New head of Jewish museum in Vienna tells us to expect surprises

Austrian historian Barbara Staudinger, who is not Jewish, was the unanimous choice of a jury selected by the museum’s owner


The new director of Vienna’s Jewish museum has said that her role is to “surprise you”.
Austrian historian Barbara Staudinger was the unanimous choice of a jury selected by the museum’s owner, Wien Holding, an arm of the City of Vienna.

Vienna’s finance secretary Peter Hanke praised Ms Staudinger’s “international experience, expertise, academic reputation, and comprehensive knowledge of Jewish history and culture”.

Born in 1973, Ms Staudinger — who is not Jewish — came to Jewish Studies while at university. She describes her entrée into the Jewish world as neither deliberate nor an accident, as she had long been interested in the history of minorities. Her first research project was a collaborative one looking at the Austrian Jews in the early modern period.

Ms Staudinger has curated a number of museum exhibitions in Vienna — including at the Jewish museum — before landing her first leadership role in 2018 when she took over the Jewish museum in the German city Augsburg.

It was there, she told the JC, that she learned of the importance of the relationship between the Jewish museum and the local Jewish community.

The exhibitions she staged in Augsburg give an indication of the direction the Jewish museum in Vienna may go in under her management. Exhibitions such as Shalom Sisters*! on Jewish feminism addressed contemporary issues through the lens of Jewish history.

Augsburg’s current exhibition, Jews through the Eyes of Others, focuses on antisemitism by using objects from its collection to look at the cliches and stereotypes the non-Jewish world has about the Jewish one.

“The image people have of Jewish history or Jewish life is that it lies in the past,” said Ms Staudinger, “and I think it’s important to show how Jewish history affects us today, and that Jewish history is a part of contemporary history.”

Her challenge, she continued, is to make people think differently.
“The role of a museum is to surprise you,” Ms Staudinger said.

She cited an object in the Jewish Museum Vienna’s permanent collection: a bejewelled hair covering once owned by a female Jew from Galicia.

The item is often seen as a headpiece typical for the period and community, but a second look questions this common understanding. Its obvious cost “breaks the image of the poor Galician Jew,” Ms Staudinger explained, while the fact that the piece would not have covered the woman’s entire head “offers a different perspective on Jewish Orthodoxy in Galicia”.

Her first temporary exhibition, due to open at the end of November, is titled 100 Misunderstanding About and Among Jews and is sure to be challenging too.

Ms Staudinger replaces Danielle Spera, a former television journalist whose 12 years in charge at the museum were marked by rising visitor numbers.

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