Helen Light: Inaugural Director of the Jewish Museum of Australia brought warmth and compassion into the Museum spaces.
As inaugural Director of the Jewish Museum of Australia: Gandel Centre of Judaica, from 1983 until 2010, Dr Helen Light AM created a space of innovation and expression, truly illuminating an Australian Jewish experience.
Dr Light was among the most admired of community figures, giving her time and talent, not only to the Jewish Museum, but to Museums Victoria, the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, the Jewish Christian Muslim Association, the Faith Communities Council of Victoria and the Ethnic Community Council of Victoria, among other places.
Starting with the Jewish Museum in its original location, at the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation in 1983, she was responsible for developing its significant collection and motivated a community to believe in the dreaming of a new and more ambitious home, a place where the Museum could reach beyond its original aims, to something more aspirational. By 1995, that ambition was reached, when she moved a now substantial and noteworthy collection, growing staff and passionate volunteers, into the Museum’s current place, at 26 Alma Road, St Kilda.
When writing about this momentous occasion, Dr Light said, “We can now fulfil our potential. We can mount comprehensive exhibitions on historical, ritual, cultural and controversially current themes relevant to Australian Jewish life today.” An ambition that still holds precious relevance for the Jewish Museum today, 25 years later.
Curating over 100 exhibitions at the Jewish Museum, she was described by staff and colleagues as having “dedication, integrity, patience and professionalism”, in her management of the Museum, staff and partners. Dr Light helped to define the Jewish Museum as the shining example of what a true community museum can be, where one can see, as she said when receiving the General Sir John Monash Award in 2019, “the wonder of life through the eyes of the other.”
Her belief in the Jewish Museum was constant. She said in an interview about the creation of the Jewish Museum that museums are, and should be, “safe places for unsafe ideas.” Her vision for the Jewish Museum was for people to “come here and discuss and debate issues in a completely non-threatening, non-political environment… for Jewish and non-Jewish groups to come together to do that.”
Dr Light has been published in a number of journals and books, participating for decades in cross-cultural and interfaith dialogues. In 2005, in recognition for her services to community as Director of the Jewish Museum, particularly though support of significant cultural exhibitions and community-based programs, she was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia.
The exhibitions, learning opportunities she offered and cultural engagements that Dr Light achieved in her life’s work, are a continuing legacy cherished by all those who have had the honour of working and collaborating with her.
May her memory be a blessing.