The Jewish Museum was hugely successful – but now faces major challenges

The former director of the museum comments on the museum’s past, and future

May 20, 2020 17:11

The Jewish Museum London has always been an exciting hybrid and intriguingly hard to categorise. I was lucky enough to be Director of the museum from 2012-2020 and was always trying to find the perfect way to describe it.

The name itself made some people wary. On the one hand, many non-Jews were put off by the misapprehension that it was an exclusively Jewish space.

On the other, many UK Jews, happy to visit Jewish museums in Berlin, Prague or Warsaw, didn’t feel the same curiosity at home: regular shul-goers might feel they didn’t need it, while secular Jews worried that it would be ‘too Jewish’.

My task was to make the museum so attractive that people would overcome their qualms – whatever they were – and come. The team and I focused on producing exhibitions and public events that were so appealing and of such high quality that previously reluctant attendees would genuinely want to make their way through our doors.

We did this because we believed that the Jewish Museum should face outwards. We wanted it to speak to the world at large from the heart of the Jewish community. We wanted it to be a bridge builder.

In our increasingly fractured world, we aimed to break down barriers and forge partnerships – both between Jews and the other groups making up multicultural British society, and internally within our own (occasionally less-than-harmonious!) community.

We wanted to celebrate Jewish history and culture – and our uniqueness, too, for the proud story of Anglo-Jewry is not defined by the Shoah, and unlike our sister museums throughout Europe, the Jewish Museum London is part of a vibrant living community.

And we were hugely successful. In the last year our artefacts were seen by five million people world-wide. Our exhibitions were critically acclaimed: Amy Winehouse toured the world breaking box office records (including San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Vienna, Melbourne and even Minsk); Blood also toured internationally and was named the Polish Cultural Event of 2017; our Abram Games retrospective was named by the Guardian as Exhibition of the Year.

Other shows broadened our audiences – the art and fashion worlds were drawn in by RB Kitaj and Moses, Mods and Mr Fish respectively; oft-overlooked stories were sensitively shared in Queer Jews; while families and fans of Judith Kerr will fondly remember The Tiger Who Came to Tea. We became the museum with the most diverse audience in London.

Our philosophy was best exemplified by the recent Jews, Money, Myth, which examined the age-old prejudices about Jews and money. It was important, challenging and exciting - and people of all ages and backgrounds flocked to it.

The exhibition reached 290 million people through press and media, and its contribution to tackling antisemitism won us the Museums Change Lives Award.

As well as expanding our audiences, we developed our education programme. The team concentrated on schools from deprived areas and the number of school visits climbed steadily. Teachers publicly thanked us for such an involving programme and privately acknowledged their fears about rising antisemitism in the classroom.

The Jewish community is gloriously philanthropic. As Jews, Money, Myth highlighted, the percentage of Jews who give to charity is much higher than the general population.

However, there are many claims on our generous but small community and I resigned some months ago because sadly, financial pressures mean the Jewish Museum London can no longer afford the ground-breaking artistic programme which I was hired to deliver and which won it such widespread popularity.

I have to admit that I’m sad that our community will be losing a bold, creative, engaging, world-class museum with exhibitions that dismantled old stereotypes and broke new ground.

But the award-winning education offer will remain central to its future – it is crucially important in combatting antisemitism and I’m incredibly proud of the amazing team who run it.

I know our Education Director Francis will ensure that this vital work continues as she takes on the role of Interim Museum Director and I wish her and the team a very warm behatzlacha.

Abigail Morris is a former director of the Jewish Museum

May 20, 2020 17:11

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