Nestled on the outskirts of the Marais district, in the historic Hôtel de Saint-Aignan, lies the Museum of Jewish Art and History. This museum highlights the history, art, and culture of not only French Jews but Jews from all over Europe and North Africa. The first and only major museum in Pairs dedicated to Jewish life and culture, the opening of the Museum of Jewish Art and History in 1998 marked a major step for Jewish representation in a city with one of the largest Jewish communities in the world (History of the Museum).
The idea for this museum was conceived in 1985, and its founders had two main goals for the museum: to create in Pairs "an ambitious museum of Jewish culture", and to showcase a collection of historical artifacts significant to Jewish culture dating from the middle ages (History of the Museum). This project received generous help from the city of Paris, including the donation of the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan by the Mayor of Paris as the site for the museum. While the choice to house the museum in the Marais district was an obvious one, as it is the undisputed hub of Jewish life in the city, the history of the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan brings special historical importance to the museum. Built between 1644 and 1650 in the outskirts of medieval Paris, and then acquired by the Duc di Saint-Aignan in 1688, the building's ownership has changed hands numerous times (History of the Museum). In the late 1800's immigrant Jews from Poland, Romania and Ukraine lived in the building, and it housed the workshops of many of these immigrants including hat makers and tailors (History of the Museum). Several Jews who had lived in the Hôtel were arrested and deported to concentration camps during the occupation of Paris. Thirteen of the building's inhabitants died in the camps during World War II (Museum of Jewish Art and History Paris). In 1962 the Parisian government obtained the building in their efforts to preserve the Marais district's rich history and culture. It was subsequently donated to the group working to create Museum of Jewish Art and History. The building has been touted as "one of the jewels of 17th-century Parisian architecture" (History of the Museum).
The project began to pick up steam with the granting of a state-approved non-profit title for the museum, and it is funded by both the Culture Ministry and the City of Paris. In the same year, 1988, Laurence Sigal took over to lead the team in charge of renovating the hotel and curating the museum (History of the Museum). Restoration of the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan was a major undertaking, and the architects took many steps to return the building to its former design. This included removing additions to the original building, replicating the look of the main staircase, and recreating the coat-of-arms of the Duc de Saint-Aignan on the outside of the building (History of the Museum). The remodeling of the interior of the space included adding an auditorium, a bookstore selling books on Jewish art and history, and a reception space, along with areas for both permeant and temporary exhibitions. The museum is innovative and interesting, providing tours and educational workshops dedicated to promoting Jewish culture According to its website, the major goals of the Museum of Jewish Art and History are as follows:
"present two thousand years of Jewish presence in France, situating this in the context of the overall history of Judaism; preserve, study, disseminate and promote public and private museums collections, archives and documentation devoted to the art and history of the Jewish people; organize the dissemination of all forms of artistic expression illustrating the diversity of Jewish culture; conceive and organize educative programs providing a fuller knowledge of Jewish culture" (History of the Museum). It is also worth noting the Museum had earned the 'Musée de France' accreditation.
The museum hosts a permeant collection of religious artifacts, works of art, textiles and manuscripts that highlight the history of Jewish communities in Europe and North Africa, with an emphasis on France. The artifacts in the museum range from the beginning of Judaism in France to the creation of Israel, excluding the Holocaust (History of the Museum). Exhibits focus on a historical approach to Jewish life, explore ideas surrounding Jewish identity and culture, and look at the question of what constitutes Jewish art. Over 12,000 works and 10,000 documents are available for viewing and downloading worldwide in the online collection (History of the Museum). The objects in the permanent collection were obtained by the museum from three main sources, including the Musée d'Art juif, whose collection of religious objects and works of art by Russian and German Jews was entirely donated to the Museum (French Museum of Jewish Art and History). Another source of artifacts is the Musée national du Moyen-Age, a collection built by Isaac Strauss, one of the first collectors of Jewish objects. This collection contains several interesting pieces including ceremonial objects such as wedding rings and marriage contracts, and rare medieval funeral steles (History of the Museum). Lastly, the collection at the Museum of Jewish Art and History includes loaned items from other Parisian museums including the Musée d'Orsay and Musée du Louvre.
The successful creation of this museum solely dedicated to Jewish history, especially in the Marais district, was a monumental milestone for the Jewish community in Paris. The Marais, well known as the center for Jewish life in Paris, has undergone substantial changes in the past several years. Beginning in the late 18th century, Jews immigrating to Paris settled in the Marais, specifically around the rue des Rosiers. The community was heavily affected by the horrors of the Holocaust, with countless Jewish businesses and homes destroyed in the district. In the decolonization era, Jews from North Africa flocked to the Marais, helping the community recover from the devastation of World War II. However, many Jewish businesses never reopened following the Holocaust, and this helped begin the transformation of the district. The Marais has become more well-known as a chic fashionable shopping district than the traditional Jewish district of its past. The Museum of Jewish Art and History provides an important reminder of the history of Jewish life in the Marais and serves as a place of pride for Jewish Parisians.