Portrait von Carmen Simon

Carmen Simon

«Our generation needs to un-collect.»

Five Questions to Carmen Simon

Car­men Simon is the direc­tor of the Regio­nal Muse­um Chüech­li­hus in Lang­nau im Emmen­tal; her care­er began at the Jewish Muse­um of Switz­er­land. Nao­mi Lubrich spo­ke to her about her first employ­ment, about pro­fes­sio­nal coll­ec­ting and about her deac­ces­si­on pro­ject «Ent­sam­meln» (Eng: un-coll­ec­ting), which is con­side­red exem­pla­ry for its trans­pa­rent and par­ti­ci­pa­to­ry implementation.

Nao­mi Lubrich: Car­men, you joi­n­ed the Jewish Muse­um of Switz­er­land in 2008. What brought you to Basel?

Car­men Simon: I was 22 years old, stu­dy­ing histo­ry and reli­gious stu­dies, and loo­king for an intern­ship. The muse­um direc­tor at the time, Katia Guth-Drey­fus, 82, was loo­king for a sub­sti­tu­te for her employee, who was pregnant. It was a per­fect match! The work in Basel was crea­ti­ve and varied. Katia Guth-Drey­fus invol­ved me in all aspects of her work, sent me to trai­ning ses­si­ons and con­fe­ren­ces all over Euro­pe, and got me exci­ted about the world of cul­tu­re and museology.

NL: What objects did the muse­um coll­ect at that time?

CS: First and fore­most, we coll­ec­ted Judai­ca, ritu­al sil­ver and other objects per­tai­ning to reli­gious life. For Katia Guth-Drey­fus the craft­sman­ship as well as the his­to­ri­ci­ty of the objects was cru­cial. Secon­da­ri­ly, we coll­ec­ted docu­ments, memo­ra­bi­lia, in par­ti­cu­lar objects which told the sto­ry of anti-Jewish per­se­cu­ti­on. We did not coll­ect con­tem­po­ra­ry objects. We were loo­king for the Jewish past.

NL: What were the pro­ce­du­res for new acquisitions? 

CS: We purcha­sed objects in tra­di­tio­nal ways: Katia Guth-Drey­fus con­sul­ted anti­qua­ri­ans and read auc­tion cata­logs. We did not buy any objects online. We were rest­ric­ti­ve when it came to dona­ti­ons. And we dis­cus­sed every new acqui­si­ti­on with the museum’s expert com­mit­tee and argued why it was sui­ta­ble for the coll­ec­tion. Katia Guth-Drey­fus was cau­tious in a way which was uncom­mon for her time; other muse­ums were coll­ec­ting on lar­ge sca­le. But many muse­ums now have come to see their lar­ge coll­ec­tions as a bur­den. In retro­s­pect, jus­ti­fy­ing each pie­ce and dis­cus­sing it with others, though time-con­sum­ing, was very advisable.

NL: Do you remem­ber offers that were rejected? 

CS: Sure, we occa­sio­nal­ly rejec­ted offers. But we took our work serious­ly and tried to find other places and uses for the objects we didn’t include in the coll­ec­tion: We dona­ted the books to libra­ri­es, and we used a con­tem­po­ra­ry Torah poin­ter for group demons­tra­ti­ons. Objects that con­tai­ned the name of God were more com­pli­ca­ted. They may not be dis­po­sed of: They need to be stored – or buried. Rejec­ting pie­ces was par­ti­cu­lar­ly dif­fi­cult. Jewish objects are fraught with memo­ries and mea­nings of a dif­fe­rent importance than, say, the one-hundredth shirt in the Chüech­li­hus Regio­nal Museum.

NL: How has the muse­um world chan­ged sin­ce then?

CS: Coll­ec­ting has beco­me more pro­fes­sio­nal in many ways. Some examp­les: Muse­ums today crea­te coll­ec­tion con­cepts so that the acqui­si­ti­ons reflect insti­tu­tio­nal values, not per­so­nal pre­fe­ren­ces. Digi­tiza­ti­on has found its way into muse­ums (albeit com­pa­ra­tively late, archi­ves were fas­ter). Muse­ums began to coll­ect intan­gi­ble heri­ta­ge, i.e. sound and image recor­dings, oral histo­ry. Intan­gi­ble heri­ta­ge pres­ents us with new ques­ti­ons, for ins­tance on which media they should be stored for the future. We are also incre­asing­ly coll­ec­ting the pre­sent. When I was in Basel, the­re was a situa­ti­on that I see dif­fer­ent­ly today: We found anti­se­mi­tic notes in the mail­box – and put them asi­de wit­hout con­side­ring them as coll­ec­ti­ble objects. Today I would add them to the collection.

NL: You have begun a pro­ject to «un-coll­ect» the Muse­um Chüechlihus’s objects. Why?

CS: The Muse­um Chüechlihus’s depots were over­c­row­ded and dis­or­ga­ni­zed: We had some objects in mul­ti­ple ver­si­ons, we had others wit­hout docu­men­ta­ti­on, and we had still others that were not worth coll­ec­ting. And this within a sto­rage space that didn’t meet the requi­re­ments for a pro­fes­sio­nal depot. We nee­ded to con­so­li­da­te the objects and re-loca­te them to a sin­gle, well-equip­ped sto­rage space. We never ques­tio­ned the fact that we would need to take every sin­gle object into our hands in order to deci­de what to do with it. While loo­king at each object, we made a decis­i­on about which ones to deac­ces­si­on. The effort invol­ved in deac­ces­sio­ning is huge – espe­ci­al­ly when you imple­ment it in a trans­pa­rent and par­ti­ci­pa­ti­ve way, as we are doing. But it has been worth it. In the first pha­se of deac­ces­sio­ning we had inte­res­t­ing con­ver­sa­ti­ons about coll­ec­tion pro­ces­ses. Many peo­p­le – even tho­se who were pre­vious­ly less invol­ved – took part. We gai­ned insights into «dor­mant» objects and recei­ved crea­ti­ve sug­ges­ti­ons on how to use objects we let go of. It has been a meaningful expe­ri­ence. Nevert­hel­ess, I would high­ly recom­mend all other cura­tors: Be careful with new acqui­si­ti­ons! Giving objects away is much more dif­fi­cult than not accep­ting them in the first place.

NL: Thank you so much, Car­men. We’ll take your words to heart.

verfasst am 04.04.2023