OUR NEW GALLERY: WITH OUR CURATOR ALEX & MATT SCHWAB FROM ALL THINGS STUDIO
As we are just four weeks away from opening, the final finishing touches are being made to our brand-new gallery space.
Part of our £6 million redevelopment, our new gallery space will take you on a journey through Manchester’s Jewish history to the city’s present day communities and individuals. Designed in collaboration with All Things Studio and fitted by museum installation specialists The Hub, our new gallery means much more of our collection can be experienced by visitors to the museum.
We spoke to our curator Alex Cropper and Matt Schwab from All Things Studio about the process and what to look out for in our new gallery when you visit.
Tickets are currently on sale for general admission between 2 and 18 July to coincide with Manchester International Festival. Click here to book and plan your visit.
How does it feel for the museum to have a dedicated exhibition space for its collection?
ALEX CROPPER (AC): So exciting! Our old exhibition was on the former Ladies’ Gallery in the synagogue and so the display itself was compromised to fit into the unusual space which had no lift access so meant that not all visitors could access it. Our new gallery has been designed specifically for our collection and so really celebrates the objects and the stories they represent and has lift access and a built-in hearing induction loop.
What are the themes of the exhibition?
AC: The exhibition is presented in three themes: Journeys, Communities and Identities. All the stories told on gallery are Jewish but by framing them within these universal themes they hopefully feel relevant to all of our audiences.
Who have you worked with to design and install the gallery?
AC: All Things Studio have been part of the design team form the very start of our project. They helped us to focus the stories within our collection into the three themes. They also created brilliant design ideas through which to tell our stories – including magnetic synagogue maps, moveable digital labels and a wall of quotes from our collection.
MATT SCHWAB (MS): We worked closely with Alex to arrange the objects in the collection in the most engaging and accessible way so that visitors can follow a clear narrative thread and the often-disparate objects can be understood and contextualised. We also worked closely with specialist fit-out contractors, The Hub, to realise the final gallery construction and installation. Interpretation consultant Catherine Morton has been a key member of the team from the start, working closely with us during the early stages to develop the interpretation plan and shape the content. This work included taking part in the Creative Museum’s Scratch process, to test out ideas and explore ways to tackle sensitive and challenging issues.
How long has the project taken you from design to completion?
MS: In all we have been working on this project since the beginning of 2016, so almost five and a half years – there have been at least four children in the museum and design teams who have been born and in some cases reached school age during the course of the project!
How have you involved members of local Jewish communities in the curation process?
AC: Before the build even began, the museum was appearing at events and Jewish venues across the city to talk about our new gallery and asking people what stories we should be sharing. We launched a project called The Object Project which asked people to raid their attics for objects which could feature in the new museum. Members of the community have also been directly involved in creating new content for the museum such as in our Synagogue Voices project where we have asked people who have memories of our building as a synagogue to share their stories with us. This content will form the interpretation inside our newly restored synagogue.
What has been the biggest challenge?
AC: Time and Covid! The restrictions of lockdown made everything that little bit more difficult. I also had maternity leave during the project and so we had 10 months were no work would really progress.
Matt, was this your first time inside of and working on a synagogue?
MS: We have worked on several former religious sites, for example Rievaulx Abbey and Battle Abbey for English Heritage, as well as ancient religious sites like Palaipafos in Cyprus for the Cyprus Department of Antiquities, but this was our first project which included work in and around a synagogue. We were very keen to create an open and welcoming experience, removing any perceptual or cultural barriers visitors might have to entering the building. We thought hard about how the experience of visiting the synagogue could be woven into the wider narrative of the museum so that visitors would first experience the stories and context of the gallery before visiting the synagogue towards the end of their visit.
How did you design our synagogue as an interactive space for visitors?
MS: We worked through a large number of ideas for the Synagogue and in the end our interventions are very minimal and light-touch. We wanted visitors’ primary experience of the synagogue to be of the beauty and atmosphere of the space with any interpretation subtly providing context and understanding. We have designed a series of portable speakers that play the voices of Jewish people from the museum’s oral history collection, describing what the synagogue means to them and how they remember important occasions. This approach allows visitors to gain an understanding of what the parts of the synagogue are and how they’re used without the need for more text-based interpretation panels.
What part of the opening the new museum and gallery are you most excited about?
AC: I have loved seeing the reactions of people who have seen the old museum and then walked into our new space and are so blown away by the changes.
MS: Our challenge was to present a wide and varied range of content, from oral histories to official documents to personal stories. We believe that the way we have organised content thematically and the variety of often playful approaches to presenting this content will enable visitors to really access and enjoy the objects and the stories behind them.
What should visitors keep an eye out for when they visit the new gallery?
AC: We have a collect of items from Helen Taichner, a holocaust survivor who spend six months of WW2 hiding in a coal cellar. That story is incredible. Similarity our famous Harris House Diary (a diary kept by fifteen young refugee girls who stayed at a guest house in Southport in 1940) is such a special item from the collection and is now showcased properly on gallery. But I also love the little items like membership cards to the various sports and social clubs which really evoke a different time.
MS: Our designs for the gallery should allow visitors to engage with the museum’s collection in their own way and at their own pace, discovering stories that speak to their own experiences and interests. There are several areas that should be fun for visitors – a floor map which allows visitors to ‘walk the streets’ of the former Jewish Quarter surrounding the museum, a floor-to-ceiling display where visitors are guided through the objects by a moveable digital label plus several places to sit, watch and listen in more depth to people’s stories.