A Firsthand Look At the Amy Winehouse Exhibition at the Jewish Museum in London


Tucked away in a street lined of with clean and well-kept London townhouses, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this couldn't possibly be the place to hold an exhibition about the life of Amy Winehouse.

For someone who lived a life coloured with celebrity's excesses, the Jewish museum's exhibition of Amy Winehouse's life was a very modest affair and a far cry from the life that Winehouse led at the height of her fame.

Upon entering the building, you are greeted with an acoustic version of Winehouse's "Back to Black." That familiar bass line welcomes you in setting you up for what will be a very quiet and intimate exhibition, and taking pride of place at the front of the museum is Winehouse's dress from the "Tears Dry on Their Own" music video.

After taking a quick tour of the museum, which features exhibitions on the history of Judaism, the Holocaust, and the practice of Judaism, you then make your way to the top floor of the museum and the entrance to the Winehouse exhibition.

What immediately strikes you is how small the space is; a reminder that Winehouse died quite young. The exhibition gives you a glimpse into Winehouse's life. Gone are the references to her chaotic life, the drugs, the trips to rehab and the troubled love life. Taking center stage here are the family photos, school uniforms, dresses, her collection of fridge magnets, a bar (which she used as a substitute bookshelf), and a vinyl and CD collection that included Sinatra and Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff.

Music is very much the life and soul of the exhibition; Winehouse attributes her enthusiasm for jazz to her father who she says used to sing Sinatra all the time. During her school years Winehouse compiled in an excercise book a list of her favourite songs which included Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse; all of them play on a loop in the exhibition room.

Whilst I loved the exhibition, I couldn't help but have some mixed feelings about it, in part because part of me was expecting it to be dedicated solely to her relationship with Judaism.

For some, the idea of having an exhibition about Amy Winehouse seems a bit contrived; other than the early years of her life, very little links Winehouse to a devotion to Judaism. Given that the exhibition is held in London's Jewish Museum you would be forgiven for assuming that the exhibition would be dedicated solely to her relationship with her faith.

Some critics pointed out that Winehouse herself said she hated going to heder (Jewish Sunday school) and that she attended the Synagogue once a year for Yom Kippur "out of respect," occasionally joining the family for passover seder. You don't quite get a full picture of Winehouse's relationship to her faith.

In her essay she wrote when applying for the Sylvia Young Theatre School, Winehouse talks about how her family say she is gifted with a lovely singing voice and adds that unlike her father (a taxi driver), who sings often, "I want to do something with these talents I've been 'blessed' with." Later on in the exhibition there is an extract of an interview she did in which she says: "I love gospel, because gospel is so truthful. You know, I'm not religious, but there is nothing more pure than the relationship you have with your God – there is nothing stronger than that apart from your love of music."

In a sense, it does feel at times that Winehouse's relationship to Judaism is a somewhat tenuous one. But what is quite poignant about the exhibition is the emphasis on family. Taking centre stage at the exhibition was her old suitcase full of her old family photographs. Alex Winehouse says that Amy would insist on getting out the family photos every time there was a get together. In an interview with Totally Jewish magazine, Winehouse remarked: "Being Jewish to me is about being together as a real family. It's not about lighting candles and saying a brocha." And it is this emphasis on family that makes the Winehouse exhibition so intimate.