Picking up the Pieces

Fragments of Rural Hungarian Jewish Culture 30/Oct/2014 - 18/Oct/2015
In the decades since World War II, memory of the historical trauma that was the Holocaust has been kept alive in a number of ways: by examining individual details of events, probing the thoughts of its survivors, clarifying points of history and illuminating the relationships between them, and analysing various reactions on the part of society. For its own part, the Museum of Ethnography has chosen a somewhat unusual form of remembrance, an exhibition that draws on the material in its collections in an attempt to reconstruct a picture of the life of rural Hungarian Jewry in its pre-Holocaust setting.


The local "case studies" by which the theme is primarily presented not only explore the past - the day-to-day lives of Hungary's pre-war Jewish population, its relationship to the Magyar majority, the distinguishing features of its unique culture, and the possible courses for its community (straightforward or labyrinthine) in terms of tradition and modernity - but also reflect on elements of what has survived of Jewish culture in Hungary today.

The exhibition consciously embraces its own fragmented nature as key to its approach in terms of both content, and form: our knowledge of the time in question is fragmented, the material we have available is fragmented, and indeed, it is a world best understood by examining exactly which fragments have survived and which have faded into the past. Thus, the intent is less to offer a comprehensive view of pre-war Jewish culture than to illustrate just how difficult that culture is to reconstruct today - to demonstrate that it may no longer be viewed in its entirety, but only in its component parts.

Certain issues the exhibition addresses not in generalities, but on the basis of concrete examples (family histories, specific communities, local peculiarities, isolated details, etc.), and it is in this spirit that daily life, special occasions, and occupational and social strata are presented, and in relation to these that certain themes are explored. None of the examples can be placed in logical or chronological order; rather, the visitor - inasmuch as the exhibition space permits - may view them in arbitrary fashion, considering each piece in turn and making connections freely, until by the end, the mosaic pieces have finally arranged themselves to reveal specific characteristics of rural Hungarian Jewish culture. The curator's intent was to allow for a variety of interpretations, with contextualised artefacts, photographs, and stories offering a sort of foundation over which, at certain points, iconographic references and historical and ethnographic parallels illuminate the relationships between the Jewish and the non-Jewish, while still other elements invite reflection on the relationship between Jewish studies and ethnography as a whole.

The bulk of the material on display comes from the Museum of Ethnography's own collections and, as the institution's Jewish holdings have never been subjected as a whole to careful review and study, has (with only minor exceptions) never been seen by the public before. Thus, what the exhibition attempts to do is to present the museum's small, but important Jewish collection, including both objects used by the Jewish community, and artefacts procured by the museum from Jewish antiquities dealers and private collectors, alongside its uniquely prodigious collection of period photographs.

It is a matter of self-evidence that a museum exhibition should delve into and explore its chosen themes through the artefacts in its holdings; but can the same be said of the act of remembrance? In the view of Jan Assmann, object-memory is merely an external dimension of human memory: the ordinary and personal objects with which an individual is surrounded hold forth a mirror image of the self, offering both a reminder of one's personal and ancestral past, and a means for interpreting that past in relation to the present - and indeed, it is precisely this the exhibition seeks to achieve.


Curators: Zsuzsa Szarvas, Tímea Bata, Hanga Gebauer, Krisztina Sedlmayr
Co-Curators: Hajnalka Fülöp

Design: Margit Balla
Digital installations: Zsófia Ruttkay, Gáspár Hajdú, Ágoston Nagy, Gábor Papp, Bence Samu