Penn professor helps bring new Jewish Museum to Russia

A new $50 million museum chronicling the richness and complexity of Jewish life and culture in Russia—the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center—opened in Moscow last month, and Penn’s Benjamin Nathans, the Ronald S. Lauder Endowed Term Associate Professor of History in the School of Arts & Sciences, played a key role in creating the state-of-the-art institution.

An expert on Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, and modern European Jewish history, Nathans chaired the international academic advisory committee that designed the content for the 40,000-square-foot museum, and brought scholars from Russia, Israel, and the United States on board to compose the various exhibitions.

Nathans worked with Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA), the New York firm behind the design of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, to develop the museum in Russia. The RAA group was hired by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, with support from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The museum features cutting-edge technology, including a 4-D theater, interactive maps, timelines highlighting the historical paths of Jewish migration across the centuries, an interactive Torah scroll, and a virtual shtetl (the typical setting of Jewish life in tsarist Russia.)

“Working with designers at RAA was a wonderful education for me,” Nathans says. “They got me thinking in new ways about how to make the past come alive not just in words, but visually and experientially.”

The museum includes a reconstructed cafe from the late 19th-century seaport city of Odessa, where visitors can interact with historical figures from Russian Jewry. Additionally, about 13 hours of videotaped oral history tells visitors stories of Jewish community life in Russia and the Soviet Union.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews living in the Russian Empire were violently attacked during waves of pogroms, leaving tens of thousands dead.

“I think the fact of the museum's existence is evidence that the Kremlin wants to acknowledge and move beyond some of the darker aspects of the Jewish experience in Russia, both in practice and in terms of its image at home and abroad,” Nathans says. 

Museums of Jewish history exist in Germany and one is opening in Poland where, Nathans points out, anti-Semitism has historically been strong. 

“In all these cases, it seems to me, the building of museums devoted to the Jewish past is part of an effort to publicly come to terms with that history,” he says.

Nathans has only seen the Russian exhibits as mock-ups and virtual renditions on computer screens. He says he is eager to see them first-hand, particularly the 4-D theater, later this month.

Jewish Museum Russia