chronicle her Dimensions in Testimony experience for a short documentary. In the film, we see her answering questions in a cocoon-like dome equipped with over a hundred cameras. 


Dimensions in Testimony utilizes cutting-edge technology that enables visitors to have a “virtual conversation” with a Holocaust survivor about his or her life experience. The project integrates film, specialized display technologies, and next-generation natural language processing to provide an intimate experience with a Holocaust survivor who is uniquely qualified to offer personal reflections and answer direct questions about his firsthand experiences with the Holocaust. This experience has traveled to museums around the world and is presented in various formats from institution to institution, including: 


In September 2017, the Museum of Jewish Heritage became the first museum to allow visitors to engage directly in conversation with Dimensions in Testimony interviewees, a departure from most hosting museums who opt to use a facilitator. While nothing can replace the experience of hearing survivor testimony in the presence of a living survivor, Dimensions in Testimony marks a significant breakthrough in Holocaust education by making interactive experiences with first-hand accounts of history more accessible than ever. 


Producing these digital conversations comes at a significant price—the cutting-edge filming technologies and artificial intelligence tools used to produce Dimensions in Testimony was expensive. Some may be put off by the strange feeling of engaging in conversation with a synthetically conjured survivor presence, which journalist Matthew Fishbane described as a “disjointed, alienating, deeply uninformative, poetic, slapstick, and sometimes beautiful experience.” 


The USC Shoah Foundation has recorded over 100,000 hours of audio-visual testimony since Steven Spielberg established the Foundation in 1994, and it continues to capture traditional video interviews with survivors as part of its Last Chance Testimony Collection Initiative. It remains to be seen how Dimensions in Testimony will “future-proof” its permanent museum installations in the face of rapidly evolving technology. However, the ability to pose real-time questions to history’s witnesses can be a transformative experience, particularly for those who learn best through active engagement with source material. It undoubtedly brings an immediacy to the testimony, grounding the stories of survivors in the here and now. 


Dimensions in Testimony interviews have been recorded in nine languages with partnering organizations around the world, illustrating the global reach of the project. For museums situated in locales where in-person Holocaust survivor testimonies are especially sparse, this technology can be particularly impactful. Additionally, Dimensions in Testimony adds a dynamic element to museum galleries dominated by displays of objects behind glass or static text placards. For some, Dimensions in Testimony is an eerie form of data-driven spectacle, but for many, the conversation-centered project brings memory to life. 

Excavating History: 1,000 Years of Jewish Life in Poland

Situated on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943, the POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews attempts to fill what is perhaps an unfillable void. Challenged with the formidable task of presenting the life and legacy of Polish Jewry in its full color, the POLIN Museum eschews many traditional curatorial practices of Jewish museums in favor of bold new approaches. Its core exhibition, A 1,000 year history of Polish Jews, encourages visitors to explore the intersection of Polishness and Jewishness in all its cultural splendor. Though valid critiques have been raised about the theatrical excess of its galleries, the core exhibition succeeds in conveying the complex experience of Polish Jewry, destabilizing long-held historical narratives and highlighting the embeddedness and ingenuity of Jews in Polish lands. Most significantly, in spite of a lack of original historical objects, A 1,000 year history of Polish Jews crafts a participatory visitor experience through innovative multimedia elements and immersive architecture. 


The POLIN Museum and its core exhibition chart a new course in historical museum curation. Adam Teller, a historian and consultant for the early modern gallery at the museum, made clear that from the outset, the curatorial team aimed to reduce as much as possible the “Museum Voice.” In an essay from the edited volume New Directions in the History of the Jews in Polish Lands, he writes, “we were to allow the voices from the past to ‘speak for themselves.’” This is indicative of a larger shift in historical curatorial practices toward what public historian Robert Weyeneth has called “pulling back the curtain,” an approach which emphasizes presenting historical facts and narratives in a way which allows visitors to draw their own conclusions. Teller elaborates on the Museum’s curatorial aims, noting the ways in which A 1,000 year history of Polish Jews promotes interactive learning. For example, the early modern gallery contains a topographical multimedia scale model of the cities of Krakow and Kazimierz, allowing visitors to virtually wander around the architectural and intellectual milieu of the urban landscape. This exploratory model of learning continues in the next gallery, which houses a full-scale reconstruction of a traditional wooden synagogue bimah and roof. Standing underneath the hand-painted roof, visitors are immersed in a technicolor world of traditional Jewish texts and symbols. The reconstruction is a museological miracle on its own, standing as the product of a collaborative project spanning several years in which historical preservation experts and volunteers engaged deeply with Polish-Jewish creative traditions. In its physical splendor, the reconstructed space encourages visitors to contemplate the beauty of a destroyed Jewish folk life, but also to imagine a future of Jewish community born through networks of preservation, return, and rebuilding. 


The core exhibition places significant emphasis on the Holocaust, with the last 100 years of Polish life occupying a fifth of the galleries. The effect is a comprehensive, at times dizzying journey through the darkest chapter of modern Jewish history. The Holocaust galleries are devoted in large part to the history of the Warsaw Ghetto, grounding its pedagogy in local, site-based narratives. This diverges from most Holocaust galleries, which tend to cover more historical ground, both geographically and temporally, to varying degrees of success. 


The Museum’s unique exhibition design also sets it apart from more conventional Jewish museum spaces like the core exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, which attempts to define Judaism primarily through the display of static objects and art. Photographer and media scholar Jason Francisco is right to point out that the POLIN Museum’s central exhibition unfolds more as “a sequence of encounters rather than a temple of precious objects.” However, as Francisco argues, there are moments when A 1,000 year history of Polish Jews falls victim to overwhelming spectacle, where visitors can become overwhelmed or fatigued by the experience of moving from one interactive kiosk to another. Taken as a whole, the thoughtful interactive components of the galleries produce a cumulatively positive learning experience, emphasizing breadth and complexity over simplistic conclusions. Though it may never fully revive the spirit of what was once the center of Ashkenazi Jewry, A 1,000 year history of Polish Jews is unwavering in its ambition to present Jewish life in Poland with color and complexity.

The Lost Synagogues: Postcards From Another World

In 2017, the Museum at Eldridge Street hosted an exhibition titled The Lost Synagogues of Europe: Postcards from the Collection of Frantisek Banyai, offering viewers a portal into a world of traditional architecture and community that largely no longer exists. In this curatorial space, housed within the walls of a New York synagogue modeled after its European predecessors, the display of over 150 postcards is at once dazzling and somber. 


Frantisek Banyai, who lives in Prague and is the son of Holocaust survivors, began amassing these postcards over four decades ago, and he continues to collect these snapshots of history today. The collection spans from the late 19th century to the years just before the Second World War. In an article about the exhibition’s opening, Nancy Johnson, the museum’s archivist, told The Jerusalem Post that less than half of the synagogues depicted in the postcard collection remain standing today, and merely two dozen of them are still active as active Jewish worship spaces. The majority of the synagogues in Banyai’s collection, ranging from humble wooden structures to stately architectural marvels, were destroyed during and shortly after the war. According to Johnson, Banyai, who was raised under communist rule with no religious education, started collecting these postcards as a way to connect to his Jewish heritage. In addition to revealing the architectural diversity of European synagogues, the postcards offer glimpses of Jewish communal life outside of shul, often depicting market scenes and businesses surrounding the synagogue. More than just a space for minyanim to gather, synagogues served as the loci for European Jewish communities, a fact made evident in these colorful postcard scenes. 


The Lost Synagogues of Europe is effective in its simplicity and in the intimacy of its scale. Though interactive technology kiosks and multimedia displays can be wonderful elements of a gallery space, the Museum at Eldridge Street created a poignant and informative exhibition solely by pairing the visually unique and historically remarkable images of Banyai’s collection with well-researched labels to provide context. This curatorial approach gives the postcards space to breathe and shine on the walls, highlighting their beauty and the weight of their loss. 


The exhibition also represents a success in generating a powerful dialogue between its content and setting. The Eldridge Street Synagogue, opened in 1887, was once a thriving congregation, showcasing the diversity of Jewish newcomers to the United States. However, due to the exodus of Jews from the Lower East Side in the postwar period, the synagogue declined and decayed over the course of several decades. In the early 1980s, a grassroots movement emerged to restore the building to its former glory. Spearheaded by preservationist Roberta Brandes Gratz, the restoration process took over two decades; its completion was marked with the creation of a new, kaleidoscopic stained glass window in 2010. Situated within this architectural history, The Lost Synagogues of Europe gains another dimension of meaning, imbuing the Eldridge Street Synagogue with the echoes of European synagogues no longer standing. 


The exhibition later traveled to the Yiddish Book Center, an organization dedicated to preserving and sharing Yiddish literature, a canon once fated to fall into obscurity. Thus, both settings for the exhibition facilitated a complex encounter with Banyai’s collection. Though the postcards radiate the magnitude of Jewish civilization lost, they also exist in a lively conversation with the Jewish present. More than the sum of its parts, The Lost Synagogues of Europe demonstrates the beauty of curating exhibitions that resonate with the history and values of a particular space.

Stories written by Amanda Gordon for The Jewish Museums Project