Life & Culture

Welcome back to our house of treasures

The Jewish Museum London is about to reopen. Keren David had a preview.


There’s an air of excitement at the Jewish Museum London when I visit to see the preparations for its reopening, a smell of fresh paint in the air. “Everything will be ready,” Frances Jeens, the interim director, assures me confidently — remarkably calm for someone who has spent the pandemic rethinking the museum’s role and purpose and is about to unveil the fruits of much thought and work.

The museum’s ground floor has been reconfigured, so instead of an empty hallway, visitors will now enter a social area which will combine shop and café — selling food from Daniels — and contain exhibits as well. Jeens hopes for a bustling “marketplace” atmosphere, which will give a sense of the vibrancy of our community past and present.

There are plans to turn the old café space at the back of the ground floor into a kitchen, where different generations can cook together. “Imagine this space full of people, with the smell of freshly baked challah in the air,” she says, as I look at a glass case devoted to the history of Jewish Care, and another showcasing the work of a PhD student.

We go up to the third floor of the museum, once the home of temporary exhibitions. It’s been repainted blue and green and is now a research centre, with a reference library – featuring bound copies of the Jewish Chronicle — a space where visitors can take an active role in the work of the museum, a photography area.

The walls are hung with pictures, there are display cases containing all kinds of interesting things — a wooden tray for koshering meat among them. A framed notice comes from an optimistic shul: “As soon as the reading of the Torah has commenced the entire congregation must be perfectly silent”, it orders, in stern capitals.


The first project that visitors will be able to join in with is the digitalisation of record cards from the Jews’ Temporary Shelter in the 1940s and 50s, which contain the details of migrants who used the shelter on their way to new lives after the war. Thousands of names will be on a database — a treasure trove for historians and especially those tracing their family trees. “I think there will be a lot of interest,” says Jeens.

She hasn’t worked alone of course. With us on our tour is Nick Viner, who took over as chair of trustees last July. Five new trustees have been appointed, bringing a wide range of skills in areas such as marketing and digitalisation. Aged from their early 30s to mid-60s, they are a diverse bunch. The next day they were due to take part in an away day to discuss the museum’s future strategy, a subject to which Viner and Jeens and their colleagues have already given a lot of thought. “I have strong hypotheses,” says Viner, “but also an open mind.”

It’s fair to say that they have inherited a big job — bigger even than the challenges brought by more than a year of pandemic lockdown. In February 2020, the museum faced a storm of troubles — a financial crisis, which saw director Abigail Morris depart and the museum withdraw from the Arts Council national portfolio.

In these pages Morris defended her strategy of mounting big exhibitions — one on ‘Blood’, another on ‘Money’ for example — which won the museum publicity and acclaim but left it with shaky finances. “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,” wrote Morris.

She summed up the problems faced by the museum. Its location in Camden meant it was out of the way for much of the Jewish community. 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’.”

Her solution was to make the museum face “outwards”, to help people overcome their qualms. Viner and Jeens have taken a very different approach. Their focus is on the museum’s own collection — more than 40,000 objects — and the community that it chronicles. They want to be a centre for study, in particular working with PhD students, and for social events, a place where families discover their own Jewish histories, and where schoolchildren learn what it is to be Jewish.

First though they have done a lot of work to put the museum back on a sound financial basis; “cleaning the stable” as Viner puts it. There has been a lot of dialogue with the Arts Council — it was Nicholas Serota, the Arts Council chair, who recruited Viner — there are new auditors and a new governance documentation and approach and new codes of conduct, things that “hadn’t been looked at for 25 years.”

In lockdown, the museum closed its doors, but carried on its work, switching to online. Within a week of lockdown the team were live-streaming events, and by May 2020 had launched Virtual Classrooms, a schools programme. “We have engaged with over 40,000 people through these programmes in just five months and revealed objects that are usually kept in store,” says Jeens, with obvious pride. Public events included sessions on the mediaeval Jewish community, the Jewish East End and Race in the Torah, a section on great British Jews was watched by nearly 5,000 people, there were 34,000 new visitors to the museum’s learning portal.

Enquiry, identity and community are all important aspects of the new vision for the museum, in some ways going back to first principles. When it was founded in 1932 the JC noted that it was the “proud possession of the whole Community — and not just the United Synagogue.” It was a period when Jewish communities across Europe were establishing museums. Belgium and the Netherlands both founded Jewish museums the same year. As the existential threat to Jewish survival became clear, the need to value our past became all the more important.

In 1932, the museum consisted of “ten museum showcases, one island show-case and one table case,” according to the JC. Our correspondent mentioned 20 framed prints given by the sons of the late Rabbi Sir Hermann Gollancz from his collection, and “among the other objects of interest is the Prayer for the Royal Family of the Hanoverian period from the now defunct Cheltenham Congregation.” It was housed in the new Jewish Communal Centre which was in Woburn Place — so it’s particularly fitting that Nick Viner is now in charge, as he was instrumental in setting up, building and leading JW3, the current community centre.

He hails from Sheffield — yes, those Viners — and was heir to the cutlery business, but it ceased to be a family business so he went into consultancy. He and his wife brought up their children as members of Belsize Park Synagogue, and he served on its board, and from that involvement came the invitation from Vivien Duffield, to get involved with JW3.

He found he enjoyed the opportunity to create something tangible, after years of advising others. “In some ways it took me back to my early years at the family’s factory.”

He stood down as CEO of JW3 in 2013 and has been working on Circle Sq, a network for over 50s, and also serves on the board of the Alexander Haus Foundation, the house that once belonged to Thomas Harding’s family which he wrote about in his book The House by the Lake. The hope is to create a centre for education and reconciliation.

Frances Jeens grew up “culturally Jewish”, between London and the Cotswolds, her mother’s Jewish family all in Australia. But now she lives in East London and passes her great-grandparents’ house every day. “I’ve come full circle.”

She has worked for the museum for nearly a decade, formerly in charge of its very successful schools programme which, before lockdown, would welcome 20,000 school children a year. Her interest in Jewish history was sparked when working in the Channel Islands: “I saw how Jewish history was told — or not told.”

One exciting project which lockdown has delayed will start in the autumn. The museum will lend objects to organisations and individuals — to bring the collection to a wider audience, and see objects in different contexts.

In my brief visit, I saw any number of objects that I’d like to have taken home with me — among them a cape once owned by nurse Doris Benjamin, its lining decorated with 177 cloth badges from the regiments of all the soldiers she nursed. Then there’s the beautiful stained glass window by designer Abram Games based on the medals of Jewish servicemen. Both of those items come from the collection of the Jewish Military Museum, which has been housed at the Jewish Museum London since 2015.

Somewhere among the museum’s 40,000 objects is a challah cloth donated by my father in the 1970s. It was given to him by the father of my best friend from primary school, who asked him to make sure it found a Jewish home. As my friend’s father is German, my parents didn’t like to ask for more details, fearing the worst. Years later, reconnected with my friend, I asked for its story. It turns out that her grandmother was active in sheltering Jewish families. What’s more, my friend was herself converting to Judaism. Just one item in a collection — but such connections and stories attached to it.

In short, the museum is a house of treasures, and we are lucky to have it.

A team of 100 volunteers are itching to get back to work, and tickets can be booked on the museum’s website. I can guarantee it will give you new insights into our past — and perhaps some new ideas for our future.

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