Behind the scenes at the museum of ourselves

The Jewish Museum London has attracted impressive funding and visitor numbers, but it needs more of both

By Anne Joseph, April 11, 2012
The museum’s Welcome Gallery

The museum’s Welcome Gallery

After a £10 million, major redevelopment, and amid national publicity, on March 17 2010, the Jewish Museum London reopened its doors.

Two years on, at the launch of its latest exhibition, No Place Like Home: Photographs by Judah Passow, there is a palpable buzz of excitement. The 150 or so guests are thronging the building, in particular the gallery space where Passow's work is exhibited. The atmosphere chimes well with the museum's aim of creating a vibrant educational and cultural centre, welcoming to everyone.

Nonetheless, these are challenging times for the Camden Town institution - the harsh economic climate is having its effect. "I think is it the same for all arts and cultural organisations. It does have an impact," reflects director Rickie Burman.

What makes it more difficult is that the museum does not receive any government funding. "Most other European Jewish museums do, but we don't," says Burman. This means it has to charge visitors for entry and has to rely on contributions from donors, patrons, charitable trusts and legacies to survive. "It is fundamental to enable us to carry out our work," says Burman.

She hopes the position will change but "until we receive government funding, there's all the more emphasis on encouraging the Jewish community to support the museum. I am told that people love the museum but at the same time there are people who say they keep meaning to visit. More work has to be done in turning passive interest into active interest and involvement."

'There are people who say they keep meaning to visit'

Changing exhibitions is one way to attract repeat-visitors and the aim is to have at least two exhibitions a year. But, unlike other museums, there does not appear to be a planned rolling programme in place. Once again, funding is a critical factor. Burman says that, long term, the hope is to set up a dedicated exhibition fund which will put an end to the current arrangement of having to "take each one step by step".

In spite of the ongoing financial issues, there have been successes. Any weekday visit is likely to coincide with a school-group trip and Burman describes the museum's contribution to interfaith understanding through its educational work as "having a really beneficial impact. Ninety per cent of the schools that visit are not Jewish".

Professor David Cesarani, the historian and member of the museum's advisory council, believes that non-Jews can get a huge amount from visiting. The museum "conveys a sense that being Jewish is a way of life that is full of wonderful things, and not simply a religious calendar", he says.

Feedback from a visiting group of Year 9 girls who were part of a 90-strong, mixed school group from The Coopers' Company and Coborn School in Upminster, seems to endorse his view. One pupil described some of the displays as "really moving". Another said that Passow's pictures had made her "reflect about my own life".

"This is an area that is certainly succeeding," says the museum's head of learning, Caroline Marcus. In January alone, 1,500 students took part in the museum's schools programme.

Another success are the museum's volunteers. They welcome visitors and explain the exhibits. Some work directly with groups. Their contribution "is immense and positive visitor feedback shows that they so enrich the visitor experience", says Burman.

Before 2010, they were a small group of about 40 people; now the number stands at 150-200. Leonie Warner, front of house co-ordinator, whose responsibility includes management of the volunteers, acknowledges that "we couldn't function without them. They are the backbone of the museum".

Although the museum had 60,000 visitors in its first year (no detailed visitor survey is currently available), Burman is aware that they need to do better, particularly in attracting overseas visitors - an area where there is potential that has, as yet, remained largely untapped. Additionally, she is keen for the museum to be used as a communal resource, from family events to meetings.

The Jewish Museum was recently long-listed for the Sunday Telegraph Family Friendly Museum Award 2012 and, last week, 150 of its exhibits were selected to be part of the Google Art Project, an online virtual compilation of artworks from galleries worldwide.

The museum's first-ever chief executive, Abigail Morris, is naturally proud of these latest achievements but her thoughts are very much on the challenges ahead - which means money.

"I am bursting with ideas of how to develop this amazing museum but I am mindful of the current economic climate. We are very fortunate that we have Friends and donors who support us, but this is an area we will need to expand. We need to ensure consistent levels of funding."

Last updated: 2:10pm, April 11 2012