Bringing a communal heart to London’s historic Jewish museum

The real marvel of historic buildings is their ability to change with the times, but its needs skill to breath life into these spaces whilst retaining their character.

London’s Jewish Museum sits in an old Victorian townhouse in Islington, a couple of doors down from Ottolenghi’s restaurant.  It has a café serving classic Jewish lunches – bagels and pickles – that is tucked away at the back of the building, behind the exhibitions spaces and a big, rather baggy, hall.

The vision for the project was to transform the front of the building into a bustling piece of the city, to capture the density and energy of a Jewish home, and create a communal dining room right off the street.  This was to be a transformation of the entrance sequence into a series of spaces filled with personality and showing off the collection.

The entrance hall becomes a cabinet of curiosities, with walls filled with exhibits, large and small, with doorways into the deli and the exhibition rooms within the walls like doors into individual shops.  A small bench for perching, unpacking bags, or folding up umbrellas sits within this.

The deli itself is moved to the ‘front room’ and is modelled around a Jewish dining table – inherited furniture, good smells from the kitchen and light filtered from the street through jars of pickles and preserves.  The walls are adorned with photos of families from the museum’s collection, all carefully lit to give the room a feeling of calm density.

Working outside of visiting hours was key for the museum, and so all of the furniture was designed to be self-finishing – no messy paint or plastering – and made as a kit-of-parts that could be assembled very quickly on site.  We used three different colours of xx – a through coloured wood composite board – to give a visual order of horizontal and vertical elements set out in proportions drawn from traditional Jewish shop frontages.  This way the works could be carried out in mornings and evenings without interrupting visitors, or the museum’s research staff.

These new spaces transform the experience of arriving at the museum with spaces that condense the conviviality and pride of a Jewish home into a public welcome.  This is set within a scale that, although civic, still feels like somewhere you might hear your grandmother calling after you on your way out ‘did you remember your coat?’