Jewish Journal

The Jewish Museum London

Pavel Pustelnik

June 20, 2012 | 9:39 am

Any large city wants to be proud of their Jewish Museum. London, claiming to be the centre of the universe, is no exception to this rule.

It is easy to walk by the Museum without spotting it. The inconspicuous building is neither fenced nor loudly inviting with banners or signs. It’s a quiet place in the middle of crazy Camden Town that, for an average London visitor, has nothing to do with Jews. Sure there are some bargain clothes and hippie folk, but Jewish culture—not so much. The place, however discreet it may be, offers more than its modest facade.

Those who had a chance to visit the Jewish Museum in Berlin are in certain way “disabled” to appreciate any kind of interactivity that another museum can offer. The Germans probably used all the possible ways of making a visit not only informative but also fun an interactive, reminiscent of an amusement park. In that regard the London museum has a lot to learn from Berlin. The items are displayed in a very standard way – object, some text about it and that is all. Some stories are told through speakers or headphones. Perhaps more could be done to engage the viewer with the presentation.

Londoners focused a lot on the British Jews throughout the years. Firstly there was a short introduction to Judaism: this part was designed around the principles of the religion with exquisite Judaicas brought from different parts of the world. The section explores all the do’s and dont’s of Judaism, luckily explained in a way that literally everybody can understand. Some rules are explained by children—their talks are absolutely adorable. After this general introduction to Judaism the visitor is taken for a tour in history. London used to be a place of high importance for the Jews (as it is today). Even though being a Jew openly has been prohibited for more than 350 years the Island has had a unique allure that has been appealing to Jews all over the world. There are many things to be showcased as the first Jewish settlements in Great Britain can be tracked all the way back to 1066. The glossy posters reproduce the landscape of Jewish London, the Jewish areas that have been demolished and the legacy that has not been forgotten, but can be seen only contained in the museum’s walls. There are butchers, shoemakers, bankers and young people who aspire to be famous – all of them reduced to their testimonies, diaries and pictures. Obviously, space is given to the migrants who came to the UK in the 20th century, significantly changing the Jewish landscape of the country.

For me the standard of any Jewish museum is set by the Holocaust section. Perhaps this methodology is wrong, perhaps it does not capture the the efforts of the curators working on the whole display, but presenting this extremely delicate issue is always difficult. How do we avoid showing the Shoah in an inappropriate or misleading way? How do we make the place informative and bias-free? The Jewish Museum in London decided to follow a well grounded way of telling Holocaust by telling a personal story. Londoners decided to pay tribute to a Holocaust survivor, a UK citizen, Leon Greenman. Not only had he gone through 6 Nazi concentration camps, but his whole life after the war has been dedicated to campaigning against racism. Greenman died in 2008 and today his vivid testimony explains what Shoah was. His whole story is placed a bit apart, in a separate room. The idea is fantastic because the Holocaust, as part of Jewish history, has the potential to become the only part of Jewish History. There is much to learn and know about Jewish culture and ancestry beyond just the Holocaust. The museum did a good job at including the Holocaust without having it define all of Judaism.

Care of the curators has to be acknowledged. There is a visible line of the story that is being told. There is a plot that visitors follow and they are well guided. No matter if they are Jews or not, they are able to learn. However, the information is not always relayed in the most engaging way—a talking LCD is obviously not the most that a modern museum can offer.

The Jewish Museum
129-131 Albert Street, London, Greater London NW1 7NB

For those who cannot visit the Museum in person, I recommend seeing the on-line exhibition “ Jewish Britain: A History in 50 objects”: http://www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/jewish-britain-home as well as Yiddish Theatre in London: http://exhibitions.europeana.eu/exhibits/show/yiddish-theatre-en

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