AI PROFILE Telling the oldest story
Abigail Morris, chief executive, The Jewish Museum
Our Monday morning appointment with Abigail Morris at the Jewish Museum in Albert Street, Camden, was can- celled because of a bomb threat there, a day when there was another rash of alarms at Jewish institutions across the US and Canada. That same day a similar threat, by phone, was made to the Sydney Jewish Museum.
British Jewish schools had been on alert since January after similar calls were made to schools in Roehampton, Ilford and Brent. The museum, says Morris, had already stepped up security following the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014, with extra stationing security guards outside the front door to search visitors’ bags, and more inside.
“I was told I’d been calm and collected through the whole thing, but it was extremely scary” she tells AI. “There has definitely been a rise in antisemitism, and something like this brings it. It was very frightening.
“We welcome thousands of visitors to the Jewish Museum every year, including 20,000 schoolchildren – I’d say 70% of adult visitors and 90% of children are not Jewish” Morris says. “Vengeance is not what we do, we are against every level of hatred and intolerance in the world, which makes this kind of thing so inexplicable and worrying.”
The Jewish Museum underwent a £10m remake in 2010 to tell the story of Jews in Britain, from their introduction by William the Conqueror to their persecution by successive kings and rehabilitation into society by Oliver Cromwell, to their rise in business and politics and their modern integration into and influence on British society at all levels.
The permanent exhibition also goes into ways of Jewish life, kosher cuisine, the tradition of the East End tailor, Yiddish theatre. It gives a pragmatic and respectful introduction to the religion, with a representation of a synagogue and four rabbis from different schools of the faith giving short accounts of their creeds. The oldest object is the 13th century mikveh, a ritual bath found by archaeologists in the City of London in 2001.
And there is Leon Greenman, a Jew whose wife and toddler son were murdered in the death camps but who himself survived Auschwitz and spent the rest of his life – he died in 2008 aged 97 shortly after completing a filmed interview for the museum – telling an initially incredulous world of the full Nazi terror.
When she and Alan Yentob reopened the museum seven years ago, Nigella Lawson said that it told the story of a people maintaining its distinctiveness but also being deeply interwoven in the society around; a lesson, Yentob added, to inform all immigrant issues. Those remarks take on a grim new purpose, Abigail Morris says now, as the Jewish Museum finds itself at the centre of a new wave of racial intolerance.
Keeping the museum operating, though, is hard, costing £1.8m a year with no subsidy. She sees an injustice in the fact that large national museums are DCMS-funded which allows them free admission while smaller ones of different but no less importance have no grant and must charge. “That all needs to be rethought” she says.
She was a surprise choice to be- come chief executive of the museum in 2012. She had been head of Jewish Women’s Aid and of ResponseAbility, a Jewish think tank, but before that her career had been entirely in the theatre, and it had been Morris who, as artistic director of the Soho Theatre which was losing its lease, got a brand new theatre built and opened in Dean Street – ironically, on the site of a former synagogue. It was the mid-90s when property in London was cheap and the theatre was built for just over £10m, opening in 2000. She brought many new writers to the West End via the 150-seat venue, and by 2005 was celebrating 17 years in the job.
“There were two jobs that came up at about the same time, at the Royal Court and the National, and I really didn’t want to do either and didn’t apply” she says. “This, on the other hand, was perfect for me.”
Because, she says, directing a play and creating an exhibition are not so different, their ultimate aims being the same: to tell a story. The need for drama to light the imagination is in both, and the celebrated theatre designer Tom Piper with whom Morris collaborated at Soho designed last year’s major exhibition, Blood, for her. “But the difference is that as a theatre director I have to wait for playwrights to come to me with an idea. Here, with the terrific team we have I can make my own ideas reality in an exhibition”.
So it was with Blood that traced the importance of blood, how it can unite and divide society, from the infamous medieval blood libel by which Jews were falsely accused of horrific crimes to the sea of poppies at the Tower of London in 2014.
It is with exhibitions that she has made her initial impact, increasing the length of them from a few weeks to a few months. “The museum has 45,000 visitors a year and I’d like more, but the task is to bring new people in and then encourage them to repeat their visits, and temporary exhibitions are a way to do that” she says.
She had barely arrived when she tackled the question of how to mark the London Olympic Games and found the little known story of Ludwig Guttman, a German Jewish neurosurgeon and hospital director who fled to Britain in 1939, established the spinal injuries centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, and organised the rst Paralympic games there to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics.
There has been an exhibition about Jewish British entertainers, from Alma Cogan to Marc Bolan, and later this year there will be the work of Jewish British graphic designers. She has focussed on unfairly forgotten but successful Jewish women and on Jewish gays and lesbians, “because we have to link with the real world, as theatres do, otherwise we won’t be believable”.
In 2013 she mounted an exhibition devoted to Amy Winehouse who had died two years earlier. “It was on for six weeks and then toured around the world where it had sell-out audiences” she says, “and if something’s been a success I see no reason in not trying to repeat it”. So the exhibition comes back this month for a six month run, with many of the objects provided by her family and the display expanded with new objects, like the tattooist’s design for Amy’s right arm, a portrait of her grandmother.
This time, however, the exhibition will proceed outside the museum, with a trail of street art devoted to the Winehouse legend stretching around Camden, her home town, created by her friend the graffiti artist Pegasus.
“It’s a warming story about a great artist who was also a Jewish family girl from Camden, with the things that meant most to her, such as her guitar which her brother gave her because he thought it was crap, and we want to get the story out onto the streets too” Morris says. “Alan Yentob was right about having lessons to learn, and Jewish people have a lot to offer on how to build bridges, make connections and defuse prejudice.”
1964 Born, London, England
1983 Université de la Sorbonne: Diploma in French language and civilisation
1983-87 Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge MA: 2.1 history / social and political sciences
1984-90 Founder and artistic director of Trouble and Strife Theatre Company
1990-91 Visiting fellow at Cambridge University
1992-95 Launching and running Soho at the Cockpit Theatre
1995-2000 Building Soho Theatre
2000-05 Launching and running Soho Theatre in Dean Street
1992-05 Artistic director and CEO of Soho Theatre Company
2006-08 CEO of the charity Jewish Women’s Aid
2008-12 CEO of ResponseAbility
2012 - CEO of Jewish Museum, London