My office opens onto our temporary exhibition space. I’ve got to walk through that space before I can get anywhere else in the museum. Normally I can stride straight through with a polite nod to one or two visitors. Since the summer I’ve had to negotiate a careful route across the room to avoid getting between art lovers and the works of art they are enjoying. Staff, volunteers, business contacts, colleagues from other museums and all who come here on are regular basis have commented on how much busier we are. It’s all thanks to the exhibition we’ve been showing since June – “Chagall, Soutine and the School of Paris”. Due to its popularity we have even decided to extend the exhibition for a while longer.
It’s obvious that visitor numbers are up but we have been delighted to record an 80% rise in visitors from the age group 35-55. We accept that in general the 55 plus age group have more leisure time to visit museums. When we see an increase from a younger group with restricted free time, we know they made a special effort to come. We hope that once here they’ll be so impressed with both the temporary and permanent displays and our tours, they’ll want to come back and bring their friends.
Events organized around the exhibition have also brought in visitors. With the Tate Liverpool we were involved in a programme called “Chagall: In the North West”. Many events for that were held at the museum, for example Rabbi Anthony Walker talked about the role of Judaism in the lives of Chagall and his contemporaries. Gavin Delahunty, Curator at the Tate Modern spoke about the development and influences of Chagall’s unique style. Working with the MMU we hosted a conference back in September on “Jews and Modern Visual Culture” which attracted visitors both nationally and internationally. At the start of the academic year schools brought in art classes who viewed the exhibition and then produced sketches based on what they had seen. During the autumn half-term we ran a Family Friendly workshop where we got primary school age children creating and crafting.
The final day for viewing is December 8th.
Like all museums we are eager to receive feedback from our visitors. Until now we had found this a bit of a struggle. Green feedback forms were handed to visitors as they paid their entrance fees, but despite polite requests very few of these forms actually got completed and handed back in.
So we’ve got rid of the green forms and replaced them with a nice little 21st century feedback touch screen which stands confidently in the foyer inviting visitors to tell us what they think about their visit.
And now they do!
Responses have increased two or even threefold and we’ve found out that a large proportion of visitors hear about us through word of mouth (so people are talking about us!), they think our staff and volunteers are really, really friendly, they love our new tours, nearly all of them would recommend us to friends and they all think their visit was good value for money. And guess what? Everyone thinks we should get a café…….well maybe one day…!
I’ve just been looking at our autumn events schedule and there is definitely an emphasis on books and reading.
Having just watched the first episode of Simon Schama’s series The Story of the Jews, it’s great to know that the accompanying book will be launched in Manchester by Simon Schama at this very museum.
Another new book will be launched here as part of the Manchester Literature festival, as poet Elaine Feinstein talks about her memoir “It Goes with the Territory: Memoirs of a Poet.”
But the following week we host a different kind of book event, also as part of the Manchester Literature festival. Louis Golding’s Magnolia Street and Maisie Mosco’s Almonds and Raisin have been enjoyed by generation of readers already, especially here in Manchester amongst the Jewish community. If you grew up in Jewish Manchester the characters, anecdotes, language and customs brought to life in these stories could almost be based on your own family. This event will feature readings from both books and then the audience will be encouraged to delve into their own families’ pasts and recount their own anecdotes. So not just a literary event , but a social event as well!
“School of Paris exhibition”
Since June we have been hosting the School of Paris exhibition featuring works by Chagall and Soutine and other Jewish artists.
This exhibition which has raised our standing on Manchester’s cultural circuit.
Through this and through our current partnership with Tate Liverpool, which is showing “Chagall Modern Master” we are attracting a new audience of art lovers.
I was lucky enough to visit “Chagall Modern Master” in Liverpool at the weekend. It is fascinating to learn how Chagall’s work developed and changed over time and how the works we are exhibiting fit into this. Chagall left his home village early in his life to break free of religious restrictions and yet most of his works contain Jewish symbols and references.
Here we are exhibiting two completely contrasting works by Chagall: – L’Acopalyse en Lilas, a response to the Holocaust and Le Cheval et L’Ane (the Horse and the Donkey), an illustration for one of La Fontaine’s fables.
The stories behind each these works are interesting.
Chagall was invited by Vollard an art dealer to illustrate La Fontaine’s famous fables, which are an important part of French culture. But people objected saying this was inappropriate as Chagall was a Russian Jew and not a French citizen. Vollard ignored the objections as he felt Chagall’s style had much in common with La Fontaine. As a result Chagall illustrated many of La Fontaine’s fables and they are all magical and charming.
Chagall and his wife Bella had escaped from the Nazi occupation of Franceand were living outside New York. There she fell ill and died. Chagall was devastated and his artistic output stopped abruptly. A little later he was horrified by the images of the Holocaust being shown in newspapers and Pathe news reels and this reignited his creativity. He came out of mourning and produced “Apocalypse en Lilas” and other works as a protest against the treatment of his fellow Jews.
The exhibition also shows works created by lesser known Easter European Jewish artists working in Paris at the same time as Chagall and Soutine. My own personal favourite is by Itshak Frenkel-Frenel. It’s only a small piece. Called “Shabbat Blessing” it is drawn in a cubist manner, and shows a woman lighting shabbos candles. The style itself means you really have to look at it before the woman’s headscarf, hands and the shabbos candlesticks emerge. In this 1920s drawing by an artist relatively unknown to me I can recognize a familiar weekly ritual carried out in Jewish families right through the centuries and up to the present time and beyond. And that’s why I like it!
We’re currently hosting the Jewish Theatre Company as they present Jack Rosenthal’s comedy classic “The Bar Mitzvah Boy”. We are sold out for every night and there are just one or two tickets left for Sunday’s matinee. Finally the phones have gone quieter but the building is buzzing with anticipation. Props are strewn around the general office and the main synagogue hall waits each night to be transformed into a theatre space.
The JTC have been rehearsing here at night and on Sunday afternoons for weeks. I had a quick chat with Fran the director to see how she felt about working here. Fran told me how much the cast had enjoyed working in such a beautiful environment and found it an exciting challenge. It’s great to have a ready made shul for one of the scenes. Having the audience on two side rather than just in front is an interesting situation to deal with. There have been problems with lighting and sound all of which have been sorted out.
The play is set in the 1970’s and the props particularly the furniture have been difficult to find. Most of the costumes were hired and some props were bought on Ebay. It will really be a trip down memory lane for some of the audience.
Fran has enjoyed directing a cast in which there is a wide range of ages. Younger cast members in particular are very open to suggestions and are eager to try out new ideas.
The characters in the play are so well crafted that the audience will easily identify with them and feel as if they have met them before. The mother Rita is a very comical character who is so bound up with the arrangements for the bar mitzvah celebration that she has almost lost sight of her son and his feelings. I wonder how many mothers of former bar mitzvah boys there will be in the audience and whether they will squirm a little as they watch Rita’s antics.
Finally Fran says she and the cast were nervous but excited about opening night and we now know that it went really well.
Since January we have been developing two new tours of the museum in order to improve the visitor experience. In both tours visitors can find out about Jewish life in Manchester through the experiences of real individuals who lived in the Jewish community in Manchester around 1912. One tour concentrates on the Jewish faith and the synagogue, while the other tour focuses on everyday life in the Jewish community at that time.
Our volunteer guides have been practising delivering the tours for weeks. Yesterday we officially launched the tours and invited people from other museums, from volunteering networks and from the press to coffee and cakes and the opportunity experience these new tours for themselves. We were overwhelmed by the response. About 60 people accepted our invitation and their feedback was very very enthusiastic.
When the museum closed to the public at 4:00pm staff and volunteers had their own little celebration which involved yet more coffe and cakes. Max our CEO thanked the volunteers for all their hard work and spoke about future developments at the museum. Rose our volunteer co-ordinator made sure that all volunteers were given their new smart blue t-shirts and fleeces. And then she made us all play team games! (which actually turned out to be very enjoyable).
At the end of all that anyone under the age of 35 (about 6 people) went out for a night on the town.
On Thursday March 7th we welcomed Maureen Lipman to the Museum. Our main hall was jam-packed with visitors all eager to hear what she had to say.
The event was organised to mark the start of our exhibition about the careers of Maureen and her husband Jack Rosenthal – “Jack and Maureen – A Creative Partnership”. Tickets had sold out almost as soon as they became available.
Our audience was not disappointed. Maureen spoke for a good hour and a half (without any notes). She spoke about Jack, about her mother, about Israel and being Jewish. She was in turns hilariously funny (talking about her Mum and telling jokes) and moving (when she spoke about losing Jack).
It really was a pleasure to meet her in person. We were delighted with the success of the evening.
It’s an absolutely glorious spring day here in Manchester– which is exactly what you’d expect.
In the exhibition room next door to my office there is a hive of activity. Yesterday the resources and material for our next exhibition were delivered. This is of course “Jack and Maureen – A Creative Partnership”. It’s about the lives and careers of Jack Rosenthal and Maureen Lipman.
The walls now display massive screen size posters of Jack’s face and Maureen’s face. Scattered around the room there are empty display cases, toolboxes, spirit levels, scissors, paint pots and tailors’ dummies. Stacked neatly to one side there are framed posters advertising films that Maureen appeared in like “The Pianist”. There is a tailor’s dummy dressed in one of Maureen’s costumes.
Out of this apparent chaos our Curator will create a fascinating and accessible exhibition in time for our opening on March 6th.
Right now in the corner of our exhibition room there’s a screen rotating photos taken by a Year 8 group from a school in Partington.. At first glance these look like a selection of general photos snapped on the school campus. However the significance becomes clear, when you learn that the photos were taken as a response to a Holocaust Education project run by the Imperial War Museum North and Manchester Jewish Museum. The windows, buildings and fencing of the campus were used to convey the concentration camps, while the pupils took pictures of each other to recreate the sense of isolation and despair experienced by the people.
These photos show what a powerful effect the Project had on the pupils.
There is a lot of activity going on in our exhibition room. It’s time to dismantle “Playing the Game: Sporting Life in Jewish Manchester”. I’m quite sad to see those pictures of sports teams and individuals from past and present being taken down. While it was still up it reminded me of how fabulous 2012 has been for sport in the UK. It kind of kept the Olympics alive in this little corner for a bit longer.
It is coming down for a good reason though. It will soon be replaced by the Peace Quilt exhibition, which was also inspired by the Olympics. The Olympic ideal is one of building a peaceful and better World. Children from countries all over the world were invited to create a drawing to represent what peace means to them. The results were transferred to material and stitched together to form the Peace Quilt. I have been reading all about it and am looking forward to taking a close look at each individual piece. There is sure to be a lot of variety but also many ideas in common.
This picture gives an idea of what just one of the peace quilt pieces looks like.