The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life was established in 2010 after the transfer of the Judah L. Magnes Museum to the University of California, Berkeley. Its remarkably diverse archive, library and museum holdings include art, objects, texts, music, and historical documents about the Jews in the Global Diaspora and the American West. As one of the preeminent Jewish collections in the world, it provides highly innovative and accessible resources to both scholars and visitors.
The former Judah L. Magnes Museum, one of the first Jewish museums in the United States, was founded in Berkeley in 1962 by Seymour Fromer and his wife, Rebecca Camhi Fromer. Reflecting the guiding concerns of American Jewry after the Holocaust, the Magnes focused on preserving the legacy of vanishing communities around the world. Its founding paralleled the establishment of Jewish studies as an academic field, and the museum continued to involve leading scholars, including UC Berkeley faculty and students, in the development and interpretation of its holdings. Responding to the ethos of pluralism of the 1960's, the Magnes expanded the canon of Jewish cultural history, integrating visual, musical and material cultures with traditional text-focused approaches.
The Magnes' first significant acquisition, in 1967, was the Siegfried S. Strauss Collection, which included hundreds of Jewish ritual objects, documents, rare books and manuscripts from Europe. Subsequently, its unique perspective led to collecting beyond the boundaries of Western societies, and embraced the Jewish cultures of North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. At the same time, the Magnes pioneered the study and documentation of regional Jewish history in the American West.
Over the years, through purchases and generous gifts, the Magnes has continued to expand the scope of its collection including modern and contemporary art, music, and rare books and manuscripts in Hebrew and other Jewish languages.
The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life is today one of the world's preeminent Jewish collections in a university setting. A unique "library of objects," the Magnes is distinctively positioned to make Jewish art and material culture available to researchers through an innovative approach to collection access and display. The variety of its holdings and the design of its facilities enhance the university's academic offerings, enabling an unprecedented view of Jewish and host cultures in the Global Diaspora.
The holdings of The Magnes Collection are catalogued into three distinct areas, which together constitute the single collection: the Archives, the Library, and the Museum. This unique interdisciplinary understanding of the collection facilitates access to scholars by integrating the different descriptive standards applied to each area and thus offering a wide-angled perspective on Jewish history and culture.
The Magnes Collection veers from many of the traditional museological and cultural conventions adopted by Jewish cultural heritage institutions. Historically, Jewish art museums have attempted to enhance the cultural significance of Jewish material culture by displaying aesthetically pleasing objects of Jewish daily life, defining them as “art,” and addressing the evolving notions of Jewish art through issues of cultural identity rather than through shifting historical contexts. Instead, The Magnes asks its visitors to rethink the role of materiality in Jewish culture, and its relation to art. Rather than defining objects of Jewish daily life as art, The Magnes investigates Jewish material culture in its own right, focusing on its implications within Jewish life and its relations to other cultures. This approach provides a setting in which art and material culture can coexist, and enhances the study of Jewish culture in a highly interdisciplinary manner.
The Jewish Art holdings provide a vivid depiction of the processes of Jewish integration into modern secular life since the mid-nineteenth century, and documents the ongoing debate about the definitions of Jewish identity in the modern world. Included in these holdings are painting and sculpture, photography, over two thousand works on paper, and film and digital media.
The Jewish Life holdings document the intersection of the material and spiritual dimensions of the Jewish experience in the realm of personal and family rituals, in the context of synagogue and communal life, and in the social interactions among Jewish and host communities throughout Central and South-East Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Included in these holdings are textiles, costumes, metalwork, synagogue furnishings, objects relating to daily life, personal prayer, the life cycle, the Sabbath, and other holidays.
Materials in The Magnes Collection are accessible for study, research, and teaching in a variety of ways:
- Visitors may experience the full scope of the holdings through visible collection storage
- The archives, library, and museum holdings housed in The Magnes facility in downtown Berkeley are available for on-site research in the Florence Helzel Collection Study (by appointment)
- The Western Jewish Americana archives, housed in The Bancroft Library, are available for research in the Bancroft reading room.
- Online access to collection catalog records and digital images is available through an integrated archives, library, museum database
Online visitors can use this website to learn about each area of the collection, and to access detailed information about locations and accessibility for research, publication and loans.