The Manchester Jewish Museum (MJM) stands proudly on Cheetham Hill Road, the rust-coloured extension filling the space next to the original synagogue in a way that cements its position on this busy and bustling road.
The new facade of the museum is clear in its messaging: we are old and we are new. We are Jewish, but we are of the wider community and world. The strong geometric shapes in the facade of the synagogue and echoed in the extension are reminiscent of Islamic design and rooted in the Sephardi Jewish (the builders of the original synagogue), whose origins are in Iberia and North Africa.
All power to this bold architectural statement. To my mind it now looks more “museumy”, rather than a purely heritage/religious site, which it may have been mistaken for before.
I had previously felt that the synagogue alone was easily overlooked and presumed closed, whereas the new frontage leaves nothing to chance. Granted I attended a press opening, but the gates were open, the doors thrown wide and large windows on the ground floor allowed glimpses of people moving inside inviting you to come in.
Despite the stature of the building, on entering I immediately felt I was somewhere homely and cosy. As a lapsed member of the Roman Catholic church I not only feel at home in dark, grandiose, ornate buildings (and museums), I also seek them out – but not everyone feels that way. The MJM atrium, however, is welcoming and bright, much like the staff.
The soft and modern colour palette, influenced by the synagogue itself, contrasts beautifully with the exposed brick of the synagogue wall. The geometric patterning continues inside via tiling in the restaurant and under the welcome desk, giving the space a great flow – I can imagine some very happy Instagrammers here.
Throughout my time there, I never felt the new extension overshadowed the Victorian synagogue. If anything it enhanced its presence with lots of visual references to the original building.
The atrium presents the museum’s themes of Journeys, Communities and Identities before visitors enter the main galleries. A large window displayed like a cabinet of curiosities peeks into the collections store beyond, reiterating the building’s credentials as a museum first and foremost.
The main galleries are on the first floor and start with Journeys. This area is a long, low-lit corridor comprised of objects in cases and oral histories that are either played on headphones or can be read with a separate transcription and, later, a short film.
I loved the human-centred displays and the questions each case poses, such as: “If you left home for a new country, what would you take with you?” The objects provide examples and a springboard for discussion. And that very human principle runs clearly through all the galleries. For sure, I found out a lot about Jewish history and customs, but what I mostly learned about was people.
I felt that the galleries really offer a diverse range of experiences; text panels focus on the owner of the object rather than the object itself, and the displays are littered with oral history points. This was no more evident than in the Identities gallery. This is purely an oral history zonein which you are invited to choose a statement on the wall and discover more by listening to the accompanying history. I would have liked to spend more time in here to discover more of the statements and their content.
Between the Journey and Identities galleries sits the Communities gallery, a wide, bright and open space that feels like a lovely breather after the more confined space of Journeys. I find that natural light in a gallery, or a change of space or colour, help me carry on taking in information, which can be draining even in the most fascinating of museums.
The Communities gallery invites you to come together, quite literally, in the form of a long tabletop display surrounded by chairs. It also explains why the synagogue is situated where it is. I enjoyed the fact that many of the displays are object-heavy but light on text, using alternative interpretation such as maps, oral histories and an interactive that allows the visitor to choose how much information is presented. I’d like to come back when there are guides in the gallery, as it feels like a space that might be used
to converse and chat in.
The last part I entered was the synagogue itself, a beautiful gilded and jewel-coloured room. Here, I had two trains of thought: “How lovely that the room has been left untouched” and, “Some extra interpretation would be useful”. Which goes to show you can never really win.
On balance though, as someone who is not familiar with the workings of a synagogue, some top-level information would have been welcome. Again, I would like to return when guides are around to tell visitors about the space. In lieu of this though, there are verbal sound baths dotted around that visitors can sit near while taking in the atmosphere.
I am a non-disabled person, but access appears to have been carefully thought through: signage was clear, walkways level and wide and I liked the inclusive messaging on the toilets. One of the interactives in Communities may cause complaint as it needs to be pulled on a runner and is fairly heavy and wheelchair users may struggle to see the recessed tabletop displays.
Also, I am not a fan of verbal sound baths. I find them overwhelming and they can be difficult for those with hearing aids, but their inclusion in the Journey gallery and synagogue does give the interpretation a multitude of layers.
Food for thought
Lastly, a pitstop to the enviable new learning studio, which even has its own kitchen. After all, what could be more unifying than food? Then I popped into the new vegetarian cafe, which flexes the museum’s inclusive muscles with playful takes on traditional Jewish cuisine. I ordered a bagel and schmear served with vegan cream cheese and carrot lox.
I had thought that the museum would ostensibly be about religion, but the MJM’s mission is clear – it’s about people, namely a diverse group of Jewish people that have made Manchester their home. Having said that, the museum also does a good job of handling religion and the Jewish faith carefully. It does not try to downplay its Jewishness by any means, but it has created a space that may subvert initial expectations.
My lasting impression is that to be Jewish is to come from a long history of tradition, but that every person’s experiences are very individual, and in many cases relatable, whatever your background or faith. One might say any reasonable human should know this, but it’s never a bad thing to be reminded and the MJM has done an excellent job of that.