Heritage preserved by museum's Rickie

RIGHT ROYAL GREETING: Rickie (right) welcomes Morocco's Princess Lalla Joumla Aloui to the opening of an exhibition about Jewish life in Morocco

FROM talking with Rickie Burman for just threequarters of an hour, it would be fair to say that she was destined to become the director of the Jewish Museum, London.

Born and raised in Liverpool, Rickie was always aware of her eastern European immigrant roots and was a proud Jewish student.

"I have strong memories of being asked to be a representative of the Jewish girls at school," recalled the mother-of-two.

"I was one of the few Jewish girls at Belvedere and I remember the religious studies teacher often turning to me and asking, 'What do the Jewish girls think about this?'

"I think this encouraged my sense of wanting to be an ambassador for own community, which in a way is what I do through work now at the Jewish Museum."

The daughter of Berenice and the late Dr Eric Burman, Rickie showed a passion for history from a young age and was influenced by lessons at Childwall Synagogue.

She explained: "At the time, Rev Shalom Segal and Mrs Segal ran a special course in Jewish history for the few of us who were motivated at the time.

"This was the first time we had studied post-biblical Jewish history - cheder didn't tend to cover this area of history - and it really developed my interest."

After leaving Belvedere, Rickie spent a year in Israel, studying at ulpan and working on archaeological digs before heading to Cambridge to study archaeology and anthropology.

While studying in Cambridge, Rickie met her future husband Dr Daniel Miller, who is now a professor at UCL's anthropology department.

"I was focusing primarily on the archaeology of the Near East at that point and I was thinking of making aliyah," she explained.

"But I discovered that I was more interested in social anthropology than archaeology. In anthropology you are much closer to the living people and I was interested in different ways of life."

Although most students spend their days partying, rather than working, Rickie took an active approach to life and didn't waste any time applying what she had learned in Cambridge.

She scooped a fellowship with the British Institute of Persian Studies and then spent time researching in the isolated Solomon Islands.

Rickie continued: "I was in Iran jut before the revolution, working on archaeological sites and surveys. And I spent six months in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.

"They were both fascinating experiences - while I was there I didn't just carry out research, I was also trying to encourage people to take an interest in their own roots and heritage."

After completing a Master of Philosophy degree in social anthropology back in Cambridge, Rickie turned to her own roots and was concerned that little was being done to document the Jewish community in Britain.

It was then that she made contact with the pioneering historian Bill Williams, who was recording oral history and recovering archives and photographs in Manchester.

"I was very fortunate that there was a job available in Manchester with Bill and I was initially appointed a research fellow at the research unit in Manchester Polytechnic," Rickie explained.

At just 24, she had come up trumps and she was to spend the next few years recovering and recording Manchester's Jewish history.

But, as the anthropologist revealed, her life could have panned out much differently if she had taken a different fork in the road.

"I was offered two jobs on the same day - the other one was at a Liverpool museum working on cinemagraphic collections," she said.

"I had to decide which way to go. I didn't know at that point this would be the start of a journey developing Jewish museums."

Having a particular interest in the changing role of Jewish women and immigrant generations, Rickie was able to develop this in Manchester.

She continued: "I think there is a sense of immigrant in all of us.

"And I was influenced by feminism at the time - the fact that my own mother had gone back to university as a mature student was a huge achievement and inspired my interest in women's roles."

Rickie proved she was far beyond her years when she discovered there were plans to establish a Jewish museum in Manchester - and she immediately became involved in the project.

"At that stage the project was very much in jeopardy because funds hadn't been raised and there wasn't a swell of opinion backing the project," she recalled.

Rickie devoted time obtaining funds with the Jewish heritage committee, gaining planning permission and creating more awareness of the importance of the project to Manchester's community.

"We had already gathered a tremendous amount of material so to actually make that available for people to see in a museum was fantastic," she added. "I remember feeling a huge sense of achievement on the opening night, having seen the project through."

The original displays created by Rickie and the team still remain in the Cheetham Hill museum.

Many would be put off by the seemingly endless work involved in opening a museum, but the Manchester Jewish Museum gave Rickie a taste of what else could be achieved and she was spurred on to do more.

Moving to London, she was met with the opportunity to develop another museum - and she was appointed curator of the Museum of the Jewish East End in 1984.

"I was able to build on experience and draw on the work done in Manchester," she said.

"Even though the Jewish Museum had already existed in London since 1932, it didn't exhibit anything less than 100 years old.

"We aimed to recover the disappearing heritage of the Jewish East End."

The museum later became the London Museum of Jewish Life and it joined with the Jewish Museum in 1995 at the same time that Rickie was appointed its director.

She smiled: "This was a whole new chapter of the story!"

Rickie headed a team of trustees and was the driving force behind the museum's 10 million redevelopment. In 2002 the museum set about planning an architectural renovation and Rickie applied for funding from trusts.

"We were awarded a 5 million Lottery grant and closed the museum in September, 2007," she explained. "Really we created a brand new museum.

"When it was opened in March, 2010, it was really wonderful to see what we had envisaged and dreamed about coming to fruition." The new museum not only aims to educate and encourage understanding about Jewish life and history but it is a celebration of diversity and works to combat prejudice.

And with an ever-changing exhibition schedule, the museum - which was highly commended in the British Guild of Travel Writers' Best UK Tourism Project 2010 - focuses on Jewish people from all over Britain and the world.

Just last week Rickie welcomed Princess Lalla Joumla Aloui, of Morocco, and the Mayor of Marrakech to the opening of the museum's latest exhibition about Jewish life in Morocco.

Rickie continued: "Morocco ties in with my interest in Jewish diversity and my background anthropology.

"It looks at the 2,000 years of Jewish life in Morocco, which is little known but very significant.

"It is also an example of a country where there has been positive Muslim Jewish co-existence over a long period - the beautiful statement from the King of Morocco read out at the exhibition is a testimony to the positive relations."

Rickie's passion to do more and create further exhibitions is seemingly unstoppable.

And the director revealed that the museum is already planning a May, 2011, exhibition about Jews in the British entertainment industry.

"It was a huge challenge to have opened the new museum and complete the project," she added.

"But I very much want to carry on preserving our Jewish heritage for the future, while interpreting it in a way that is accessible and meaningful today."

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph