Six years ago I gave up teaching English in a secondary school for a quiet life working in a museum. We are a bit short of volunteer teachers at the moment so I said I would dust off my teaching skills and take a class. The office manager was pleased and then she casually said there would be 49 pupils!
The pupils were 3 classes of nine year olds who had travelled with their teachers on a two hour coach journey from Shrewsbury. And yet they arrived eager to learn about the Synagogue and Sacred Objects.
There was to be a fair bit of interactive activity and just that afternoon we had no spare volunteers to help. So I enlisted the help of the school’s teaching staff to divide the pupils into groups and help them change from one activity to the next.
I was nervous and my voice sounded a bit strained to begin with. But they were great pupils who had been well prepared for the session by their teachers. They were excited to learn about the sacred objects used in the synagogue and to try on or handle the kippahs, tephilin, tallis and mezzuzahs we keep for teaching. They enjoyed searching for the “lost” sacred objects upstairs in the gallery. They happily joined in or watched as we ceremoniously took the mini Torah Scroll from the Ark and opened it up and then paraded it back again. Many of them loved trying to write their names in Hebrew. A boy called Adam was thrilled when I told him that Adam was the very first man and so his name would appear near the start of the Torah.
The pupils and staff seemed to have enjoyed the session. I certainly enjoyed finding my inner teacher again.
We are in the process of installing Gary Spicer’s exhibition “Encounter with the Holocaust”. Stark white walls spattered with black and red are the first things to see right now. The black and the red are writing. Some of the writing is clear print to explain the exhibits. Other writing is Gary’s poetry reproduced in black in his own personal scrawl, dashed with streaks of red like blood.
On one side of the room the installers have lined up squares of artwork ready for hanging. Watch towers, railway lines and distorted hand drawn figures contrast oddly with boxes of tools, a spirit level and two sizes of ladders.
A recurring symbol of the line drawings is a human head hanging in despair. The most compelling piece is a line drawing of grossly distorted human figures each one crammed into a tiny space, like a battery hen in a cage. Some photographs appear to show only peaceful countryside, but the artist has retouched the hills in dark purple showing the permanent imprint of the horrors they witnessed.
This is going to be a powerful exhibition. I challenge any visitor to come and see this and not be moved. It opens on January 26 and runs until 9th March.
This is my first New Year’s resolution: I will use the inverted pyramid structure in everything I write for the museum. I already knew this but it was last week’s writing workshop with TextWorkshop which convinced me to put it into practice..
Last Tuesday museum staff gathered in the exhibition room with Rebecca Mileham of TextWorkshop. We were eager to learn how to make our exhibition panels, website information, press releases, tweets and Facebook posts as effective as possible.
Rebecca used images, flip charts, video clips, discussions, writing sessions, Top Tips and quirky postcards in her lively presentation. She had a wealth of ideas to share. As requested we had each chosen an object from the museum collection and brought along a photo of it. All writing activities during the sessions focused on these.
For me these are the most memorable ideas:
Writing for visitors looking around the museum:
- Agree first on the focus of your museum’s story. Make sure all the team have it in mind when writing. For us it would be that we are about the social history ofManchester’s Jewish community.
- Define your audience and then immerse yourself in their language.
- Use language that isn’t too academic. So use simple language but not simple ideas.
- Writing for displays should start with a hook like an amazing fact, question, unexpected phrase etc.
- If you are writing a panel to explain an object, look amongst all the material you have for one intriguing idea about it and use it at the start of the writing.
- Make writing enticing or challenging so that a visitor’s response would be “I didn’t realize that……..” or even “I don’t agree that …..”
- Keep the tone light by having fun with the words, using rhyme and rhythm etc
- Writing around the museums should be short so keep editing down. Extra information can be given through “layering” for example the most important stuff can be on the walls but more details can be available in drawers that visitors are invited to open.
Writing for websites, twitter and Facebook
- Keep it short because readers scan screens rather than read every word.
- Put the most important points first.
- Mix up long and short sentences
- Use sensory language which brings our story to life.
- Use images
- DON’T LEAVE THE BEST TO LAST.
We are following this up with our own staff workshop. We’ll bring along our own writing for a “constructive criticism” session. Oh help!
Here is a selection of the postcards we were given to remind us of the Top Tips.
The Museum has recently acquired an engraved silver plate with a fascinating history connecting two Manchester Sephardi families and Pope Pius IX!
The story of this plate starts inJerusalemin 1846. The Chief Rabbi of Palestine was one Hayim Avraham Gaguin. One of his friends was Moshe Israel Hazan who as admired and respected in Jerusalemas a great scholar.
Meanwhile in Rome Pope Pius IX needed a learned Hebrew scholar to be the guardian of his library of Hebrew books and manuscripts. He asked Moshe Israel Hazan to take up this position and even allowed him to bring nine or ten Jewish families along to live in the Vatican and form a little Jewish community there.
Chief Rabbi Gaguin was so pleased for his friend that he presented him with a silver plate to mark the appointment. He had the plate engraved in Hebrew explaining the circumstances of the gift.
The Hazan family remained in Rome for a while but their descendants moved to Egypt and then Morocco. The silver plate travelled with them.
A lady from Manchester who had moved to Casablanca Morocco to marry a member of the Hazan family decided to return to Manchester when her husband died. So she and her son moved back to Manchester taking the plate with them, unaware of its history.
By 1946 the son Victor Hazan was married and he and his wife had just had a baby boy. They belonged to a Manchester synagogue whose rabbi was Rabbi Maurice Gaguine (great-grandson of Hayim Avraham Gaguin). Rabbi Gaguine was present at the circumcision ceremony for the baby and the silver plate was being used to hold the wine cup during the ceremony. The baby’s grandmother approached Rabbi Gaguine, explained that the plate had been in the family for generations and had some Hebrew writing on it. She asked him to translate it.
Rabbi Gaguine read the Hebrew inscription and immediately asked to keep the silver plate but the grandmother who had brought it from Morocco flatly refused to part with it and Rabbi Gaguine left empty handed.
Eventually Victor Hazan and his wife Evelyn decided to give the silver plate to Rabbi Gaguine on his 70th birthday and it remained with the Gaguine family until recently.
It has now been kindly donated to the Museum by Rabbi Gaguine’s daughter.
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.