As Manchester Jewish Museum reopens on 2nd July, its chief executive, Max Dunbar tells us what to expect.
The Manchester Jewish community has a long and rich history; a history which Manchester Jewish Museum has painstakingly curated and presented: “The museum opened in 1984,” explains chief executive Max Dunbar. “It opened in a former shul, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road. The last service in the shul was in the late 1970s. We have a collection of over 31,000 items and all those items relate to Manchester’s Jewish heritage. Unlike the Jewish Museum London which tells the national story, our collection is primarily focused locally.”
The museum was closed two years ago in order to allow a £6 million development programme to be undertaken. £3 million of the funds for this project were received from the National Lottery Heritage Fund: “The project has allowed us to build a two-storey contemporary extension next to the synagogue, which houses a café, gallery, and a learning studio and kitchen.”
The gallery offers a much larger space than the museum had previously to display artefacts, enabling it to tell more stories from the Manchester Jewish community. They have made the decision to display the artefacts by theme rather than chronologically: “We didn’t want to have a long timeline on the wall,” Max explains. “Partly because it goes out of date very quickly, but also because we appeal to a very diverse audience: Jewish and non-Jewish. While we want our Jewish visitors to identify and enjoy the collection, we also want our non-Jewish visitors to be able to identify and relate as well. There are three core themes in the gallery: journeys, communities, and identities.
“Journeys very much explores why people came to Manchester. Through economic migration or fleeing persecution. There’s a communities section which explores how the different Jewish communities have grown and developed over the years. That looks at organisations and individuals, and the growth of synagogues across Greater Manchester. We explore festivals and traditions, and work-life practices as well, looking at how Jewish people have contributed to the growth of the local economy. And then the final theme in our gallery is identity. The purpose of that is really to show both Jewish and non-Jewish visitors just how diverse Manchester’s Jewish communities have been and are today. It’s a real celebration of that diversity. It’s about showing that Jewish people have very different opinions and think about things differently. We’ve selected 16 individuals that we’ve recorded in our oral history collection, all of whom have very different opinions and perspectives on various issues. We’ve selected quotes from those interviews and blown them up into a large installation with digital interactive screens which allow them to explore these individuals’ stories in more depth.”
In the new extension, the museum has also added an archive store: “The 31,000 items we have are kept in a professional museum store that’s environmentally controlled. Manchester’s Jewish heritage is now preserved for future generations in our collection. In that space we also have a researcher’s desk, so going forward, once restrictions are relaxed, researchers can come in and there’s a dedicated space for them. People can research their family history, or academics can come and study the collection.”
The new extension isn’t the only change that Manchester Jewish Museum has undertaken. The synagogue itself has undergone restoration to restore it to how it would have looked in 1874 when it was built: “A major part of the development project was obviously the new build, but another important part of it was the restoration and refurbishment of the synagogue. The museum has been in the synagogue since 1984. When we were just in the synagogue there was some confusion about whether it was an old synagogue with a few displays in or if we were a museum. We used to have all the displays in the Ladies’ Gallery, so it was cluttered with objects and pictures and documents, which took away from the beauty of the architecture.
“Now that we have the new collection, the synagogue has been put back to the way it would have looked in 1874. We had historic paint specialists come in a few years ago. They took paint samples from the wall and analysed the pigments. From that, they could then determine what the exact colour scheme was when the synagogue was first opened. Based on that research, we’ve now put back that original 1874 colour scheme. The building itself is a Grade II listed building and is renowned for its Moorish architecture influenced by the Alhambra in Granada. A lot of those Moorish features have been restored during our developments. We’re hoping that visitors will enjoy seeing the restoration as much as we have.
“We had to think about how to explain to our visitors what the various features of the synagogue are. Many aren’t Jewish and have probably never been in a synagogue before. The approach we’ve taken is that we’ve got audio pods which are positioned around the synagogue, and we’ve just completed a project working with the local Sephardi community. We wanted to put Sephardi voices back into the shul. When visitors walk past these pods, they’ll be triggered and will play recordings of local Sephardi Mancunians talking about the features of the shul and how they worship.”
As well as these extensive restorations, between 2nd July and 3rd October the synagogue will also host an installation by Turner Prize-winning artist Laure Prouvost as part of Manchester International Festival. “We’ve been very lucky to work with Laure. We commissioned her to produce a film installation in the Ladies’ Gallery inspired by the stories of Sephardi women who would have worshiped there. The synagogue was an Orthodox synagogue; men worshipped downstairs and the women upstairs. Laure has been working with our producing team and going through the archives and listening to the oral histories. She’s been working with local Sephardi women and has produced a film of them talking about their own experiences. It’s a contemporary film; we’re really excited by it. There are other displays and installations dotted around the synagogue which I can’t go into at the moment, but I think everyone will enjoy and be surprised by them. It’s going to be a wonderful experience and a great way to reopen the synagogue.”
After seeing all these amazing additions, a sit-down and some good food might be in order. Luckily, the museum now has a brand-new vegetarian, kosher café. “It’s just something a bit different. I think it really encapsulates what the museum is now. The café is inclusive for everyone. Some of the dishes that we’ll be serving are inspired by traditional Jewish recipes, but we’ve put a contemporary twist on them. We have dishes like lentil soup, bagels with schmear and carrot lox, and falafel. It’s a real mixture of Ashkenazi and Sephardi foods, to celebrate the diversity of Manchester’s Jewish community.”
Manchester Jewish Museum is now open. Pre-booking is required as the museum will be putting in place timed entries as one of its many methods of reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19. To find out more and book your ticket visit Manchesterjewishmuseum.com or call 0161 834 9879.