Jewish ceremonial objects from the 17th and 18th centuries. As displayed at the turn of the century in a display case of the Musée National du Moyen Âge, in Paris.
Museums have been a visible part of Jewish life for roughly a century and a half, first emerging as somewhat marginal institutions in Europe and the United States in the mid-19c (S. Efron, “Museums” EJ 12:538-553). Initially, the major link between Jewish museums and religion was the fact that their primary function was to display Jewish ritual objects that had been collected by wealthy Jews for their aesthetic qualities (e.g. Jewish art or antiques, see R. Cohen “Nostalgia and ‘Return to the Ghetto’’’ in Assimilation and Community, ed. J Frankel and S. Zipperstein, 1992, pp. 130-155). Synagogues formed their own collections (for example, The Great Synagogue of Danzig, Germany and many synagogues today), as did seminaries and Jewish educational institutions such as the Jewish Theological Seminary (The Jewish Museum), Hebrew Union College (Hebrew Union College Skirball Museum), and Yeshiva University (Yeshiva University Museum).
From the late nineteenth century, as far as collections, exhibitions, and eventually museums were concerned, Jewish tended to be identified with Judaism, and the dilemma of how to exhibit religion (and Judaism in particular) was central to the work of such pioneering figures as Cyrus Adler. Adler was responsible for the Smithsonian Institution collecting Judaica, exhibiting religion and Judaica at world’s fairs, and establishing The Jewish Museum in New York in 1904. (See Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Exhibiting Jews,” Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage, and Grace Cohen Grossman with Richard Eighme Ahlborn, Judaica at the Smithsonian: Cultural Politics as Cultural Model). Consistent with this approach (identifying Jewish with Judaism), the new Jewish museum in Paris is called Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme (inaugurated in 1998).
Following the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, Jewish museums took on two additional functions that lead to their increasing centrality in contemporary Judaism: Holocaust commemoration and strengthening Jewish identity.