Visit to the Jewish Museum London archives by Steering group member Carrie Foulkes – artist, writer and Newham resident.
The Jewish Museum is tucked away on a calm residential street just off of Parkway in Camden. This was my first visit to the museum and I had looked forward to it for some time. I was excited to encounter the collections and hear from those responsible for curating the objects and stories within. The question of how to represent complex and interconnected histories in a coherent way is one that we in the Raw Materials community steering group have been asking ourselves continually as we investigate the history of wood in the Lea River Valley.
We were divided into two groups. One group was whisked away by assistant curator Miriam Phelan. I remained with two others and spent the afternoon with Kathrin Pieren, the collections manager who recently joined the museum. Kathrin took us into a small room where multiple wooden objects and assorted papers were arranged on a large table. We studied an antique toolbox, a massive wooden compass, a chisel and various grooving tools. We heard that the toolbox belonged to an East Ender by the name of Abraham David Leigh.
I donned protective gloves and picked up the saw. I admired the carved initials and reflected on the family lineage this tool represented. The saw was passed down from grandfather to father – the transmission not only of an object but also of a trade. This brought to life the personal nature of these tools, which seemed imbued with the ghostly presence of the hands that had held them, worked wood and made a living with them.
I was particularly interested in discussing the approach of the Jewish Museum to collecting the present. It’s important to collect while you still have lots of contextual knowledge but how is it possible to know what’s significant when there’s so much stuff everywhere? Which objects will future historians consult in an effort to try and understand our present era? This was a tangential and fascinating conversation.
I feel there’s a tension between the desire to conserve history and the desire to let historical objects live. When you place an object behind glass, rendering it untouchable, in what way does this deny its identity by denying its function and purpose? We were entertained by a story about a Seder plate that was donated to the museum with the stipulation that the family can use the plate at Passover. Every year, museum staff remove the plate from its case using protective gloves and the same level of care that would be given to any object within the collection. The family collects the plate, eats from it and returns it to the museum for safekeeping until next year.
Before we knew it our visit was at an end. I had been so taken with the objects and our various discussions that I had forgotten to ask any of the questions that I arrived with. Who were these Jewish carpenters? Where did they come from and where did they go? In what ways can it be said that the history of wood in the Lea River Valley is bound up with the histories of Judaism in the East End?
The pictures were taken with permission of the Jewish Museum London.