Manchester Jewish Museum reopens after £6m revamp

Installation by Turner prize winner Laure Prouvost tells stories of women who once gathered at synagogue

She spent six months hiding from the Nazis in a coal cellar, and the rest of the war concealing her Jewishness under a cloak of Catholicism. Her husband, baby and most of her family were murdered in the death camps. But when Helen Taichner got a permit to travel from Katowice in Poland to Manchester in 1946, she wrote to a relative: “My happiness is boundless.”

That letter, along with other personal items, is now on display at the Manchester Jewish Museum, which reopens on Friday after a decade of planning and a £6m redevelopment programme. It had been “a long labour of love”, said the chief executive, Max Dunbar.

The museum is housed in a 1874 Grade II*-listed synagogue building, now with a new extension that has doubled its size. But the renovated synagogue, built by Sephardic Jews originating from Spain, Portugal and north Africa, remains the heart of the project.

It is also the setting for the world premiere of an installation by the Turner prize-winning artist Laure Prouvost, called The Long Waited, Weighted, Gathering, which resurrects the voices and stories of women who once gathered in the synagogue’s Ladies Gallery.

A dress and other items that belonged to Helen Taichner
A dress and other items that belonged to Helen Taichner, who arrived in Manchester from Poland in 1946. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

In the new museum gallery, diverse objects and oral testimonies tell the story of Manchester’s Jewish community. Its founder was Jacob Nathan, who rented a warehouse for worship in the 1780s and brought 15 families to the city from Liverpool to create the nucleus of what would become a large, thriving and diverse group.

Among more than 30,000 objects on display and stored at the museum is a time capsule from 1873, discovered during the redevelopment work and as yet unopened. “It’s quite nice to keep it closed and keep guessing what’s inside,” said Dunbar.

A film shows couples dancing in the Waterpark Club, founded in 1927 by Adolf Cassell, a builder, after his daughter was refused entry to Prestwich tennis club because she was Jewish. The Waterpark Club had four tennis courts, a football pitch and billiard tables, and regularly held Sunday dances. Every year, after the Yom Kippur fast, the club held a breakfast dance.

A preserved copy of The Waterproofer, the official magazine of the Waterproof Garment Workers’ Trade Union, is testament to the organisation of workers in the late 19th century. In 1890 and 1891, Jewish workers in the footwear, cloth cap, cabinet-making and waterproof garment industries went on strike for a shorter working day and better piecework rates.

The Grade II*-listed synagogue has been repaired and renovated in its original 19th-century Moorish style
The Grade II*-listed synagogue has been repaired and renovated in its original 19th-century Moorish style. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

At one point there were at least seven synagogues in the streets of Cheetham Hill, the hub of the Manchester textile industry where many Jewish immigrants found work. Most of the synagogues fell into disuse as Jews moved to other areas; some are now restaurants or carpet warehouses.

The museum’s extension contains a vegetarian kosher-style cafe, whose printed menu explains the history of Jewish dishes on offer. A “learning kitchen” will allow school groups and visiting families to explore Jewish food culture through cookery workshops.

The cost of redevelopment was met in part by a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant of £3m, with another £3m raised from trusts, foundations and private donations.

“Before we did the work, you couldn’t even see the stained-glass windows in the synagogue,” said Dunbar. “Most people didn’t even perceive it as a museum, they saw it as an old building with a few items on display. It was very tired and dated.

“Now it’s a contemporary, vibrant, 21st-century museum that brings together many of the issues we’re facing today: identity, migrations, how communities can come together.”


Harriet Sherwood

The GuardianTramp

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