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

Sydney Jewish Museum

Inside the Sydney Jewish Museum. Photo: IlanaHeller2019

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.

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.

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.”

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.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
The Gathering creator: 'It's class, even more than ethnicity, blocking fair representation on TV'
Eva Morgan and Sonny Walker in The Gathering
Helen Walsh

The Gathering creator: 'It's class, even more than ethnicity, blocking fair representation on TV'

How a dreary trip to a travel agent became an escapade of exotic birds and celebrity musicians
A parrot
Sam Delaney

How a dreary trip to a travel agent became an escapade of exotic birds and celebrity musicians

Tories want to paint disabled people as 'benefit cheats'. Is Labour really any better?
Mikey Erhardt

Tories want to paint disabled people as 'benefit cheats'. Is Labour really any better?

We took the Home Office to task for lying on modern slavery. We still don’t have answers
car washes have been highlighted as modern slavery hotspots
MAYA ESSLEMONT

We took the Home Office to task for lying on modern slavery. We still don’t have answers

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know