Jewish Museum opened by Nigella Lawson

(And Nigella has the first bite)

By Marcus Dysch, March 18, 2010
Nigella Lawson, Alan Yentob and Vanessa Feltz exploring the exhibits at the refurbished Jewish Museum

Nigella Lawson, Alan Yentob and Vanessa Feltz exploring the exhibits at the refurbished Jewish Museum

The new Jewish Museum opened to the public this week following a two-year, £10 million refurbishment project.

Housing one of the world's most impressive Judaica collections, the Camden museum has already received critical acclaim and promises to showcase Jewish life in Britain, cultural diversity and use technology to bring history to life.

It was officially opened on Tuesday by cook and broadcaster Nigella Lawson, and BBC creative director Alan Yentob.

Mr Yentob said it would be a facility "not just for religious Jews, but for people interested in their own past.

"What's special about this museum is that it tells a story of immigrant culture that chimes with many communities in Britain today. It tells a story that resonates with people because of the human details. It's very engaging."

The museum, which received a £4.2 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, has four permanent galleries, a 100-seat auditorium, an education area, a kosher café and a gift shop. It is three times its original size after being extended into an adjacent former piano factory.

In numbers

21,500 square feet of floor space

115,000 people expected to visit each year

25,000 artefacts and photographs

Oldest exhibit is a gold medallion with Jewish symbols and Greek inscription from Roman or Byzantine empires of the 3rd to 6th centuries

Video panels introduce visitors to all kinds of Jewish people including an Indian-born, marathon-running grandmother; a London cabbie; and a smoked salmon manufacturer.

The History: A British Story exhibit provides an opportunity to play interactive games, including comedian David Schneider's Yiddish Theatre karaoke. The smell of chicken soup wafts across the museum from a recreated traditional immigrant kitchen.

A range of Jewish life events such as weddings and a barmitzvah are revealed in newly-commissioned films in the Judaism: A Living Faith section.

Among the remarkable Judaica items is an ark believed to be from a Venice synagogue which dates back to the 17th or 18th century. It was found in 1932 in a Northumbria castle where it was being used as a servant's wardrobe.

Visitors are encouraged to take a closer look at items including a tallit bag from Casablanca; boxer Harry Mizler's shorts, adorned with a Union Jack on one leg and a Star of David on the other; and an ornate 1930s barmitzvah robe from Bukhara in central Asia.

There is even an autographed baseball brought to Britain in the 1980s by former JC editor Ned Temko.

A Holocaust gallery explores Nazism and tells the story of London-born Auschwitz survivor Leon Greenman.

Museum director Rickie Burman said: "What we have sought to do is create a landmark world class museum that is welcoming and engaging to people of all faiths, ages and backgrounds.

"There's a strong focus on personal stories. We want the experience to be fun but also enhance understanding and interpretation. We also hope we can have a positive role in enhancing interfaith work."

The ground floor's main feature is a mikveh, first excavated in Milk Street in the City of London in 2001 and now installed in a recess surrounded by mirrors and spotlights.

The refurbishment includes combined displays of items from the London Museum of Jewish Life, which amalgamated with the museum in 1995.

The Jewish Museum is one of only 14 in London to be awarded Designated status by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

Touring the exhibits, Nigella Lawson said: "The Jewish story shows a very positive view of what immigrants can be, and that where you start off does not have to prejudice where you will end up in terms of contributing to society."

Architect MJ Long said consideration had been given to keeping the building light and airy.

The museum will host a range of events including poetry evenings, young artists' craft sessions and a comedy night.

Last updated: 4:45pm, March 18 2010