Maps and artwork that present competing views of the struggles in the Middle East have proved too provocative for Chicago’s only Jewish museum.
Under intense pressure from angry Jewish patrons, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies on Friday abruptly closed the controversial “Imaginary Coordinates” exhibition, which explored Israeli and Palestinian concepts of homeland and how that is defined both historically and in the present day.
Critics charged that the combination of historical Holy Land maps and contemporary artwork cast Israel in a negative light.
“Aspects of it were clearly anti-Israel,” said Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. “I was very surprised that a Jewish institution would put forward this exhibition. I was surprised and saddened by it.”
Tribune religion page Criticism started from the moment the show opened in May—capping Chicago’s yearlong Festival of Maps. Some visitors were particularly outraged that pieces in the exhibit challenged borders Israel has fought to define for decades.
Many also were miffed that the show coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state and seemed to echo anti-Israel sentiments they believe are on the rise.
The sudden cancellation of the exhibition underscores the tension between the city’s Jewish establishment and the Spertus Museum, an 82-year-old fixture in the South Loop seeking to redefine itself in a new avant-garde space.
Spertus President Howard Sulkin expressed regret that the exhibition caused pain for its core constituents. But he said the concept behind it fit with the evolving mission of the museum.
“A willingness to experiment is incorporated right into our core principles, and we see one of our roles as being a place that inspires dialogue on the critical issues of our time,” Sulkin said Friday.
“Imaginary Coordinates” presented maps not only as tools to help people find their way, but also as tools to manipulate an outcome and as products of memory and spiritual imagination. By incorporating artifacts and videos, it stretched the conventional notion of cartography as the only way to define borders.
Rhoda Rosen, director of the Spertus Museum, said last month that the Holy Land provided the perfect subject for an exhibition about mapping as a “culturally constituted practice, rather than as a navigational instrument.”
Among the displays was a collection of postcards portraying the ordinary lives of Palestinians working, playing and mourning—an attempt to personalize land disputes as battles for livelihood, not real estate.
A video installation showed a nude woman spinning a barbed-wire hula hoop around her waist against a peaceful backdrop of the Mediterranean near Tel Aviv.
Another video showed a woman driving around Jerusalem asking for directions to Ramallah, a Palestinian town in the West Bank. Everyone gives her different directions and describes Ramallah as far away, when it really is quite close by, illustrating how mental distance can affect the maps in our mind.
Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said pieces like those videos lacked context. While many pieces highlighted Palestinian humanity, he said others portrayed Israelis as unfeeling and guarded, without noting the dangers Israelis have faced for decades. (MORE)