Review: Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, Jewish Museum, Camden Town

Subtle and un-sensational, this thoughtful exhibition, curated by the singer’s brother, is more than justified in telling one side of the story

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Amy at home, 2003 © Mark Okoh/Camera Press

Amy at home, 2003 © Mark Okoh/Camera Press

How silently and intently visitors study every backstage pass and scribbled letter. The atmosphere and reverence here is almost as potent as what is actually on display.

So what are we all contemplating? Original outfits (see photo gallery below), the famous ballet pumps, old vinyl, scrawled lists of favourite tracks (Jazzy Jeff, Fresh Prince, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Carole King), a family tree, a map of “Amy’s London” with flags on key places (including several Camden Town haunts), and plenty of easygoing contextual text and annotations from her brother Alex.

Amy’s 1997 application essay for Sylvia Young’s Theatre School, in which she talks about her need to be famous, takes centre stage, a statement of intent liberally quoted on the walls: “I just want people to hear my voice and forget their troubles for five minutes,” she says.

Elsewhere we learn that while she pretended to like Jackie Collins, Winehouse played down her intelligence and hid her Dostoyesky novels under the bed. A primary school tie with her name stitched into it is a bit of a choke-down moment, as is a suitcase of old family photos which Amy was apparently perusing in the days before she died: a powerful image hinting at something else Amy may have been grappling with.

So yes, this is a quiet show, well-judged and not overegged; subtle and un-sensational, with no mention of her struggles with drink and drugs, or Blake Fielder-Civil. Fair enough, of course, it is trying to show us another side, the ordinary north London Jewish girl, her heritage, a family portrait of a “much-loved sister,” as Alex has said in interviews.

But there as we leave, amid a white wall covered in hand-written Post-it notes by Amy fans – and amid the more predictable RIPs – is this: “I loved her and was so upset when she died. I’m a Jewish girl with addiction problems too.”

It’s a confession that lingers in the memory as much as anything else in the exhibition, and one which somehow universalizes Amy’s addiction, leaving only the hardest of hearts unmoved.

Click to see a gallery of images from the exhibition

Runs until Sept 15. £7.50 entrance (to whole museum). Free entrance to ground floor only, featuring a couple of exhibits. Open late night on Thursdays, until 9pm, 129 Albert Street, Closed Saturdays.
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