Jewish Museum London may be selling its current building, but we are far from closing. London’s Jewish Museum has a rich 90-year history. It is justly proud of its award-winning, sector-leading education programme and its track record of bold, significant exhibitions including Jews, Money, Myth and Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. Since its opening in 2010, our building in Camden’s Albert Street has hosted extraordinary events, exhibitions and conversations.
However, the museum has never achieved financial sustainability. This is perhaps a sign that it never sufficiently managed to capture the imagination of, and generate widespread support from, the community at large. Instead the museum became increasingly reliant on a very small number of generous donors, culminating in a financial crisis in 2019 which left it without financial reserves.
When I applied for the role of Chair in July 2020, the Museum was just starting to come out of the crisis, but remained vulnerable to any increase in costs. As we reopened after lockdown I was inspired to see the museum return to its in-person education work — it had hosted more than 18,000 school visits in the year before Covid. We reinvigorated ourselves with a talented and diverse new Board, which recognised that long-term success and sustainability depended on developing a bold vision for the museum that would appeal to both the Jewish community and non-Jewish audiences.
We realised our building would not meet our long-term needs. Jewish Museum London is the smallest museum among major European cities, despite being home to the second largest Jewish community and hosting the second largest collection. Albert Street’s discreet street frontage and hidden location deter non-destination visitors; and the space cannot meet the growing demand for school visits.
Despite regaining important Arts Council funding, the cost-of-living crisis meant it became impossible to fund the huge rise in building-related costs — not just energy, but a swathe of deferred and ever more expensive infrastructure and maintenance needs.
Thanks to the generosity and prescience of donors over many years, we are fortunate to own our building. The Board realised the only way to save the museum for future generations was to sell the building and use the proceeds to support the transition model, and provide seed money towards a future museum, commensurate with the scale of the collections and the Jewish community in the UK.
Our vision for the future includes continuing to illuminate and celebrate the story of Jews in Britain, with state-of-the-art exhibitions in addition to up-to-date permanent displays. It also includes open stores for audiences to engage more widely with collections; a seamless physical and digital experience; and a more prominent location to welcome both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences in greater numbers.
In the meantime, we will continue our education work; the collections will move to storage and our team will continue to look after them and make them available to researchers; we are also in discussions with various organisations in London and around the country about enabling rotating temporary exhibitions.
Last week in this paper, Simon Schama commented that without the museum and its collections to show the nuances of our history, “there is no possibility of that cultural outreach beyond our own community, so we risk becoming misunderstood stereotypes.” Our collections carry community memory, and the museum not only cares for them but uses them to help illuminate the present. Our ability to welcome people from all backgrounds into dialogue in a non-religious environment is crucial to having a meaningful role in education and in the national conversation. Moreover, schools look to us to provide a positive early experience of Judaism and Jewish culture, to help combat prejudice and stereotypes — this includes our long-standing work with Holocaust survivors.
We are mindful of the need to develop not just a more sustainable institution, but also one that is better able to deliver on our mission.
As we learnt during the pandemic, having to close your premises does not mean having to abandon your mission. At this pivotal moment, it will be crucial that our community is behind the museum. Our decision to sell the building has not been taken lightly, but it provides an extraordinary moment of opportunity to re-envisage Jewish Museum London for the future.
Nick Viner is Chair of the Jewish Museum