It cost £10m, but will it keep the children busy?
Great day out or big let down? The Kriklers — mum Tali and children Noa, Ella and Gil — visit the new Jewish Museum
Gil Krikler examines a display of Judaica
The newly-refurbished Jewish Museum opens on Wednesday after a two-year, £10 million transformation. It boasts one of the finest collections of Judaica in the world, four permanent galleries and dozens of state-of-the-art interactive displays. Families will love it, say the museum's administrators. But will they?
There is only one way to find out - send in a family and see what they make of Anglo-Jewry's newest attraction.
The family in question is the Kriklers from Crouch End - 15-year-old Noa, 13-year-old Ella, and nine-year-old Gil, along with their mother, 44-year-old outreach co-ordinator Tali. Earlier this week they visited the museum's extended site in Camden Town and gave their verdict.
The building is now three times larger than formerly and is laid out over three floors. It has a 100-seat auditorium, a large space for changing exhibitions and, importantly, a kosher cafe.
I think this is a great way to show non-Jewish people what shabbat is really like
In the first area, the Welcome Gallery, a multimedia exhibit showing the stories of 10 different modern-day Jews is not yet up and running, so the Kriklers have to pass by the large, blank screens and head straight for possibly the museum's star attraction- a medieval mikvah.
"Cool!" gushes Ella. "Amazing."
Excavated in 2001 in Milk Street in the City of London, the mikvah is installed in its own recess below floor level, is surrounded by mirrors and spotlights.
"It's good to have something like this as the first thing you see here," says Tali. "It's really engaging and makes you want to find out more about it."
Up the stairs and on to the second gallery, "Judaism: A Living Faith", which showcases Judaica, including the oldest English silver Chanucah lamp, Torah scrolls and Seder plates.
Gil makes a beeline for the grand centrepiece, an interactive Torah display with electronic yad. "In most museums you just look around and see paintings and old objects," he says. "But with this you can actually do something. I like the way you can touch the yad - I enjoy playing on computers so this is quite good."
Tali drags Gil away to show him the Shabbat meal exhibition, a table set up for the traditional meal. As she steps into the area, a recording is activated and sounds of a family preparing for Shabbat can be heard. The candles on the table light up as the mother's voice recites a prayer. Gil is impressed and listens to the whole Shabbat recording, pointing out parts the family do at home.
"I think this is a great way to show non-Jewish people what Shabbat is actually like instead of just reading about it," Tali says.
The two girls pass most of the displays with only cursory glances before spotting the large 17th-century Venetian synagogue ark, and beside it, a model of the interior of a synagogue. They are instantly amused and begin placing the miniature congregants, chupah, ark and menorah inside the display.
"I'm not really that interested in the Judaica," Noa comments, "but I like this - it's like a doll's house."
The other displays in the gallery do not hold the attention for long and the family move on to the third gallery, "History: A British Story" - interactive displays exploring Jewish immigration over the past two centuries. Tali studies a map of countries Jewish immigrants have come from. She points out the places that the Kriklers have connections with - Syria, South Africa - and examines possessions immigrants have brought with them - a doll, a diary, a baseball. Gil heads straight to the interactive displays but struggles with some of them and gets frustrated when he cannot piece together a replica jug broken into pieces.
Noa is interested in a display called "Secret Jews" which tells the stories of the Jews who stayed in London after the community had been expelled in the 13th century. "I like looking at the gory stuff," she says. "I've never learnt about this sort of stuff at school. It's difficult to imagine now that these people went through this. It seems so backward."
Noa is not a fan of outings with her parents but when she sees an old photograph of Habonim children, her face lights up and she begins telling her mother about her experiences at camp and how much she is looking forward to her tour of Israel later this year. The photo draws her in and she begins to study the other images, calling her sister over to look.
The children move swiftly past the displays on the old East End until they reach the Yiddish theatre exhibit, where Gil enthusiastically dresses up in the costumes provided. "It's great that it's so interactive," notes Tali. "It keeps the kids busy, so I'm free to look around. And the labelling is helpful when the kids are asking questions. I know most of the stuff already but this puts it together in a cohesive way."
It is when they reach the Holocaust Gallery that mother and daughters slow down and spend time studying each display together. The gallery explores the Holocaust though the experiences of London-born Auschwitz survivor, Leon Greenman. Photographs, videos, clothes and memorabilia are on display around the room in glass cases.
Tali is concerned that Gil might be disturbed by the exhibit and keeps an eye out to check he does not wander into the gallery, but he is still distracted by the theatre costumes.
The family visited Yad Vashem in Israel in October and Ella begins to draw comparisons. "Following one person's story and looking at how the Holocaust affected them makes it more personal," she says. "I'd prefer to see more pictures though."
By the end of the tour, Noa admits she has been pleasantly surprised. "Mum usually drags us to museums and the idea of going with our family anywhere isn't appealing," she says. "I didn't think the museum would be so modern looking. It could have been quite boring but I like the way it's set up.
Gil is keen to come back. "I don't think I learnt that much but I did enjoy all the interactive stuff and didn't get bored," he says.
And after an hour and a half, Tali is relieved that the kids have not bickered too much and that there is still more left to do on a return visit. "You could combine a trip here with going to Camden Market, and with a kosher café here as well, it makes a good day out," she says.