Community in Conflict — the Irish Jewish Museum’s Frozen Renovation

 

Signs in the windows of homes directly across from the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin protest the museum's proposed renovation.

Signs in the windows of homes directly across from the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin protest the museum’s proposed renovation.

In this post, I continue my last entry’s exploration of Judaism in Ireland.

By virtue of being an outsider—an American in Dublin—I was allowed in. Walking up five narrow flights of steps, I reached the attic office of a local architect. After writing an op-ed for the Irish Times nearly two years ago, Mr. Kelly was cautiously curious about the foreign student who emailed him asking for him to elaborate on the criticisms he had made of the Irish Jewish Museum’s proposed expansion. Initially uncertain, he came to speak freely of his views, his strategies, his facts, his expectations—telling to this third party observer that which he guarded from the opposition.

At first he asked me repeatedly what my motivations were for investigating this matter—he did not understand what interest an American could have in the zoning dispute between some community members and a local museum. My answers to him were decidedly incomplete, as I did not tell him of the sense of discomfort I felt when I first visited the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin and was met with signs in every neighboring window: “Museum of Shame,” “Neighbors from Hell,” along with many other similar slogans. Immediately—perhaps too immediately—a twinge of fear passed through me as I wondered the reason for the signs so reminiscent of Anti-Semitic tropes.

The upper floor of the museum was the location of a synagogue built in 1917.

The upper floor of the museum was the location of a synagogue built in 1917.

Prior to visiting the museum for the first time, I had read a short article, written some 9 years ago in the Forward, about a journalist’s then-recent trip to Ireland. She spoke of her to visits to the museum—located in a former synagogue in the once highly Jewish area of Portobello—first in 1987 and again in 2006. Her first trip, shortly after the museum’s opening, witnessed an Irish-Jewish community bristling with excitement to tell, through its artifacts and archives, its narrative of proud presence in Ireland. On her return, she found a more sobering scene—its curator, Raphael Siev, aging and the museum aging with him; she notes poor lighting, cracking paint, and a crumbling chimney—the victim of a lack of funds and, perhaps, interest.

A crowded room on the ground floor recreates the setting of a typical Shabbat meal for an early 20th century Jewish family in Dublin.

A crowded room on the ground floor recreates the setting of a typical Shabbat meal for an early 20th century Jewish family in Dublin.

Almost a decade later, I found the museum to be in not much better of a state. Although fascinating and charming in its own way, there was no denying the sense of decay. While looking at the clustered collages of old photographs documenting the Jewish community that has since shrunken and moved out to the suburbs, it was difficult not to think the physically disappearing museum a reflection of the people whose story it was intended to tell. It was perhaps with the rejection of this metaphor in mind that the board of the museum—with the assistance of the Irish government—pressed forward with a bold and ambitious plan to rebuild the museum into a modern, state-of-the-art institution. Around three years after the plan’s approval, the museum’s future was no less in doubt as the renovations stood frozen. The explanation was at least in part the protests of community members who had hung the signs that first caught my attention.

Banners can be found throughout the Portobello community protesting the museum.

Banners can be found throughout the Portobello community protesting the museum.

It was investigating these community members’ grievances that brought me to Mr. Kelly’s office. By speaking to him and others, including many involved with the museum and the Jewish community, I have developed a better understanding of the issues at hand as well, in addition to how the situation became what it is today. More than anything else, I have been able to use my perceived position as an outsider to witness the breakdown in communication and trust that has occurred between the different parties. Seeing value in a revitalized museum integrated with the community, it is my hope that I can use this position to, in some capacity, help bridge these faltered relationships by revealing the miscommunication that lie at their heart.

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