Interview: The story of the Manchester Jewish Museum as it celebrates new beginnings

“We tell the story of Manchester’s Jewish community and it’s a very positive story celebrating the fact that Manchester is a city which brings people together.”

The year is 1984, in the midst of a decade which saw the appointment of Sir Alex Ferguson as Manchester United manager, the rise of bands such as The Stone Roses and The Smiths and the construction of landmarks such as The Bridgewater Hall and the Manchester Arena.

Yet, one event in 1984 which supports Manchester’s status as a hotspot for multiculturalism and diversity is somewhat unknown to many Mancunians.

The Manchester Jewish Museum opened in March 1984 and since then has enjoyed 35 years of educating all societal demographics with a wealth of exhibits that showcase the history of Manchester.

“It was fate really that there was this collection in the Polytechnic and a synagogue building that was about to be left abandoned as the two came together and in March 1984 the museum doors opened,” Max Dunbar, CEO of the Manchester Jewish Museum, told Mancunian Matters.

Bill Williams, a Mancunian social historian, had been piecing together a collection of aural histories concerning Manchester’s Jewish community and this same collection is still exhibited in the grade II listed synagogue on Cheetham Hill which formally became the Manchester Jewish Museum.

However, the synagogue, which Dunbar described as “one of the finest examples of gothic architecture in the country”, is showing its age and now requires extensive repairs and maintenance to restore it to its former glory.

The museum has seen no lack of support however in terms of funding, receiving around £3million from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and an extra £2million from individuals and charitable trusts and organisations.

“It’s been incredible the amount of love and passion there is for this museum, particularly from the Jewish community,” said Dunbar, who was thankful for the amount of care shown to the museum.

“There’s a lot of pride in this museum that shares or preserves the community’s heritage.”

With the synagogue now closed for repairs, a temporary home was needed to set up a pop-up version of the museum and where better than Manchester’s iconic Central Library.

Later today the grand opening of the pop-up Manchester Jewish Museum by Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, will take place and it will remain in Central Library until 2021 when the transformed synagogue will reopen.


The change in venue is seen as an opportunity to generate a broader audience for the exhibitions since the Library receives roughly 1.5million visitors a year.

“We’ve always sat on the edge of the city centre and haven’t engaged as well perhaps as we should have done with a wider audience,” said Dunbar.

“So this is our time now to come into the city centre.”

Creating excitement about the renovated synagogue is also an aim during the museum’s time at Central Library and emphasising the improvements to the site including doubling the size of the museum, the addition of a new gallery, a cafe and shop, and a learning studio.

Not only is the transformed museum being promoted but also a renewed interest in the relevance of heritage and history in modern society that serves a didactic function.

One function of the museum is to highlight the volatility that can arise from persecution due to racial or religious divisions and in this way advances the need for a harmonious society as people who are separated are instantly opposed.

This ideology of a societal collective is directly presented through life in Manchester since the city has always shown resilience against injustice and segregation which affirms perfectly the views reflected in Manchester’s Jewish heritage and message of unity.

The museum also aims to educate young people about Manchester’s social history and they welcome 7,000 schools a year to see the exhibits. 

“It’s really important that those children and young people have the opportunity to come to places like the museum, walk through the historic doors, see the history and the atmosphere and learn about the history of the jewish community from our collections and from our building,” said Dunbar.

Whilst the museum is open in Central Library, it’s situated next to the children’s section which is hoped will boost footfall with visiting families or schools and from engaging young people.

The pop-up style of the museum seems to offer a different experience to one of a conventional museum.

“It’s more than just a traditional set of museum displays, it’s designed so to be much more interactive and playful so young children can interact with it and learn from it,” added Dunbar.

In another way, the museum also does more than showcase exhibits and pieces of historical documentation through shows and artistic festivals such as last year’s ‘Festival of Leaving’ which explored the themes of leaving, loss and legacy through artistic mediums.

The festival featured 50 different artists and took on a more immersive format for a museum, as Dunbar explained: “We’re a museum that is alive and we bring our collection to life through performances, not just through displays.”

More festivals like the ‘Festival of Leaving’ are anticipated in coming years and the museum will have different creative ideas going forward with their creative producer, Dr Laura Seddon, who aims to bring historical stories to life in new creative ways.

This initiative will help to reach out to audiences who otherwise might not visit the museum and once the museum is completely renovated, the site will serve two different modes for daytime activities like tours and exhibitions and an evening mode where the synagogue will serve as a mini-theatre with a bar and an exciting new performance venue.

The next couple of years will prove to be an exciting time for the museum as it looks to the future in exhibiting the past and celebrates being a part of Manchester’s vibrant diversity.

“We tell the story of Manchester’s Jewish community and it’s a very positive story celebrating the fact that Manchester is a city which brings people together,” concluded Dunbar.

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