Face It! at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

An unanticipated encounter with the face today during my visit to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. While the entire museum was well worth the visit, their temporary exhibition will be of most interest to our blog’s followers: Face It! First Impressions Count.


This exhibition contributes to themes in the museum around prejudice and discrimination, here focusing on how we judge people based on physical appearances. It is well curated, with a mix of historical/archival and artistic engagements with appearances, and interactive elements allowing visitors to compare the judgments they make about pictured individuals with both the realities of some of those people, and the assumptions made by other museum patrons.

An understandable focus is the physical representation of Jewish people in history. One facial element that has played a significant role in the visual language of Jewishness since the medieval period is ‘the Jewish nose’, which received a specific section in the exhibition. Sander L. Gilman for one has has written extensively about the ‘Jewish nose’, including some people’s recourse to aesthetic surgery.


L-R: (a) broadsheet c1840; (b) broadsheet c.1880. Both items Jaap van Velzen collection/Jewish Historical Museum.

What I particularly liked in the exhibition’s framing of this section, in terms of the research questions we consider within Effaced, is the role of normative expectations in steering the culturally and historically contingent meanings and boundaries of facial difference. The ‘Jewish nose’ of the pamphlets is legible only by exceeding a normative expectation of what the nose will look like, rendering its size monstrous. But, the exhibition asks, where do these boundaries come from? The point is made most eloquently as you turn to enter the section on noses, and find yourself the subject of a full-wall mirror tagged with the question, ‘Have you ever considered having a nose job?’ Whatever the answer, the viewer is compelled to consider where their own nose stands against sociocultural standards of beauty, function, etc, and how they relate to the surgical possibilities available.


When I posted the photo on Facebook, the immediate response was from my father’s side of the family, who consider the family nose to be quite prominent (as this is the Cock side of the family, it is naturally known as ‘the Cock nose’). It’s considered to be something about the family face that diverges from normative beauty standards, probably reiterated as historically the subject of schoolyard teasing (along with the sticky-out ears). To my knowledge, no one has had a ‘nose job’; it’s considered to be purely aesthetic, and something we just get on with. As an aunt commented, “I have had to live with it and I don’t think it has harmed me 😘😘😉”.

Conversely, the exhibition very neatly outlines how such differences in appearances can cause harm when they are attached to prejudices and/or stigmatised identities, and point out that cosmetic rhinoplasty was particularly popular among Jews in 1920s and 1930s Berlin, “not so much from aesthetic considerations but in the hope that changing their appearance in this way would make them less vulnerable”.  The exhibition does a great job at raising lots of interesting questions, and I imagine would be particularly good for the large number of school groups who visit the museum.

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