LONDON - Britain’s landmark Jewish Museum opened to the public on Wednesday after a £10 million redevelopment which has seen its space, to celebrate Jewish life, history and cultural diversity in the country, triple in size.
Based in Camden Town, northwest London, the museum’s expansion and redevelopment was made possible by a £4.2m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other donations from trusts, funds and individuals.
“I’m hugely looking forward to the Jewish Museum opening its doors again to the public,” Dame Jenny Abramsky, chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund said. “It’s been greatly missed but thanks to this major redevelopment it is looking better than ever. Now under one roof, the collections are truly inspirational, bringing together many different stories told in a wonderful range of voices.”
Writer and broadcaster Nigella Lawson and Alan Yentob, creative director of the BBC and one of the museum’s patrons, officially opened the museum, closed since September 2007.
“I’m very happy to be at the opening of the new Jewish Museum which has been brilliantly transformed to enable the fascinating contribution of Jewish immigrant culture to be shared and enjoyed by so many more people,” Lawson said.
“The reopening of the Jewish Museum, increasing its size and scope threefold has been much anticipated and I’m delighted to say that it really does exceed all our expectations,” Yentob said. “Here is a new national museum which reaches out to all faiths and all communities, both secular and religious and tells a riveting story of the nation’s oldest minority group in the kind of human detail which promises to surprise and enthral.”
The museum has four permanent galleries - a multimedia welcoming gallery in which you can hear about the lives of 10 British Jews on large screens – including concentration-camp survivor and former British weightlifting champion Ben Helfgott; a London cabbie who fought in the Yom Kippur War; a woman Chinese convert to Judaism; a smoked-salmon tycoon and a Guardian journalist.
Next is a Jewish history gallery which explores how and why Jews have come to the UK and
the challenges of making a new home in the country; then a interactive exhibit with films that look at the Jewish lifecycle and rituals. These are shown alongside rare items of Judaica, including silver Torah scrolls made by George III’s silversmith and a Torah mantle commissioned by the Mocatta family, one of the oldest Jewish families in Britain.
There is also a Holocaust Gallery which follows the personal testimony of London-born Auschwitz survivor Leon Greenman and other survivors who have made their home in Britain. The museum also has a large space for temporary exhibitions, a cafe and bookshop.
Visitors will be able to experience life in the Jewish East End at the turn of the 20th century; smell chicken soup cooking in a recreated Jewish kitchen; play Yiddish Karaoke and see a medieval mikveh dating from 1270, discovered in the city of London in 2001.
“What it means to be British and the issue of cultural identity has never been more hotly debated,” Rickie Burman, director of the museum said. “At the new Jewish Museum we explore these issues in the context of one of Britain’s oldest immigrant communities. We hope our ground-breaking new displays will inspire people to take a stand against racism and build interfaith understanding and connections.”
The opening of the museum comes at a time when the UK’s only other Jewish museum is struggling to stay open.
Manchester Jewish Museum – located in a former Spanish and Portuguese
Synagogue north of the city centre, completed in 1874 making it oldest
surviving synagogue building in Manchester – has played a huge role in
Jewish community life since it opened in 1984.
The award-winning museum faces closure within 18 months if it is unable
to raise the funds needed to cover its running costs of £150,000 per
The Manchester museum has launched a “survival appeal” in which it is hoping to raise the necessary funds.
“Please play your part in making certain that the museum doors stay
open. All we are asking is for you to covenant £5 a month, although any
donation is welcome, large or small! We also want you to ask all your
friends if they will assist us. This small amount could make such an
enormous difference to us and you would be playing such an important
part in keeping this landmark building open for the next 25 years, at
least,” the museum’s website appeal states.
Jewish Museum London: www.jewishmuseum.org.uk
Jewish Museum Manchester: www.mjm.org.uk