08 December 2010
Jewish history is one of the great stories - a grand narrative perhaps - of life as a minority. What would happen if a group of non-Jewish teenagers made art inspired by it? Answer - some highly original artworks which use historic Jewish objects in surprising ways.
The project was run by the Jewish Museum as part of Stories of the World, the largest youth engagement scheme ever held by museums. Stories of the World is one of the major strands of the Cultural Olympiad, which aims to expand participation in the run-up to 2012. Young people are invited to explore collections, telling stories about the objects that resonate with them.
Stories of the World has an explicit diversity agenda, seeking to reconnect young people from minorities to the museum objects that ‘belong’ to them. But the Jewish Museum did the opposite - inviting young people from non-Jewish backgrounds to make short films using its collection.
First, the museum recruited three young consultants, some of whom are studying film-making. These A-level students from nearby schools made their own film, but also volunteered alongside a professional film-maker to help four teams of younger teenagers create films. One of those teams was composed of Jewish teenagers who had seen the project advertised and applied.
But the museum “wanted to reach out to groups we hadn’t had a relationship with before,” as community curator Hollie Turner puts it. So three other teams were directly recruited from disability charity the Camden Society, the Irish Travellers Movement Britain, and Central and Cecil hostels for homeless women. Each group spent three days making a film based on objects in the museum’s stores.
Turner says: “Most had never been to the Jewish museum - it was a great experience for them to come here and learn about the stories we tell and how they could relate that to their lives.
“The Irish traveller kids could relate to the stories here as one minority to another. They wanted to change people’s opinions of their own stereotype so they picked a very stereotypical image of what an Irish traveller or gypsy is to people and then created three other characters - a Jewish person, an old person and a young person.
“The object they used to create the characters was a clothes-maker’s mannequin. It’s a very plain, standard body shape and they adorned it with different props and accessories to represent those stereotypes. Bodies are in one sense the same for everyone, but can be very different. The message was that we’re all different but we’re all equal.”
The result is a compelling, slightly eerie short film in which these constructed personas morph into each other using stop-motion animation.
Quite a contrast, then, with the warm, humorous film by teenagers from the Camden Society. Their film tells the story of Michael Jackson and Justin Bieber’s journey to the moon in a silver Torah holder. As the pair get closer to take-off, villains Blue Goblin and Green Leopard try to sabotage them, motivated by hatred for their “lame” music. It is both hilarious and moving - see it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XsAj_oneGsE at 8 minutes and 15 seconds in.
The Camden Society group were “definitely our most creative group”, says Turner. “They saw our collection very differently - things we would never have thought of. When they saw the Torah holder, which is a beautiful object, they were immediately drawn to it. It suggested to them the shape of a spaceship and that led them into their story.”
The project has produced a tremendous amount of learning. The teams acquired skills in film-making and working together. The young consultants found themselves tested in leadership roles.
The students also speak with particular relish about the diversity angle, illustrating museums’ function as a neutral ground where ‘bridging social capital’ can take place - in less clunky terms, bringing together people from very different backgrounds who would not normally mix.
Francis Wilmer, 18, says: “I would say I’ve been more affected by working with disadvantaged people than by working with the museum itself. You hear about these disadvantaged people like the Irish travellers but when you work with them you don’t see the disadvantage, they’re just people. It was interesting to be around a completely different culture to us.”
Finally, the museum has learned a lot about working with young people, in particular disabled people, and aims to run similar projects in future.
It has also been subtly shaped as a museum. Turner says: “The way the groups have used the objects, we’re making sure that’s been recorded. It’s an interesting story to tell - the way we present objects can affect how they are viewed. The films are on display in the museum, and the items that are used in them are kept in our stores, so they are being shown for the very first time. ”
The Jewish Museum exposed its stores to fresh eyes, and the result has been a process of mutual enrichment as the teenagers’ ‘petit recits’ - or local narratives - interweave powerfully with the grand narrative of Jewish history.
Find out more about the project and see all five films here: http://www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/Young%20Filmmakers%20Project