‘I love this job so much’


THE THING that mo­ti­vates me in life is the fu­ture of the Jewish peo­ple,” says Abi­gail Mor­ris, Chief Ex­ec­u­tive of Lon­don’s Jewish Mu­seum. “I think about it all the time. It re­ally mat­ters to me. I worry that you can’t pass on a joke about gefilte fish — you need some­thing sub­stan­tial, some­thing with longevity. Be­cause the mu­seum is rooted in books and his­tory, which is ev­ery­thing about Ju­daism, there is ac­tu­ally some­thing here for peo­ple to grab on to, to look into the past and into the fu­ture and to have a link to tra­di­tion. And, in th­ese days of fake news, peo­ple still trust mu­se­ums.”

Meet­ing Mor­ris at the Cam­den Town-based mu­seum, which has just been awarded Na­tional Port­fo­lio sta­tus by the Arts Coun­cil, it’s clear that she is pas­sion­ate about her job. Five years into the role, it still ex­cites her enor­mously: “I love this job so much,” she says. “I can have ideas and make things hap­pen. It’s in­tel­lec­tu­ally chal­leng­ing and, one minute you’re do­ing ex­hi­bi­tions about Ce­ram­ics, and the next Amy Wine­house or Ju­dith Kerr — my per­sonal favourite. It’s such a lovely pal­ette and you’re con­stantly learn­ing. And I love the fact that it rep­re­sents the whole of the Jewish com­mu­nity. Be­cause one thing that makes me sad about Bri­tish Jews is the split, the fac­tions. We’re so small al­ready, it’s de­press­ing.”

A bun­dle of en­ergy and en­thu­si­asm, Mor­ris barely takes a breath be­tween sen­tences. “I do talk fast,” she ad­mits. “I ex­pect things to be done quickly and I’m a highly im­pa­tient per­son. I al­ways think you’re go­ing to die soon, so you need to get it done fast!”

This ex­u­ber­ance is partly a le­gacy of her back­ground in the­atre. While at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity, she started a the­atre com­pany called Trou­ble and Strife, which won the Fringe First award. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, she turned pro­fes­sional and in 1992 be­came the Artis­tic Di­rec­tor and CEO of the Soho The­atre, where her achieve­ments in­cluded di­rect­ing the award-win­ning play Kristall­nacht and grow­ing the or­gan­i­sa­tion from a turnover of £200,000 to £2 mil­lion. Fol­low­ing a stint as Chief Ex­ec­u­tive of Jewish Women’s Aid, and then as Di­rec­tor at the cross-com­mu­nal think tank, Re­spon­seA­bil­ity, she joined the Jewish Mu­seum in 2012.

She says her ca­reer tra­jec­tory from the­atre, her first love, to mu­seum was partly mo­ti­vated by prac­ti­cal con­cerns — run­ning a the­atre did not fit well with bring­ing up three daugh­ters — but there was also a change in her out­look.

In an era “Hav­ing chil­dren, of fake and go­ing to Lim­mud news, for 20 years, re­ally peo­ple deep­ened my re­la­tion­ship trust with Ju­daism. mu­se­ums I orig­i­nally got

into the­atre be­cause I re­ally be­lieved it was an agent for so­cial change. But, af­ter 20 years, I wanted to do some­thing that more directly made a dif­fer­ence. While I en­joyed work­ing for the char­ity and think tank, I missed both be­ing cre­ative, and au­di­ences. Then the Jewish Mu­seum job came up and it seemed like the per­fect thing.”

De­scrib­ing her­self as a “com­mit­ted Re­form Jew”, Mor­ris grew up in Finch­ley with par­ents who were highly in­volved in the com­mu­nity and knowl­edge­able about Ju­daism. Her father, now in his mid-80s, still leads the ser­vices at his Jewish Care old age home. “They were com­mit­ted to Ju­daism but they were also very keen that we didn’t go to Jewish schools,” she re­calls.

“There was that fab­u­lous Bri­tish/Jewish ten­sion — how you ne­go­ti­ate that iden­tity — and my par­ents were in­sis­tent that the Bri­tish bit was as strong.” She went to Wood­house School and then Cam­den

School for Girls for sixth form.

Now aged 53, she says her faith is cen­tral to her life and her fam­ily. Her the­atre di­rec­tor hus­band, whom she met at the age of 19, is a con­vert to Ju­daism. “He con­verted be­cause he wanted to, not be­cause there was any pres­sure. He got to love Ju­daism and, by go­ing through the process with him, I also be­came a Jew by choice, not just by birth. Some peo­ple don’t re­ally think he’s Jewish and will say to me: “You’re a mixed mar­riage.” But we’re not — I mar­ried a Jew. He’s great about it but I find it very of­fen­sive.”

Defin­ing Jewish iden­tity is a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion for Mor­ris, both per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally. “A mu­seum is such a great place for ask­ing: ‘who am I and where do I come from?’” she says. “Find­ing out that Amy Wine­house was Jewish is ac­tu­ally shock­ing for a lot of ex­hi­bi­tion vis­i­tors. And, of course, she was so very Jewish. It’s be­cause of the im­age most peo­ple have of Jews, which is not our fault. Any time the me­dia has a story about Jews they’ll il­lus­trate it with Cha­sidic men, so that’s how the gen­eral public per­ceives Jews. But of course there are lots of dif­fer­ent ways of be­ing Jewish. It’s such a com­pli­cated iden­tity.

“I think many Jews find go­ing to sy­n­a­gogue more and more dif­fi­cult , es­pe­cially if they’ve mar­ried out or don’t be­lieve. But a Jewish mu­seum is a safe place, where it doesn’t mat­ter what type of Jew you are. Even so, I still think there’s a re­sis­tance about com­ing to a Jewish Mu­seum in the UK. Many Jews would choose to visit one in Ber­lin but not in Lon­don.”

She wants to make the mu­seum a safe and in­clu­sive place for every­one, Jew or non-Jew. Since tak­ing the helm, she has in­tro­duced a highly suc­cess­ful pro­gramme of tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tions — sub­stan­tially in­creas­ing vis­i­tor foot­fall — and vastly im­proved me­dia cov­er­age, rais­ing the mu­seum’s pro­file.

“Now the adult au­di­ence is over 70 per cent non-Jewish, and of the kids on school trips who come, prob­a­bly 97 per cent aren’t Jewish.

“We’re re­ally tar­get­ing schools from de­prived ar­eas, like Tower Ham­lets, many of which have very high Mus­lim pop­u­la­tions. We’re cre­at­ing aware­ness and tack­ling an­ti­semitism. We’re a real bea­con of tol­er­ance and di­ver­sity in an in­creas­ingly hate-filled world.”

Se­cu­rity is a con­cern in the cur­rent cli­mate, par­tic­u­larly fol­low­ing the at­tack on the Jewish mu­seum in Brus­sels in 2014. “It was a bit of a wake-up call. We’ve upped our se­cu­rity and we’re re­ally lucky that the Gov­ern­ment pays for this. Peo­ple do get ner­vous but the truth is you’re prob­a­bly safer here than you are in the mid­dle of Ox­ford Cir­cus.”

The fu­ture is look­ing bright. The award of Na­tional Port­fo­lio sta­tus (one of only three Lon­don mu­se­ums to re­ceive this) recog­nises the mu­seum’s na­tional im­por­tance, and marks the first time it has been awarded reg­u­lar public fund­ing. It’s also just been short­listed for Fam­ily Friendly Mu­seum of the Year for the first time, mak­ing a shortlist of 10 from 700 nom­i­na­tions. But Mor­ris is aware that mak­ing the mu­seum fi­nan­cially sus­tain­able is a dif­fi­cult goal.

“While I know the work we do is im­por­tant both cul­tur­ally and in terms of com­bat­ing an­ti­semitism, I’m also aware that a mu­seum isn’t go­ing to be most peo­ple’s first choice of char­ity.”

Oc­to­ber will see the open­ing of a brand-new ex­hi­bi­tion, De­signs

on Bri­tain, cel­e­brat­ing “Great Bri­tish de­sign by great Jewish de­sign­ers”.

“So much of re­ally iconic Bri­tish de­sign is ac­tu­ally Jewish de­sign,” ex­plains Mor­ris. “All th­ese émi­gré de­sign­ers came over and brought their amaz­ing tal­ent and dif­fer­ent ways of look­ing at things.” And for Suc­cot, she has hired the­atre de­signer Tom Piper (who cre­ated the poppy in­stal­la­tion at the Tower of Lon­don) to build an in­door Suc­cah.

“I want to make the re­li­gion ac­ces­si­ble,” she states. “I want vis­i­tors to feel that they’ve had a re­ally dif­fer­ent, pos­i­tive mu­seum ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause it was Jewish. I want to cre­ate a sense of ques­tion­ing and of ir­rev­er­ence here, those in­trin­si­cally Jewish things.

“And, of course,” she says, think­ing aloud, “food is im­por­tant, too. Be­cause ev­ery­thing Jewish is about food. Maybe every­one who comes should get some­thing to eat..?”

Mor­ris be­gan her ca­reer in the­atre and joined the Jewish Mu­seum in 2012


This Four Hands poster from 1944 fea­tures in the new De­signs on Bri­tain ex­hi­bi­tion at the Jewish Mu­seum

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