Expanding Manchester museum prepares for a £5 million makeover


The Manchester Jewish Museum has 31,000 items in its collection. But you would not know it from visiting its premises in a former Sephardi synagogue in Cheetham Hill Road.

With the downstairs synagogue area filled by a party of schoolchildren who are enthusiastically trying on tefillin, tallitot and kippot as a volunteer museum guide explains their significance, there is only the cramped upstairs gallery to explore in terms of the permanent exhibits.

Things are about to change with a £5 million expansion project which will bring the museum to a wider audience both during and following the construction work, anticipated to start in autumn 2018.

Explains museum CEO Max Dunbar, an application will be made shortly for further Lottery funding of £3 million, the original £426,000 grant having covered the development phase.

If a positive response is received in September, “we’ll go straight into delivery and appoint contractors”.

Beyond the Lottery money, £1 million has been raised from donors and trusts. An appeal will be launched next month to bring in the £700,000 still required.

When the premises close for 18 months during construction, a pop-up museum will operate at Manchester Central Library.

“It’s a great opportunity to reach more people,” Mr Dunbar says. “The library gets two million visitors a year.”

The two-storey extension will provide the museum with a striking, modern building inspired by the Sephardi traditions of its Moorish shul centrepiece, which opened in 1874.

A glass-fronted entrance will lead onto a museum shop and café. And whereas just one per cent of the museum’s collection is currently on display, there will be the space to showcase much more — and to keep a greater proportion stored on-site. Educational and community space will also be increased and there are plans for a succah and courtyard area.

“We tend to say to schools we can only accept 40 pupils. We’ll be able to double it. Teachers love how they can bring them into an authentic space. You can’t replicate this in the classroom.”

The project further incorporates restoration of the shul itself — for example, uncovering decorative motifs dating back to its early days which have been painted over. Oral histories will be available at the touch of a screen.

Visitor numbers are 15,000 annually. The expectation is that when the expanded site reopens in 2020, that number will triple. For those unable to go in person, the entire collection is being digitised.

Mr Dunbar stresses the importance of the museum in an ethnically diverse area, pointing out: “Most of our visitors have never been in a synagogue. We are starting to get Muslim schools.”

His own background is in heritage and the arts, having worked for the National Portrait Gallery, the Rugby Museum and Christie’s.

The opportunity “to become chief executive of a social history museum in my home city with the potential it has” was too good to turn down.

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