Manchester Jewish Museum blends old and new to celebrate social history

Manchester Jewish Museum blends old and new to celebrate social history

Manchester Jewish Museum by Citizens Design Bureau effortlessly bridges past and present and is the city’s newest cultural and social history draw

Situated on Manchester City’s Cheetham Hill Road, the former synagogue that is now part of the Manchester Jewish Museum was once the focal point of a thriving community and local textile trading industry. Over time, the neighbourhood changed, and eight years ago, the Grade II-listed structure found itself in an ambiguous context of industrial warehouses and ramshackle merchants’ buildings. It is in this setting that Citizens Design Bureau began searching for a way to ‘express the messiness and blurred boundaries of the surrounding context’, says practice director Katy Marks. The studio was appointed in 2016, and now, after almost a decade of planning and two years of closure, the new Manchester Jewish Museum is complete and opens its doors to the public.

A collaborative design process with the local community uncovered food as a point of intersection among multiple faiths. This led to a brief reimagining the museum as a public ‘living-room’ with the ability to host community meals and functions, as well as a range of live events.

For this to be successfully realised, it was important that the new extension did not reference any religious iconography that might subsequently reject or exclude certain communities. Externally, this intent is expressed through a perforated, Corten façade that pulls back to create a new entrance, inviting a diversity of visitors and countering the former synagogue building’s overtly religious appearance.

cafe counter greeting guests at the Manchester Jewish Museum
Photography: Philip Vile

Internally, a well-lit atrium takes visitors through a programme of café, shop and community learning space; the last equipped to host free baking lessons with locals. Upstairs in the new gallery, a large table housing objects from the museum’s collection doubles as a surface for dining, symbolising the union of faith, culture and tradition: the invisible things that hold communities together.

The interior of the deconsecrated synagogue extends this theme of continuity and sharing through a careful restoration that remains faithful to its history as the oldest surviving synagogue in Manchester, while balancing this with the requirement for a fully functioning performance space. ‘It’s very much about not pleasing everyone but telling stories so that it speaks for itself and invites everyone,’ explains Marks. ‘This is a social history museum not a faith museum, and the synagogue is an artefact within that,’ she continues. New is integrated into old seamlessly; sound infrastructures are concealed within the balustrade which, along with the rest of the interior, has been reinstated to the original 19th-century colour palette.

Much like the synagogue’s outward expression, which reflects the geographical origins of Sephardi Jews in North Africa through its Moorish geometric motifs, the new extension reflects an emerging context of openness and exchange by facilitating intercultural dialogue, bridging religious and cultural differences to build on a shared, common experience. §

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