Rickie Burman is the director of the Jewish Museum, London

Jewish museums help the wider community

Rickie Burman, Issue 112/02, p17, 01.02.2012
The Jewish Museum, London, recently hosted the annual Association European of Jewish Museums (AEJM) conference, bringing together 100 Jewish museum professionals from 53 institutions around the world.

It opened with a keynote speech by cultural commentator Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett on why Jewish museums matter. This set me thinking again about the role of Jewish museums, both within an international context and in Britain today.

At a fundamental level, Jewish museums have a vital function in preserving Jewish heritage. In the case of Jewish museums in Europe, this may mean preserving the memory of a community destroyed in the Holocaust.

Here in the UK, the Jewish Museum’s collections primarily reflect the diverse roots and history of a living community.

In contrast to the US, the majority of visitors to Jewish museums in Europe are often not Jewish. London’s Jewish Museum has a multifaceted role, and our aim is to engage visitors from varied backgrounds with layered displays that create connections through an emphasis on personal narrative.

For many years and in many European contexts, Jewish people were the archetypal minority, the outsiders, and accounts of their history, as told in Jewish museums across Europe, are revealing about attitudes to diversity, to cultural or religious difference, and to integration.

Yet the Jewish experience is also a touchstone for a more positive story, which shows how society has benefited from immigration, while the immigrant community retains its distinctive identity and traditions.

In reflecting the history and culture of one of Britain’s oldest minorities, the Jewish Museum has an important role in promoting community cohesion and a positive appreciation of diversity.

As museums, we are agents of history; through displays, events and learning programmes, we all seek to promote intercultural understanding and dispel stereotypes.

All cultural organisations in Europe are feeling the effects of the financial situation and Jewish museums are by no means immune.

But while the majority of European Jewish museums receive some government funding, we receive none and rely on the generosity of Friends and donors, as well as ticket sales.

As a pan-European network, we are all tackling financial challenges, yet in spite of this, there’s universal agreement that we must continue to shout about why Jewish museums matter – to our visitors, to governments that fund (some of) us, and to those who support us or donate their time as volunteers.

Rickie Burman is the director of the Jewish Museum, London, and outgoing president of the Association of European Jewish Museums