“I knew it was a challenge worth taking on.” Max Dunbar reflects on 10 years as Manchester Jewish Museum’s Chief Executive
Ten years ago, I was offered the job of chief executive at Manchester Jewish Museum. Not being Jewish nor having ever really ventured north of Victoria Station, I knew this was going to be quite a challenge. But the minute I stepped foot inside the museum’s synagogue, I knew it was a challenge worth taking on.
The synagogue, the oldest in Manchester, was built in 1874 by Manchester’s Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community. The Mediterranean connections are still evident in its stunning Moorish architecture. I remember first walking into the synagogue and being struck by its warmth, character and the sight of its glorious stained glass windows. Venturing up to the Ladies’ Gallery for the first time, I discovered a slightly cluttered space displaying what has been described as “one of the most outstanding social history collections in Europe”. But I also remember the synagogue feeling tired and the gallery displays being dated. What’s more, the old museum was not accessible, and it felt like this remarkable collection didn’t have space to breathe.
Enthusiasm wasn’t lacking when I first started with staff and volunteers desperate for a new state-of-the-art museum. So, no pressure then. Previous plans had never gotten off the ground and many doubted that a museum extension would ever happen. One thing I knew for sure was that any major development wouldn’t happen overnight.
Initially, I gave myself six years, ignoring comments from others that it would take 10 (as it turned out, they were right). The first project workshops were held a decade ago, as was the first meeting with the main funders, the Heritage Lottery Fund (now known as The National Lottery Heritage Fund). Our first application was rejected by HLF, but the feedback we received was extremely positive and constructive, strengthening our overall project and vision.
And it is this vision that has shaped much of what I’ve done at the museum in recent years. When I first started, there was confusion as to what the museum was. A Holocaust museum? A faith museum? Or “just an old synagogue with some old displays in”, as someone told me.
But the potential I saw on my first visit, with its Moorish architecture and world-class collection, suggested it was none of these things. With a collection about a migrant community in a place of worship on the most diverse road in the UK (according to the 2011 census), I knew this museum had something special to say about Manchester, Mancunians and the world we live in today.
Looking to the future
To try and capture all this, I wrote a museum manifesto in 2016. More than just a corporate-type vision, it was a call to action, setting out not just what the museum was, but how we were going to make a difference to people’s lives. Over the years, this manifesto has undergone a series of iterations but today it is still the benchmark for everything the museum aspires to and achieves.
Not everyone was on board with this new direction and, over the years, there were many challenging conversations. But if I’ve learnt anything, it’s that people may not always agree with your decisions but they will respect them if they understand the context. This was tested more than ever this year when we reopened the museum seven days a week, including Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. Understandably, many sections of Manchester’s more orthodox communities did not approve. But once they understood why we opened on Saturdays, to connect with more visitors, the majority respected the decision.
As it turned out, opening on Saturdays helped us to connect closely with more culturally Jewish Mancunians, with many defending the decision to open on the Sabbath. Indeed, I think one of my achievements has been to reposition the museum so that it appeals to all sections of Manchester’s Jewish communities. It’s a real thrill to see orthodox families exploring the gallery and, at the same time, hearing comments from secular Jewish visitors that the museum is now more inclusive, better reflecting their beliefs and values.
And it’s not just a more diverse Jewish audience coming to the museum. It was clear early on that we needed to grow and diversify our audience. Simply being a ‘Jewish Museum’ presented huge barriers. When I first started, people would ask me if they needed to be Jewish to visit. Shocking as this was, it made me realise that we had to work extra hard to change perceptions not just of us, but of what a Jewish museum is and who it is for. To do this, we had to properly invest in our programming.
Some of my fondest museum memories are of the many diverse events we’ve staged in our synagogue, some more successful than others. Being heckled by Maureen Lipman for spending too long introducing her will haunt me forever. Having a conversation with Sir Bobby Charlton at the opening of our Four Four Jew exhibition will also be something I’ll never forget. Personal highlights include our Chagall exhibition, a Bollywood concert, and an Amy Winehouse tribute night.
When I began, there were just a couple of us working at the museum and we were responsible for everything, including exhibitions and events. I’m delighted (and relieved) to say our team has grown over the years and the museum now has an exceptional programming team, working with artists and communities to develop and deliver diverse programming. Just last month we staged a Yiddish pantomime, presented an animated graphic film, and ran a candle-making workshop.
Diversity is at the heart of the museum, which is why it’s such an important part of Manchester’s cultural offer. Not only is it a place where visitors can learn about Jewish migration, communities and identities, it’s also somewhere where visitors can connect with others. Food is at the heart of this, and it was clear to me early on that food was the one thing that brought communities together. Over the years, I’ve probably put on three stone. Professional bagel consumption has been a necessary part of the job. I’m particularly proud to have the opened a museum with Manchester’s first kosher-style vegetarian café and Manchester’s first museum learning kitchen. It’s been a sensory delight working in a building full of culinary treats, from veggie stews and soups to falafels and fresh challah bread.
And what a building the museum now is. Over the past five years I have worked closely with architects, quantity surveyors, project managers, designers and engineers to create a building which would not only become a new Manchester landmark but also feel like home for its many diverse users. Working on such an ambitious project with so many moving parts was always going to be tough. Throw in a global pandemic (and the horrors of home-schooling) and it pushed us all to the limit.
Delivering a £6 million capital project from my bedroom, kitchen, garden shed and trampoline will live with me forever. Hopefully, it is never to be repeated. I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone on the project team who went above and beyond to complete our stunning building.
It has truly been an honour and privilege to lead the museum’s transformation over the past 10 years. None of it would have been possible without the amazing team of staff, volunteers and trustees I have had the joy of working with over the years. A couple of special shout-outs to our wonderfully talented curator, Alex Cropper, who has been with me on this journey since day one, and to the brilliant Gareth Redston whose drive, passion and commitment over the years has transformed our programming, opening up the museum to new audiences.
Now an award-winning museum with record numbers of visitors and exciting plans ahead, it is as good a time as ever to hand over the reins. I’ve learnt a lot, made some good friends and eaten far too many bagels. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead in the next exciting chapter of a museum which, in the divisive world we live in today, is more important than ever.
By Max Dunbar
Main image: Max Dunbar (front centre) with the design team at the Manchester Jewish Museum.
Max Dunbar will step down at the end of 2021 and the museum is currently recruiting for its new chief executive. To find out more about recruitment for the position, visit the website.
Manchester Jewish Museum will be open seven days a week (10am-5pm) from January 4, 2022. Tickets can be booked in advance.
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Spotted in Manchester's Northern Quarter. (photo by RM) pic.twitter.com/FcFSbbvtZ9