While the museum holds a lot of quirky and fun objects, it is also home to many items of great historical importance. Though a large proportion of this collection is comprised of paper documents, accounts and records, it is the unique aesthetics of the objects that I feel hold the most interest. One such area of particular significance is the vast and varied collection of medals, which can be found both on display in the museum galleries, and in an impressive number of drawers in the museum stores.
Society Medals – The widest range of medals the museum holds are from Jewish Societies, most notably Order Achei Brith and Shield of Abraham. This was one of many ‘friendly societies’, which were established in England during the late 19th and much of the 20th century. As well as organising social events, these groups were formed to aid Jewish immigrants in times of illness and death in return for a small weekly payment. Social Clubs were also formed for young Jewish immigrants, such as the Jewish Lads’ Brigade. Established in 1895, it is the UK’s oldest Jewish youth movement, and provided children with summer camps and educational classes in order to develop new skills and aid social mobility.
School Medals – The history of Jewish youth in Britain can also be explored through the collection of school and sports club documents and paraphernalia. As is still custom, children and teenagers were often rewarded for achievements in sport events and school participation, such as punctual attendance. While children today might be more interested in a music voucher, or if they are particularly lucky cold hard cash, these intricate medals hold onto the memories of events in a way which expendable awards cannot.
War Medals – While the objects above are a priceless means of preserving the social history of Jewish immigrants, perhaps the most valuable medals in the museum’s collection are concerned with war and conflict. Our current exhibition For King and Country? showcases the involvement of Jewish soldiers in the First World War, through personal accounts, photographs and objects. Medals awarded to Jews for other war and military services are also preserved by the museum, and it is a great honour to be entrusted with these objects, which for their recipients are entrenched with great personal significance.
To see more medals from the museum collection, as well as loans from the Imperial War Museum, National Army Museum and British Library, check out our current exhibition which runs until 10 August 2014: www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/kingandcountry