Life & Culture

‘I love this job so much’

The Jewish Museum in Camden has just been granted National Portfolio status by the Arts Council. Hilary Freeman met its boss, Abigail Morris


"The thing that motivates me in life is the future of the Jewish people,” says Abigail Morris, Chief Executive of London’s Jewish Museum. “I think about it all the time. It really matters to me. I worry that you can’t pass on a joke about gefilte fish - you need something substantial, something with longevity. Because the museum is rooted in books and history  - which is everything about Judaism -  there is actually something here for people to grab on to, to look into the past and into the future and to have a link to tradition. And in these days of fake news, people still trust museums.”

Meeting Morris at the Camden Town-based museum, which has just been awarded National Portfolio status by the Arts Council, it’s clear that she is passionate about her job. Five years into the role, it still excites her enormously: “I love this job so much,” she says. “I can have ideas and make things happen. It’s intellectually challenging and, one minute you’re doing exhibitions about Ceramics, and the next Amy Winehouse or Judith Kerr - my personal favourite. It’s such a lovely palette and you’re constantly learning. And I love the fact that it represents the whole of the Jewish community. Because one thing that makes me sad about British Jews is the split, the factions. We’re so small already, it’s depressing.” 

A bundle of energy and enthusiasm, Morris barely takes a breath between sentences. “I do talk fast,” she admits. “I expect things to be done quickly and I’m a highly impatient person. I always think you’re going to die soon, so you need to get it done fast!”


This exuberance is partly a legacy of her background in theatre.  While at Cambridge University, she started a theatre company called Trouble and Strife, which won the Fringe First award. After graduating, she turned professional and in 1992 became the Artistic Director and CEO of the Soho Theatre, where her achievements included directing the award-winning play Kristallnacht and growing the organisation from a turnover of £200k to £2 million. Following a stint as Chief Executive of Jewish Women’s Aid, and then as Director at the cross-communal think tank,  ResponseAbility, she joined the Jewish Museum in 2012.

She says her career trajectory from theatre, her first love, to museum was partly motivated by practical concerns - running a theatre did not fit well with bringing up three daughters - but there was also a change in her outlook. “Having children, and going to Limmud for 20 years, really deepened my relationship with Judaism. I originally got into theatre because I really believed it was an agent for social change. But after 20 years I wanted to do something that more directly made a difference. While I enjoyed working for the charity and think tank, I missed both being creative, and audiences. Then the Jewish Museum job came up and it seemed like the perfect thing.”

Describing herself as a “committed Reform Jew”, Morris grew up in Finchley with parents who were highly involved in the community and knowledgeable about Judaism. Her father, now in his mid-80s, still leads the services at his Jewish Care old age home. “They were committed to Judaism but they were also very keen that we didn't go to Jewish schools,” she recalls. “There was that fabulous British/Jewish tension - how you negotiate that identity - and my parents were insistent that the British bit was as strong.” She went to Woodhouse School and then Camden School for Girls for sixth form.


Now aged 53, she says her faith is central to her life and her family. Her theatre director husband, whom she met aged 19, is a convert to Judaism. “He converted because he wanted to, not because there was any pressure. He got to love Judaism and, by going through the process with him, I also became a Jew by choice, not just by birth. Some people don’t really think he’s Jewish and will say to me: “You're a mixed marriage.” But we're not - I married a Jew. He’s great about it but I find it very offensive.”


Defining Jewish identity is a preoccupation for Morris, both personally and professionally. “A museum is such a great place for asking who am I  and where do I come from?” she says. “Finding out that Amy Winehouse was Jewish is actually shocking for a lot of exhibition visitors. And, of course, as it reveals, she was so very Jewish. It’s because of the image most people have of Jews, which is not our fault. Any time the media has a story about Jews they'll illustrate it with Chasidic men  - so that’s how the general public perceives Jews. But of course there are lots of different ways of being Jewish. It’s such a complicated identity.


“I think many Jews find going to synagogue more and more difficult , especially if they’ve married out or don’t believe. But a Jewish museum is a safe place, where it doesn’t matter what type of Jew you are. Even so, I still think there’s a resistance about coming to a Jewish Museum in the UK. Many Jews would choose to visit one in Berlin, but not in London.” 

She wants to make the museum a safe and inclusive place for everyone, Jew or non-Jew. Since taking the helm, she has introduced a highly successful programme of temporary exhibitions - substantially increasing visitor footfall - and vastly improved media coverage, raising the museum’s profile. “Now the adult audience is over 70% non-Jewish, and of the kids on school trips who come, probably ninety seven% aren’t Jewish. We’re really targeting schools from deprived areas, like Tower Hamlets, many of which have very high Muslim populations. We're creating awareness and tackling anti-semitism. We’re a real beacon of tolerance and diversity in an increasingly hate-filled world.”

Security is a concern in the current climate, particularly following the attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels in 2014. “It was a bit of a wake-up call. We’ve upped our security and we’re really lucky that the Government pays for this. People do get nervous but, the truth is, you’re probably safer here than you are in the middle of Oxford Circus.”

The future is looking bright. The award of National Portfolio status (one of only three London museums to receive this) recognises the museum’s national importance, and marks the first time it has been awarded regular public funding. It’s also just been shortlisted for Family Friendly Museum of the Year for the first time, making a shortlist of 10 from 700 nominations. But Morris is aware that making the museum financially sustainable is a difficult goal. “While I know the work we do is important both culturally and in terms of combatting anti-semitism,  I'm also aware that a museum isn’t going to be most people’s first choice of charity.”

October will see the opening of a brand new exhibition, ‘Designs on Britain’, celebrating ‘Great British design by great Jewish designers’: “So much of really iconic British design is actually Jewish design,” explains Morris. “All these émigré designers came over and brought their amazing talent and different ways of  looking at things.” And for Succoth, she has hired theatre designer Tom Piper (who created the poppy installation at the Tower of London) to build an indoor Sukkah. 


“I want to make the religion accessible,” she states. “I want visitors to feel that they’ve had a really different, positive museum experience because it was Jewish. I want to create a sense of questioning and of irreverence here - those intrinsically Jewish things. And, of course,” she says, thinking aloud, “food is important too. Because everything Jewish is about food. Maybe everyone who comes should get something to eat..?”


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