A people's treasury

Reva Klein

Reva Klein visits the Jewish Museum's two London sites.

When the Jewish Museum moved into new premises in Camden Town, north London earlier this year, the transformation could not have been more dramatic. Nor could it have been more complementary to its sister site, the Jewish Museum, Finchley, formerly the Museum of Jewish Life. While the new site in Camden concentrates on the religion and the history of Jews in Britain, the Finchley museum focuses on the social history of British and European Jews from the end of the last century until now.

Forthcoming plans for the temporary gallery at the Camden Town museum include a hands-on exhibition for younger children and subjects ranging from the Yiddish theatre in London to Jewish boxers. The history gallery holds Jewish artefacts, paintings and silverware from medieval times to today. There is a wonderful Rembrandt portrait of an Amsterdam rabbi and intricate medieval paintings showing the strong oriental influences characteristic of Sephardic Jewish art. There is a miniature portrait gallery of 18th-century paintings that look like the great and the good of any community of the period, which is one of the points of the display: Jews came to Britain with the Norman Conquest and have taken an active and sometimes influential role in British society.

In the Ceremonial Art gallery, cabinets display religious artefacts from all over the world. A massive Italian synagogue Ark in which the Torah is kept dates back to the 16th century. Ritual silver and wooden objects from eastern and central Europe and the Arab-speaking world together tell the story of the 2,000-year-old Jewish diaspora.

Ruth Ann Lenga, education officer for the museums, who is based at Finchley said: "Both museums share the philosophy that you have to know the history of the people to understand Jewishness." To enrich pupils' understanding, a teacher's pack and activity sheets are available and visiting schools are offered an introductory talk, video on festivals, and guided tour.

The museum in Finchley interprets the social history of the diaspora, including a permanent exhibition on the Holocaust, and offers education programmes, worksheets and special exhibitions. It is a more informal venue. Oral history and photographic archives reveal the diversity of Britain's Jews and their heritage. A feature is its interactivity, particularly in the reconstructions of tailoring and cabinet-making workshops and an East End immigrant home.

* The Jewish Museum. Camden Town: Raymond Burton House, 129-131 Albert Street, London NW1 7NB. Tel: 0171 284 1997. Finchley: 80 East End Road, London N3 2SY. Tel: 0181 349 1143.

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