Ex­pand­ing 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.

Most of our visi­tors have never been in a sy­n­a­gogue’

Max Dun­bar in­side the mu­seum

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