TAITMAIL Camden’s tale of two museums

This is a tale of two museums whose only other commonality is that they are both in the London Borough of Camden, but they each represent a different aspect of the angst that is keeping directors and trustees awake at night. I’m talking about the British Museum and the Jewish Museum.

What on earth is going on at the BM? Hartwig Fischer was handpicked, it’s said, by his predecessor Neil Macgregor and plucked from an obscure German museum to take over as director eight years ago with the specific mission to create a radical modernisation masterplan. This week there comes a press release announcing that he is leaving which includes a vague reference to the fact that the £1bn “multigenerational” masterplan is nearing completion and it is due to be published this autumn. Do those qualifying words “nearing” and “due” hint that maybe it won’t be appearing any time soon?

This development, says the Museums Journal, could end up as the UK’s most expensive ever museum development, which the BM’s current chairman was brought in two years ago to push through. That chairman is none other than the former austerity chancellor George Osborne.

Fischer said he is stepping down to change the direction of his career to concentrate on the rescue of the cultural heritage. He will stick around until a successor is appointed next year.

He has not had an easy time and has at least twice rubbed the government up the wrong way, in the person of the former culture secretary Oliver Dowden, now the deputy prime minister. For the record, the BM gets £66.6m a year from the government in subsidy, about half its overall income.

First there was the moving of the bust of the museum’s founder Hans Sloane when his connection with the slave trade was revealed, and the Roubiliac-crafted likeness was shifted from its place of honour in the entrance to a lower shelf in an obscure inner gallery. “We have pushed him off the pedestal” Fischer said. “We must not hide anything. Healing is knowledge”, just as Dowden was threatening to cut funding to subsidised museums that showed any signs of wokeness. Then there was an objection to the appointment by the board of Prof Mary Beard, the classical scholar and a vocal opponent of the government’s cultural policies, as a trustee. The board prevailed.

Fischer got the BM through the 20-21 lockdown when its visitor numbers fell by 97%, but there is so much else unresolved apart from the long-awaited masterplan. There’s the ongoing and long-standing issue of restitution, particularly of the Benin Bronzes, stolen in Nigeria by British soldiers at the end of the 19th century and distributed among museums, many of which have now returned them, but not (yet) the BM. There’s the Elgin Marbles issue which appeared to be nearing some sort of solution under Osborne’s aegis, but that has gone ominously quiet. Then there was Fischer’s steadfast adherence to the BP sponsorship which paid for many of the museum’s blockbuster exhibitions since 1996, but which only ended in June after more and more clamorous protests. Some headaches are more minor, like the need to apologise to a translator who wasn’t properly credited, but it all adds up.

On Sunday hundreds of supporters crammed into the Jewish Museum which was closing 90 years after it was founded. It has shut its doors because, says its chairman Nick Viner, the pandemic, the rising cost of living and declining footfall has made it unviable in its Camden location. 

It was a fabulous little museum whose permanent exhibition went into ways of Jewish life, kosher cuisine, the tradition of the East End tailor, Yiddish theatre. It gave a pragmatic and respectful introduction to the religion which was actually moving for those without any 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 was the 13th century mikveh, a ritual bath found by archaeologists in the City of London in 2001. 

The museum tackled the Holocaust pragmatically, by telling the story of 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. It also had wonderful temporary exhibitions, one of which, Amy Winehouse, went on international tour. 

It had a major refurb in 2010 which extended its gallery space, and made the decision to forego Arts Council funding to avoid the imposition of criteria the board felt were to appropriate to it, but last year was readmitted to the National Portfolio. It didn’t help, and mounting losses left the board with no choice but to “consider our vision for the future”.

But it is no more. The property has been put up for sale and the collections have gone into store in the hope that the generosity of, in particular, the Jewish community and businesses (though not exclusively) will help it find a new more prominent venue. But there was an air of despair among those crowding in to say farewell his week.

The Jewish story is too important to us as a nation not to be told properly, in its own museum, and the Amy Whitehouse show was an object lesson, as the museum’s former director Abigail Morris told AI: “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, like her guitar which her brother gave her because he thought it was crap” Morris said. “Jewish people have a lot to offer on how to build bridges, make connections and defuse prejudice.”

Viner said: “The museum has been inspirational and engaging, and I really hope it can find a sustainable way to reopen. “But the whole of the cultural sector is finding things really hard.” 


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