Manchester united: £6 million museum revamp is designed to appeal to all

The Manchester Jewish Museum is a space where visitors of any ethnic and religious background, or none, can come to learn, debate and share


The Manchester Jewish Museum reopened to the public for the first time in two years early this month. The decades-old institution had shut up shop to undertake a £6 million revamp after receiving a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and amassing a further £3 million in funding from private donors and trusts.

Housed in a Sephardi synagogue dating back to 1871, MJM needed to revitalise to remain viable. Multiple funding applications for works to refresh the tired-looking premises had been rejected.

So when the Lottery money was approved, museum trustees knew the cash needed to be spent wisely.

Working groups comprising historians, architects, community members and nearby residents spent months debating what a new and improved MJM should look like.

Philosophical questions over what purpose the museum should serve and who it should cater for provoked animated discussion.

But these intense conversations resulted in what the MJM can now offer — a space where visitors of any ethnic and religious background, or none, can come to learn, debate and share amid a collection of artefacts, audio and visual guides tracing the social history of Manchester’s Jewish community.

“Ultimately, the thinking behind the gallery and our whole approach was how do we make these stories relevant to more people?” explains museum CEO Max Dunbar.

“Most of our visitors aren’t Jewish and are coming to learn about Jewish history, culture and traditions. How can we make these stories interesting and engaging [to a wider audience]?”

The answer has been broadly two-fold. Firstly, the museum’s physical space and structure has been redesigned to be more inviting to the broader Manchester community. And exhibits feel evocative and relatable to Jew and non-Jew alike.

Acclaimed architect Katy Marks was assigned to lead the design on an extension to the North Manchester premises, alongside a revamp of the original 19th century synagogue. The idea was for the new space to accentuate the beauty of the old shul while also facilitating a greater connection to the diverse population around its Cheetham Hill location.

With such a multicultural locality, “we were very aware that a lot of people walking past could be ambivalent or maybe hostile and not feel welcome,” Ms Marks recalls.

“That’s part of the reason why we created a new entrance and basically a new museum next to it. The synagogue looks so explicitly religious… a lot of people felt intimidated.”

The extension has a light and airy contemporary façade, flowing naturally on from the shul, maintaining its brown brick colour scheme. Inside it lies the main exhibition space, a vegetarian kosher-style café, shop, community function space and a learning kitchen where visitors can make and consume traditional Jewish foods.

Meanwhile, the synagogue serves as a living artefact of a place of worship — and further as a cultural space for live events throughout the year. It has also undergone extensive works, with conservationists endeavouring to restore it to its former glory.

“What’s really interesting about the building is that the original architect was influenced by Sephardi origin countries rather than necessarily overtly Jewish motifs,” Ms Marks says.

“You can see all over the building what are basically Islamic architectural motifs.

“For us, that was a really poignant realisation — at that point in time someone’s decided that it’s totally OK for those kinds of cultural symbols to be mixed.”

Inside the extension, MJM curator Alex Cropper set out to compile an exhibition exploring what it means to be Jewish and Mancunian. The museum does not purport to teach its visitors about the Jewish faith — there are no Judaica exhibits or explainers of Jewish texts and customs. Rather, questions of identity are explored through a collection of more than 31,000 items, ordered not chronologically but around three concepts: journeys, communities and identities.

These universal themes were specifically chosen to highlight that the Jewish story, with its characters and history, has much in common with those of other ethnic and religious groups who made their way to Manchester from across the globe.

The stories and perspectives of a wide variety of Jews are represented — religious, non-religious, Zionist, anti-Zionist, LGBTQ+ and more.

MJM curators were keen to project that the community is far from homogenous and, like every other minority, has its internal diversity, whether in political views, sexuality, physical abilities or anything else.

This concept is emphasised in a room focused on the identities theme, where posters are emblazoned with quotes from Mancunian Jews past and present. One woman talks about the connection between her sexuality and Jewish identity; another examines what Israel does and does not mean to her as a Mancunian Jew.

“A lot of the museum is driven by the collection, as all museums should be,” Mr Dunbar adds.

“Since we opened in 1984, we’ve always had a social history collection. The London Jewish Museum has a renowned Judaica collection but we don’t have that. Our collection has always been about stories of Jewish Mancunians — we’ve never been a faith museum.

“Particularly here in Cheetham Hill where we are surrounded by such diverse communities, the parallels between those Jewish stories and the stories and histories of other communities in Manchester is why we took this approach.

“This was about creating a space for dialogue across difference, using the museum’s collection to spark debate and explore both shared and unique stories from diverse communities.”

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