London: Blood; Uniting and Dividing @ the Jewish Museum

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The National Art Pass is the latest in the string of heritage-based memberships we’ve tried over the past few years, following in the wake of English Heritage and the National Trust (as regular readers will well know).  I’m quite sure I’ll end up annoyed with it before long for one reason or another, but it’s still early days, and I’m eager to put my membership to work.  Having just received my card a couple weeks ago, I decided to take it on its maiden voyage by visiting the Blood exhibition at the Jewish Museum, as it was due to finish shortly (28 February), and I’m enough of a ghoul to be drawn in by the mere mention of blood.

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Admission to the museum (sans National Art Pass…thanks to that, I could justify treating myself to a bubble tea) is £7.50, and includes whatever temporary exhibition they’ve got on at the moment. The museum is in a nondescript building amongst a row of houses down a side street in Camden (which is probably why I hadn’t been before; I generally avoid Camden when I can, but it turns out the museum is conveniently located where you can completely bypass the hell that is Camden Market if you get out at Camden Town station), and the door had no apparent handle; instead, I was directed to hit a button on a post nearby.  Seeing no other way of gaining entry, I obeyed, and nothing happened.  I bashed it again, a bit harder, and still nothing happened.  Just as I was questioning whether they were, in fact, open, a security guard appeared and opened the door for me.  I think I looked like a complete idiot, and I made sure to run out the door right behind someone when I left, to avoid another incident.  That door was not my friend.  Anyway, once I’d finally gained entry to the Fort Knox-like premises and had my bag searched, I headed straight up to the Blood exhibition, because I wasn’t sure how big it would be, and I wanted to make sure I had enough time to see it (the museum closes early on Fridays).  I needn’t have worried; although the museum is spread out over four floors, they’re all fairly small.

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I should apologise for the crappiness of my pictures; I took them with my phone, and my heart wasn’t really in it, so I did a pretty half-assed job.  At any rate, the Blood exhibit is (disappointingly) slightly less vampiric than the name would suggest, being more about the Jewish relationship with blood, from rituals like circumcision and the cleansing bath (mikveh) Orthodox women take after menstruation (I’ll try to avoid a rant about how much that idea of being “impure” irks me from a feminist perspective.  Ugh, religion is just NOT for me), rumours spread by Christians during the Middle Ages about Jews drinking blood, to the pseudoscience floating around about “purity” of blood in the era of eugenics and Nazism.  It was limited to one smallish gallery, but I think it was a good use of space, as there was a wall that split the main room in two and allowed for a darkened room at the end for things that needed dim light for conservation’s sake.

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Ok, I did say it wasn’t really about vampires, but there were a couple mentions of Dracula and such, and discussions of how the portrayal of vampires was influenced by harmful Jewish stereotypes; in the case of Count Chocula, it was because one of the box designs included Count Dracula clad in a Star of David pendant (likely a misinterpretation of the more rounded six-sided pendant Bela Lugosi wore in the film), which caused quite an outcry.  I actually really like the artistic style of the image in the book on the right (love those bat wings), which in a reversal of the stereotype, had a vampiric factory boss sucking the life out of his poor Jewish workers.

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The exhibit probably wasn’t worth a special trip, but it contained a number of interesting objects, and left me with plenty of time to look over the rest of the museum.  The gallery on the second floor was about Jewish communities in Britain, mostly from the Victorian era onwards, and contained a number of objects brought over by immigrants, like religious items, clothing, and even noodle making machines (delicious).  There also seemed to be a fair amount of interactive things, which I was too embarrassed to take advantage of as I was on my own and there was a woman leading a tour around the gallery when I was there, but there were costumes to dress up in so you could audition for the Yiddish theatre, or have your “wedding” photo taken.

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There was a Holocaust gallery at the back of this space, dedicated to a British-born survivor of Auschwitz named Leon Greenman (he passed away in 2008).  It told the story of how he ended up in a concentration camp: basically, he married a Dutch woman, and moved to the Netherlands to be near her family, but they didn’t leave during the war because they thought their British citizenship would protect them.  Unfortunately, they were eventually rounded up, and since their passports had been destroyed by “friends” who were meant to be keeping them safe, they couldn’t prove citizenship, so were shipped off to Poland.  He was separated from his wife and son, who were taken to the gas chamber (although he didn’t learn this til after the war), and was forced to perform hard labour in six different camps over the course of the war.  And was medically experimented on.  It was definitely difficult emotionally to read, and I admit I was tearing up when I looked at the personal items that his neighbours saved for him after he was taken away (presumably different neighbours than the ones who destroyed the passports), which included his wife’s wedding dress, which she had dyed black so she could re-wear it on special occasions, and some toys he’d made for his son (he never remarried or had more children).  But it was powerful stuff, and I’m glad I saw it.

The gallery on the first floor was definitely not as intense, nor as interesting, as it simply provided a fairly basic explanation of Jewish holidays and traditions, but it did contain a number of attractive ritualistic objects (if that’s your thing).  Finally, the ground floor housed a 13th century mikveh that was discovered on a building site in the City of London, and another small temporary exhibit of memory quilts made in tribute to orphaned children who survived the Holocaust and were taken in by British families.  (I teared up a bit again when reading the stories behind some of the quilt patches; this was definitely an emotionally draining museum.)

Although the museum is much smaller than other Jewish museums I’ve been to (and that Catholic Museum, if we’re talking religious museums), it certainly had just as big of an emotional impact, and I thought the overall layout of the museum was very nice; they made the most of their limited space.  Rating the museum as a whole, rather than just the temporary exhibition, I’d give it a 3.5/5, and I think it’s certainly worth checking out, if you haven’t been before (though I’ve probably left this post a bit too late for you to see Blood, it seems like they usually have some kind of temporary exhibit on).



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