Violins of Hope exhibit opens in Posner Center, brings community together

On Oct. 7, a new exhibit opened in the Posner Center. Violins of Hope: "Tuning Out Prejudice: Building Bridges that Last" showcases violins played by Jewish musicians before and during the Holocaust, highlighting the persistence of music as a form of culture and resistance throughout time.

Created through collaboration between the community organization Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Mellon University Distinctive Collections team, this unique exhibit will run until Nov. 21. It is free and open to the public, part of extensive programming happening for the duration of the exhibit in the Pittsburgh community. Events like ballets, operas, and community discussions have been ongoing and are all part of the Violins of Hope mission.

Violins are used in the exhibit as modes of storytelling. In Jewish communities before the Holocaust, it was very common for boys in Jewish families to play the violin. A panel in the exhibit describes how one could tell how many Jewish boys were in a family by how many violins hung on the wall of the family’s home. The instruments were inexpensive and were a key part of Klezmer music, a style of music traditional to Central and Eastern European Jewish culture.

Many of the instruments showcased are inscribed with a Star of David, a symbol of Judaism. Some are more intricate than others — one of the violins displayed features a mother of pearl inlay on the body of the instrument. Meanwhile, other violins have little or no adornment.

“Every violin has a different story,” explained Sandy Rosen, Violins of Hope Pittsburgh chair. “They were all played by musicians but the musicians had different places in history. Some were more the victim and perished, some were more the savior. … It speaks to survival and to resistance and to defiance and ultimately, life.” The showcasing of these instruments used as tools of defiance in such tragic times brings back history in a visceral, tangible way.

Alongside the physical objects displayed in the exhibit were multimedia aspects. Walking through the Posner Center, two pieces of violin music play through the speakers. Both pieces were composed by people who were imprisoned by Nazis as they wrote the music. Choosing those pieces as ambient music that everyone must hear as they enter the exhibit attests to the transcendentality of music and how it can survive even in an atmosphere of forced silence and destruction of Jewish creativity and culture.

In addition to the music playing throughout the exhibit, a few films enhance the story being told. One is a video of Violins of Hope co-founders Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein describing their work restoring historic violins and showing their impressive collection.

The other film originated in Nazi Germany. It portrays the concentration camp Theresienstadt, which was used as a model camp to fool Red Cross workers and the rest of the world about the massacres that were happening in the camps. The film shows people in the concentration camps watching a concert, presumably to convince the world that people there were happy and fulfilled. Supplemented with instruments that Jewish musicians did play in the face of tragedy and violence, this film puts the power of music, whether for good or bad purposes, into sharp focus.

Violins of Hope is a traveling exhibit that has been shown worldwide. Most of the written content shown is licensed from the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Cleveland. The Theresienstadt film, the musical pieces, and all the visual elements playing throughout the Posner Center, however, are unique to Carnegie Mellon’s exhibit. Those aspects, as well as the design and layout of the space, were curated by a team from Carnegie Mellon Distinctive Collections including Sam Lemley, curator of special collections, Heidi Wiren Bartlett, creative director, and more.

Hosting the exhibit in the Posner Center posed a unique challenge for the Carnegie Mellon Distinctive Collections team. The Posner Center is smaller than the space where the materials were originally shown, so some content decisions had to be made concerning which instruments to show.

“The collection itself has 70 or 80 violins, and each of them has a story associated with it,” explained Lemley. It came down to showing violins that fit into specific themes to make a cohesive story within the exhibit. “Resistance and defiance is a theme. Some of the violins in the collection were owned by, for instance, Jewish partisans who fought the Nazi regime and their allies.” According to Lemley, another theme was exploring what it meant "to have musical performances in one of the darkest settings of modern history.”

Adding the multimedia content was an intentional way of bringing history to life. “With exhibitions that deal with historical subject matter, you want to find a way to animate that subject matter. You want to bring it alive for the audience,” said Lemley. Making the exhibit engaging was especially important because of the wide range of audiences that were going to view it. People of all ages, including many school groups, were going to visit the exhibit, so accessibility was a key factor.

As much as the exhibit involved collaboration within the Carnegie Mellon community, it was also a large group effort from the greater Pittsburgh community. Lemley added that the exhibit is “kind of unusual because usually when a university library puts on an exhibition, it’s fairly inward-looking. All the content is developed in-house, etc. So this was, I think, a kind of unique and unusual example of a university working with a community organization to do something together.”

When Violins of Hope Pittsburgh came to Carnegie Mellon, they discussed the general vision for the exhibit. But once a common ground had been established, the design of the exhibit was mostly up to Carnegie Mellon Libraries creative director Heidi Wiren Bartlett.

“It was really an exercise in trust,” Bartlett explained. “Sam and I collaborated closely with the Violins of Hope project team and they allowed us to have creative control over the layout and design of this unique exhibition.” This was exciting to Bartlett because “our spaces are unique, our exhibits are unique — we even have a Shakespeare exhibition at The Frick Pittsburgh on display now — and by keeping a consistent and thoughtful presence on campus the CMU Libraries Distinctive Collections hopes to build our reputation at the university and in the Pittsburgh community. As our exhibition programming grows we want to continue to reach beyond the limits of our spaces and engage with powerful and relevant content.”

From a design standpoint, the Posner Center is an unusual space. In the past, it has mostly been used as a meeting space. But it fit perfectly for the needs of the Violins of Hope exhibit. Bartlett explained that she had to consider questions like: “What can we do to really uplift the content? ... What can we do to really make the objects be central with design, with lighting? What design elements could be found or fabricated to bring this content to life?"

Lemley expressed hope that the Posner Center will be used more for public-facing events in the future. “I’m hoping that this is the catalyst to make the Posner Center into a much more vibrant and dynamic space going forward,” he said. Violins of Hope happened to be a rich and informative exhibit that fit the space’s capacities perfectly. In the future, it looks like the building will become more accessible to students and the community as a whole.

The message of Violins of Hope is particularly important to the Pittsburgh community, and especially at this time. Oct. 27, 2023 marks the fifth anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the deadliest attack on Jewish people on American soil in history. The exhibit features a memorial to the victims, tying the themes of remembering atrocities, Jewish resilience, and fighting against hate and bigotry together in a local way.

“The community embraced it,” said Rosen. “Not only did they embrace it, but they are working together, they’re collaborating and making things much bigger than maybe they would have otherwise.” Community is vital in creating a strong network of people who support each other both in times of injustice and times of peace. Violins of Hope has helped to bring together that sort of community through education and cultural appreciation. Adding her overarching thoughts on the mission of Violins of Hope, Rosen said, “We have to think. We have to talk to each other. We have to stop hating.”