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Opinion

Robin Ince: Sydney Jewish Museum is a reminder of the terrifying power of ideology

In Australia, Robin Ince’s trip to Sydney’s Jewish Museum sees him face up to a history that we need reminding of

As if by magic, I am at the other end of the world. In London, I get into a capsule and watch Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, I briefly change capsules and watch Curb Your Enthusiasm and with little sense of movement, save for some fairground ride turbulence, I am in Sydney. 

To travel so far should seem more seismic. It is only when you see pigeons with mohicans or the beautiful trunks of trees that ripple like splendid bark candles that you know you are not home anymore. It is a frightful and necessary reminder that this is a small and unusual planet, rippling with life that has many haircuts, beaks and struggles.

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I am on the penultimate leg of the Horizons tour with Brian Cox (Professor, not Succession). An arena tour is not enough to fill a day and I feel guilt at failing to achieve nothing more than talking to 8,000 people a night. My mind is noisy and not suited to meditation – that is too close to procrastination. I try to fill my days with galleries, museums, park walks and observation of the behaviour of more mohican pigeons.  

I visit the Sydney Jewish Museum. The first thing of note is the security. While most museums can be waltzed into with an occasional bag check, the doors here are two-tiered. One slides open and closes behind you, before the next door opens, creating the necessary pause should the visitor appear to be a threat. Once through you are face to face with a security guard who checks on you in a friendly manner. This reminds you of all the Jewish venues and schools that feel it necessary to have security. 

Once inside, the museum is a bright and welcoming place even though the light is often illuminating some of the most grotesque actions of human beings against other human beings. On the top floor is
an exhibition on human rights, focusing on attitudes to indigenous people, Down’s syndrome, LGBT and far more.

It is a powerful and personal series of stories condemning the othering of those who are “not as us”, whatever “not as us” really means. With the rise in populism and fascism such exhibitions are as necessary as they ever were.

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There is a wall of photographs of children slaughtered in the Holocaust and next to those faces a case of sculpted shoes; the shoes of the demonised and lost. It is the tangibility of such possessions that strike people with the horrible reality more than looking at numbers.

In the basement, there is an exhibition of some works by Sidney Nolan, one of Australia’s most celebrated artists. In 1962, he accepted a commission to illustrate an article on Auschwitz by the poet Al Alvarez. Visiting the site, Nolan was so shocked, in particular by the piles of spectacles, hairs and shoes that he could not fulfil the commission. He became unable to listen to music, ceased by the horror of what humanity could achieve when it dehumanised. Some 24 years later, he wrote, “Am I moving towards Auschwitz painting at last. I hope not.”

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In the Horizons show, Brian Cox discusses the work of Karl Schwarzschild who, while fighting in the First World War, solved some of Einstein’s equations which cleared the way for understanding the possibility of black holes in the universe. When Schwarzschild lay dying from a disease possibly brought on after he was gassed, he started to worry about the meaning of black holes. 

If so much matter brought together and compacted could create something so terrifyingly powerful, what if enough human minds came together and compacted into one ideology, what might destruction might they achieve. Standing in front of the first vivid splashes of paint that represented Nolan’s first works on the victims of the Holocaust, created before he visited Auschwitz, we witness the culmination of what Schwarzschild imagined.

Robin Ince is an author and broadcaster. His book, Bibliomaniac: An Obsessive’s Tour of the Bookshops of Britain, is out now. You can buy a copy from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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