London Museum (mini) Challenge #4: London Jewish Museum

December 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

London Jewish Museum

London Jewish Museum

Shameful confession time: the reason I didn’t include the London Jewish Museum on my original list last year is that… up until a few months ago, I thought it and the Ben Uri Gallery were one and the same. Even more shameful – it took one of my colleagues getting a job at the London Jewish Museum to make me realise my mistake!

So the Sunday before last, I took myself to Camden Town to make up for this, and to tick the last museum in this mini-challenge off my list.

The museum is divided into three sections – the first is an introduction to Judaism, its practices and customs, the second covers the history of Jews in Britain (with, not surprisingly, an emphasis on London) and the third is a space for special exhibitions – on my visit, an exhibition about graphic designer Abram Games. (If his name doesn’t sound familiar, his work probably is – he designed the emblem of the Festival of Britain.)

The first part of the museum I must admit I approached with some trepidation, for the subject matter hits rather closer to home than, say, London’s canals or foundlings. I am Jewish but I have a complicated relationship with it: I have been an atheist my entire adult life and haven’t set foot in a synagogue (except as a tourist) in nearly twenty years. There are quite a number of aspects of Judaism and Jewish life I find unpalatable (Orthodox Judaism’s attitudes toward women, the concept of being a ‘chosen people’, and don’t even get me started on Israel…). And yet, in some ways I still, and suspect always will, feel culturally Jewish, even if I don’t have any faith. (I’ve settled on calling myself a Jewish atheist as this seems like the most accurate description, although even that feels like a compromise.) So I was curious, but also slightly nervous, to see how the museum presented Judaism to the uninitiated.

Jewish Museum London

I needn’t have worried – they do it very even-handedly, through a beautiful array of objects (the collection of Sabbath lamps and spice boxes is especially stunning) combined with a judicious number of videos bringing them to life by showing them in use. Still, I couldn’t help noticing that twin sensation of familiarity and alienation that accompanied me past every vitrine.

The second section was, however, more interesting (for me at least). I already knew a fair bit about London’s Jewish community in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but very little about earlier periods, apart from the fact that England had been the first country in Europe to expel its Jews (in 1290). I was fascinated to learn that it was Oliver Cromwell (not otherwise known for his great tolerance) who welcomed them back in the 1650s, and that Falmouth and Penzance used to have sizeable Jewish communities (I wish I’d known that when I visited Cornwall last year, although I certainly didn’t see any signs of it).

The Abram Games exhibition, though small, was intelligently and beautifully put together. The Festival of Britain emblem might be his best known work, but I was surprised by how much of his work (or at least, his very distinctive style) I recognised – I’d simply had no idea who was behind it. If this is typical of the quality of exhibitions the museum organises, I’ll certainly be going back for others.

I ended up staying almost until closing time and being one of the last visitors – so much for my initial qualms!

And so I’ve completed my mini London Museum Challenge (not that this was ever in doubt – four museums in two months isn’t exactly a tall order). Looking back over my list, short as it is, I notice an interesting trend – most of the museums on my original list were of the art/stately or historic home variety; this year, only one (Pitzhanger Manor) falls into that category and three-quarters were museums of social history. They’ve shown me three totally different sides of London. And my understanding of my adopted city is that much richer for it.

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