All religions are practised within a larger social context, but different religions may relate to that context in different ways, posing particular issues for the way that religion is communicated through museum display. Christianity, for example, when displayed within a Christian country, will tend to focus upon the specific arena of religiosity. The Jewish minority within the same country is more likely to employ an integrated approach that sets religion within the context of history and social life. This is partly because Judaism is not only a set of beliefs and practices--it is also a way of life. The representation of Judaism therefore presents particular challenges and opportunities within a museum context. This article will provide a case study, focusing on Jewish museums within Britain.
I will start with a description of the specific display of ceremonial art and the evocation of religious spirituality. Then I will explore the communication of the wider social and historical context of Judaism. Finally, by reference to a sensitive educational programme, I shall illustrate how the ritual and the historical aspects of religious life can complement each other in the communication of this larger sense of religion.
First, however, a brief description of the two museums used to illustrate these points. The Jewish Museum in London was founded in 1932 and for many years remained in the Jewish communal headquarters in Tavistock Square in central London. In 1995 it reopened in new premises within an attractive listed building in Camden Town, and in the same year amalgamated on a two-site basis with the former London Museum of Jewish Life, based within a vibrant Jewish community centre in Finchley, North London. The two locations of the Jewish Museum, London, have complementary functions. At the flagship museum in Camden, permanent galleries are devoted to Jewish ceremonial art and to Jewish history in Britain. These are complemented by a Temporary Exhibitions Gallery for changing exhibitions. In contrast, the emphasis at the Jewish Museum in Finchley is on the roots and social history of Jewish people in London. Plans are now in progress to expand the London Jewish Museum at its Camden premises, in order to integrate the complementary collections and displays, currently divided between the Finchley and Camden sites. This will provide additional space for temporary exhibitions and educational facilities, and will bring together for the first time the Museum's outstanding Judaica collections with its wide-ranging social history displays reflecting an important part of Britain's diverse cultural heritage
The Manchester Jewish Museum, established in 1984, combines both religious and social history displays within a single building. It is based in the beautiful setting of the former Spanish and Portuguese synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road--the oldest surviving synagogue in Manchester. In Scotland, Glasgow Jewish Archives carries out some of the functions of a museum, actively preserving material and mounting exhibitions relating to Jewish history in Scotland.
A common aim of the Jewish museums, both in London and Manchester, is to serve as a window on to the Jewish world. The Jewish Museum in London seeks to 'illustrate and explain Jewish, religious life through objects of rarity and beauty'. Its collections of Judaica …