Shereen Hunte joined the Jewish Museum London’s learning team in 2017 and previously worked at Historic Royal Palaces as part of the Culture& Strengthening Our Common Life traineeship scheme, which is designed to increase workforce diversity across the heritage sector.
What does your job involve?
As a learning officer at the museum my job is pretty varied – especially since Covid-19 struck. My main responsibility is delivering our Judaism, history and holocaust workshops to primary and secondary students, and our support for teachers. Since I began my time at the museum, I have also managed and developed the museum’s Black History Programme which consists of the Race in Religion Black History Tours, the recent The Abayudaya: Jews of Uganda Exhibition, and our black history school workshops.
I manage the museum’s internships and placements, our online learning portal and lead on community exhibitions, including the My Home and Me exhibition in partnership with Red Cross’ young refugees and the most recent Your Legacy and Me exhibition in partnership with Jami (Jewish mental health charity) and the Holocaust Education Trust.
What do your black history tours cover?
The Race in Religion: Black History Tours explore the role of “blackness” in the Torah (Bible) and other Jewish religious texts and reflect on how that role has been interpreted by the Jewish community throughout history. Throughout the tour we learn how the community’s perceived “whiteness”, and consequentially their privilege, has positioned them in spaces of power over black people, namely during the transatlantic slave trade.
On the other hand, we take time to understand how the Jewish community’s history of persecution, pogroms and antisemitism has sparked a powerful empathy and alliance with the black community, which we demonstrate by looking into allyship during apartheid in South Africa. It ends with an insight into two of the many African Jewish communities: the Abayudaya Community of Uganda and the Beta Israel Community of Ethiopia.
The tour confronts a challenging and complex history and is perhaps slightly uncomfortable in parts. But through such discomfort, we can begin to break down prejudices, question learned truths and further our understanding about this rich and beautiful community.
When walking around the Jewish Museum London, you may not see many visual representations of Black or Brown Jews. The Black Jewish community is very much a demographic minority within England, and that is reflected in our collection and hence, our permanent displays. This does not mean that this community should not be reflected. My biggest hope is that when a black Jew, or a black person in general, engages with the museum, they feel represented. These tours are one of the many ways we seek to create such as a space, serving as a way for the black Jews, and other black communities, to be seen, heard and understood.
Tell us about your first Race in Religion virtual tour
At the start of lockdown, the museum made a decision to embed the Race in Religion tours into our general tour programme, as opposed to solely hosting it during Black History Month as we did before. The virtual tour was scheduled for 27 July. A few days prior to the tour, grime artist Wiley posted a series of highly offensive antisemitic tweets directed at the Jewish community. This sparked huge outrage across the Jewish community and their allies, resulting in a 48-hour Twitter walkout in protest against Twitter’s lack of response.
It also triggered a huge need for an honest and open conversation of the relationship between black people and Jewish people in Britain – and the Race in Religion Tour presented exactly that. Having been picked up across Twitter and beyond, the tour went viral and led to over a 500% increase in tickets sold. The tour was yet another reminder of the great importance and deep-rooted purpose of the work we do at the Jewish Museum London – to confront stereotypes, answer challenging questions and build solid bridges between communities.
How does the museum support anti-racism?
Anti-racism is at the heart of the Jewish Museum London. We bring this message through our permanent galleries, temporary exhibitions and our learning and engagement programme.
Our permanent galleries help to educate our audience on the history of Jews in Britain and their contributions since 1066. To be educated on such a history, is to acknowledge such a history exists and thus, be equipped with the tools to understand and consequently, stand up, for the British Jewry when confronted with everyday racism. Access and consumption of such education is one of the main tools in confronting antisemitism and racism within Britain.
Our Holocaust Gallery tells the story of British Holocaust survivor Leon Greenman. To understand his journey as a Jewish man, the persecution he faced and the activist-role he later assumed for the rights of Jews, black people and other ethnic groups alike, sparks a transferable empathy in visitors that transcends across injustices – this has been reflected in multiple evaluations.
In our temporary exhibition, The Abayudaya: Jews in Uganda, we seek to embrace Jewish history, culture and identity. Judaism and “Jewishness” is a rich melting pot of races, identities and intersections – all of which should be wholly embraced. We decided to programme the The Abayudaya: Jews in Uganda Exhibition, featuring the photography of volunteer, Daniel Goldwater, and professional photographer, Rena Pearl, in the Auditorium, the largest events and education space in the museum.
Originally, we chose to exhibit these photographs as part of the Race in Religion Tours but we soon realised their purpose meant so much more. For the students and visitors to consume, subconsciously or not, such imagery during a learning workshop or event is an extremely powerful tool in normalising blackness within the Jewish community and breaking down racist stereotypes and prejudices.
We hope to build a foundation of honest representation of the diversity of Judaism in the minds of young people
Our award-winning school workshops are fundamental in combatting racism and celebrating cultural diversity. Through our general school programme as well as specific diversity-based sessions exploring Jews of the world, we hope to build a foundation of honest representation of the diversity of Judaism in the minds of young people. All of our workshops finish with our Anonymous Question Cards, an incredible, yet uncomfortable, tool to pick up apart racist foundations, and build new knowledge.
At the end of the sessions, we give young people an opportunity to anonymously ask whatever questions they would like to about Jewish religion, culture and identity in the hope that we can tackle antisemitic and racist prejudices in a safe space. Students have asked questions a variety of questions including ‘why are all Jews rich?’, ‘who are these Black Jews on the walls?’, ‘why do we learn about antisemitism but not much about Transatlantic Slave Trade?’, ‘are all Jews white’, and ‘ was the Holocaust the Jews’ fault’. Uncomfortable as these questions may be, they present a unique and important opportunity to really disrupt the racist narrative that many people still consume to this day.
There is still much more to be done in the support of the anti-racist movement but I’d like to hope that our programming at the Jewish Museum London has made impact in the movement towards a less racist and more tolerant society.