Vienna -- controversy over destroyed Holograms during renovations
Aftermath of the destruction of the Vienna Jewish Museum holograms. Picture taken from

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Wow. I'm just catching up with the controversy in Vienna over the destruction of the the Jewish Museum's acclaimed signature permanent exhibition of Holograms during renovation of the building and creation of a new exhibit. As JTA (and German-language media) reported,  directors of European Jewish museums and other educational institutes wrote an open letter to Vienna Museum Director Danielle Spera condemning the destruction of the 21-Hologram display, which had been installed in 1994 as the museum's main permanent historical exhibit.

The letter's signatories included directors or high-ranking staff members of Jewish museums in  German, Holland, France, Austria and Belgium. They said they expected colleagues to "show dignity and respect for their own institutional history. And the same dignity and respect should be shown to our colleagues and their work." The holograms, they said, "were among the most remarkable presentations of Jewish history in the world of Jewish museums and beyond."

The issue prompted criticism after pictures  showing the shattered glass of the destroyed holograms appeared in museum blogs and elsewhere.

The Vienna Museum, located in the Eskeles Palace in downtown Vienna, closed down in January for a six-month overhaul that will bring it up to building standards and also  install new exhibits throughout.

Writing on the web site of the Vienna Jewish Museum, Peter Menasse, director of the financial and organizational department, said that the team had wanted to preserve the holograms which had "become almost a trademark of our house." He said the Technical Museum was going to take some of them and the rest were to have been stored and conserved.
However, suddenly the steelwork and glazing experts we assigned found they had an unsolvable problem. The more than 100 kilo heavy glass shields were not only screwed to the floor with steel cross braces, but were also glued in place. The shields could not simply be taken out, as that would require the use of heavy machinery. The glass shields in question are made of safety glass similar to the glass used in car windshields. Even the smallest damage to any part of the glass would result in the complete destruction of the entire shield.
Preserving the shields, as we had originally intended, proved impossible. The pictures of the broken glass shields have upset us, as well as many museum experts. The one drop of comfort we have is that we have two smaller series of holograms, meaning the technology will not be lost forever.
The shocking destruction of the Holograms (an exhibit designed by Felicitas Heiman Jelinek and Martin Kohlbauer) and the polemics in its wake seem part of a general series of disputes and politics on various levels at the Museum. (Politics that have been exacerbated with the total renovation of the institution and also the nomination of Danielle Spera as museum director last summer). Critics accuse the new administration of failing to recognize the value of the older exhibit. According to
Hannah Holtschneider, of the University of Edinburgh, writing in Museologien, an Austrian Museology blog:
There is no recognition on the part of the Museum of the critical acclaim of the exhibition. This is astonishing as the international community has commented favourably on the innovative design and critical features of the exhibition which had the holograms as a centrepiece. Among the critics and international commentators on the exhibition, the holograms were appreciated both as a significant medium of display and as artefacts on display which were able to involve the visitor physically in the discovery of approaches to Jewish history in a post-1945 exhibition in Europe. Thus the holograms were not simply a display technology, such as a glass case or television screen, but part of the collections of the Jewish Museum Vienna. Critics point to the principles of ICOM which explicitly state that such artefacts need to be preserved and cared for.

I must say, I loved the hologram exhibit, and the entire museum -- though it was clearly time for an update and overhaul.

It was really cutting-edge when it opened, perhaps the European Jewish museum where the questions, theories and dilemmas embodied in Jewish representation and the Jewish museum experience had most consciously and to such a degree been translated into the actual practice of exhibition. I looked at the museum closely in my book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, (which BTW is now available on Kindle) and also at that time -- in 1997, so not long after it was opened -- interviewed Felicitas. This is what I wrote:

Visitors to the Museum’s permanent historic exhibition [...] are confronted not by traditional display cases presenting documents, torah scrolls, Holocaust memorabilia or Jewish ritual objects, nor do they find dioramas or didactic installations. Missing, too, is a commemorative section or memorial dedicated specifically to the Holocaust. Instead, they step within a bare room housing 21 holograms: ghostly three-dimensional images of ritual objects, paintings, photographs, documents, and architectural models, rather than the real thing.

Each hologram represents a specific stage, facet or theme associated with Austrian Jewish history and the relationship between Jews and Austrian society: "Out of the Ghetto," for example. "Houses of God," "Zionism," "Anti-Semitism," "Loyalty and Patriotism," "From Historism to Modernism," "Shoah," "Vienna Today …" Most of the images are holographic still lives that combine groupings of various source material, some of which are easily understood objects in themselves, while others are defined by context or elaborate back stories recounted in the ample information notes that accompany each piece. The hologram entitled "Banishments," for example, shows what is described as a seventeenth century Torah curtain that a Viennese couple took with them to Prague when they were expelled from Vienna in 1670, along with a pile of film canisters described as containing a copy of the classic movie Some Like It Hot, which was directed by Vienna-born Billy Wilder, who fled Berlin after the Nazis took power in 1933. The hologram representing "Fin de Siecle" includes images of an array of artifacts owned, used or associated with turn-of-the-century Jewish cultural figures: writer Karl Kraus' glasses, a candlestick from a music stand used by Gustav Mahler, a book by Arthur Schnitzler with a flyleaf dedication to Theodore Herzl, Sigmund Freud's bookplate, playing cards designed and used by Arnold Schönberg.

Eerily glowing red and green and yellow, the images are captured on sheets of plexiglass that look totally transparent until the visitor stands directly before them; unless the panels are approached, the room, indeed, looks empty: even in the museum catalogue, the photograph captioned "The Historical Exhibition" shows a room with seemingly nothing in it but windows, lights, a parquet floor and scattered, three-meter-tall transparent sheets. The hologram images appear, move and shift with changed angles of vision; the objects seen are virtual objects; the scenes are glimpses of a virtual reality -- one even includes a holographic film clip; they are seemingly three-dimensional images that exist but don't exist: a "real" virtual Jewish world.

"Holography could prosper only in America, a country obsessed with realism, where, if a reconstruction is to be credible, it must be absolutely iconic, a perfect likeness, a 'real' copy of the reality being represented," wrote Umberto Eco in the mid-1970s.[1] Yet the curators of the Vienna exhibit had the opposite in mind. Their aim was precisely to reject any attempt to present a "real" real image of Austrian Jewish history and experience through the conventional use of the objects, documents and displays typical of museum exhibits. The use of the incorporeal holograms attempts to show the imprecise nature of memory and the role played by imagination and interpretation in viewing and presenting the past. History is not an absolute; physical objects represent the historical meaning that we ourselves assign to them. Even what is "carved in stone" is subject to interpretation. The use of holographic objects and scenes that are "there" but "not there" at the same time is also, obviously, a striking means of elaborating a sense of Jewish absence and the continuing impact of the Jewish past on the present. The exhibit, which opened in 1996, is called a "place of remembering." We see the objects, but we see through them, too. The holograms are nothing -- but many things altogether, "mnemonic devices" or "memory aids in the form of abbreviations". [2]

"A historical exhibition cannot show or explain everything," the museum's then chief curator Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, who designed the Hologram installation, told me in 1997. "So why not say from the beginning that, in principle, we cannot do it. Perhaps it makes more sense to think about the relativity of history and historical presentations than to say this object means this, and this year was that, and this event meant such and such, and so on – because it's not true. We cannot reconstruct history; we should openly say that we are only its interpreters, and nothing else." The Jewish Museum of Vienna thus offers a radical and highly sophisticated approach to the problem of dealing with history, memory and absence. For Heimann-Jelinek, the function of the exhibit is to force its audience think and reflect about the Jewish experience and the impact of the Holocaust on the present. "This installation gives people the opportunity to think about what would have been possible, what could have happened, what could be different today," she told me. "The hologram room is a very peaceful surrounding; it is a bit like a prayer room because on the one hand it is so spacious and on the other hand it is very calm. People don't talk loudly; they read the information panels and look at the holograms. There is a very contemplative atmosphere."

[1] Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, pg 4
[2] Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, "On the Historical Exhibition at the Jewish Museum of the City of Vienna," in Jewish Museum Vienna, Vienna (catalogue of the museum), pg 62. See also her article "On the Re-Organization of the Jewish Museum of the City of Vienna," in Jewish Museum Vienna Newsletter, No. 8/9, March 1996, pg 2.