Case Study: Manchester Jewish Museum

A two-year project to restore a Grade II* Listed 19th century Synagogue and build a new extension adding a range of facilities, has delivered an upgrade to the Manchester Jewish Museum that puts the local community at its heart. With a complex mix of restoration, new build, and the installation of various specialist services, a JCT Standard Building Contract was the form of choice.

An out-of-town trunk road surrounded by busy retail parks, storage warehouses, and builders’ merchants, seems an unlikely place for a museum. However, the Cheetham Hill neighbourhood of Manchester was once the centre of a thriving textile industry in the industrial revolution and an area that became home to a large Jewish community, who arrived in search of industry, employment, and escape from persecution. The Grade II* Listed synagogue that was built here in 1874 is Manchester’s oldest surviving, and in the years since has become an important cultural institution, incorporating the synagogue as a place of worship and a museum to celebrate the contribution of the Jewish community to the area.

After a two-year closure, the museum has reopened with extensive restoration to the existing synagogue and a brand-new extension, doubling the museum’s existing footprint, and broadening the range of community engagement that the museum can provide. The project was designed by Citizens Design Bureau (CDB) and built by contractors H.H. Smith & Sons.

One of the main objectives was for the building to be ‘more than a museum’. To broaden the appeal of the museum to the wider community, recognising the changes in population over the years and the tastes and expectations of visitors, the design team invited the local community as part of an iterative process to determine which facilities and features of the museum extension would be a priority. The new facilities include an atrium and entrance, café, shop, learning studio, kitchen, and gallery.

Externally, the new entrance is the first thing that greets visitors from the street. Brightly lit and inviting, it helps the museum stand out from Cheetham Hill’s crowded landscape. The standout feature is the back-lit, Cor-ten façade which, encapsulating the project’s ethos, both complements and respects the existing architecture, and recognises Cheetham Hill’s changing cultural environment. The original synagogue is an ornate Spanish/Portuguese building designed in the Moorish revivalist style by Edward Salomons. When carrying out their research, CDB noted the influence of architect and designer, Owen Jones, on Salomons’ work. The team recognised the key thematic development of geometric exercises, rather than just one pattern just being copied across. The Moorish architectural motifs also reflected the geographic origins of the Sephardi community, rather than specifically Jewish symbolism. The team saw this opportunity for the design to lead conversation across religious and cultural differences. In the final, finished façade, each node is a manifestation of 8-point geometry, which has been adapted for Cor-ten, and graded in the intensity of the pattern, so that it gives a dappling, twinkling effect at night.

Going through the new entrance takes visitors to a generous atrium which links the new building to the old, provides access to the café, and there is also lift access to take visitors to the first-floor exhibition gallery. CDB designed the layout as a passage through history so that visitors can move seamlessly between the old and new architecture. Continuing this theme, the new gallery, designed in collaboration with All Things Studio and fitted by installation specialists, The Hub, takes visitors on a journey through the history of Jewish people in Manchester and the journeys that brought Jewish people to the city – from their origins right through to the city’s present-day communities. The gallery provides space for an extensive part of the museum’s collection of over 31,000 items. Other features include a floor map of Cheetham Hill, moveable digital labels, and collections of oral histories telling stories of Jewish Mancunians. The design throughout is aimed at balancing the public, communal spaces with quieter, contemplative areas. In the gallery and atrium areas, small nooks are set aside for listening and observing.

One of the main priorities for the museum, established through the community engagement process, was the importance of food as a medium for sharing between the museum and its visitors. The design of the extension, and its ongoing programme is built around exploring cross-cultural connections via food. In addition to its vegetarian, kosher-style café, there is also a ‘learning kitchen’ offering facilities for culinary events, workshops, and opportunities for groups to cook and eat traditional Jewish foods.

Entrance to the synagogue via the extension is through the former women’s gallery, retracing the steps that Jewish women would have historically taken through the space. The restoration of the synagogue has been sensitive, respectful, and forensic in its attention to detail. The preserved seating plan includes subtle displays showing personal artifacts from the seat’s former occupants. Modern features, such as audio-visual capability, have been sensitively integrated into the seats and balustrades to support the space’s function as a venue for gigs and concerts. Most impressively, the original 19th century decorative scheme was able to be reinstated following forensic analysis of the existing paint by historic paint experts, Britain & Co.

In-keeping with the restoration and conservation, sustainability was an important overall driver for the whole project. Even with the new extension effectively doubling the museum’s footprint, the overall carbon intensity of the whole project has been reduced by 20%, due to the use of smart, new energy saving measures and repurposing of existing features. A high-performance insulation quilt has been installed in the roof, and a thermally massive double-floor slab incorporating a fresh air plenum within the extension building preheats air to naturally ventilate the listed building. In addition, the old Victorian sun burners have been repurposed as natural ventilation extracts, and the atrium and community spaces feature automatically controlled natural ventilation. Finally, whilst the demolition of a Grade II* Listed building would never have been possible, the embodied energy in re-using the existing building against constructing a new synagogue from scratch is estimated to have saved 250 tonnes of CO2.

It is interesting to note through cataloguing JCT case studies how the choice of contracts always suits successful projects, and the project itself encapsulates the features that a contract is often recognised for. In this case, where a complex mix of services and requirements, new build and conservation, and a project that mixes tradition with modern function, having the JCT Standard Building Contract at the centre of the project has helped reinforce the Manchester Jewish Museum’s place at the centre of its community.

Project Data:
Start: August 2019
Completion: April 2021
Gross Internal Floor Area: 842m²
Gross Internal and External Floor Area: 864m²
Contract: JCT Standard Building Contract Without Quantities 2016
Construction Cost: £3.5m
Architect: Citizens Design Bureau
Client: Manchester Jewish Museum
Main Contractor: H. H. Smith & Sons
Structural Engineer, M&E Consultant & Acoustic Consultant: Buro Happold
Quantity Surveyor: Appleyard & Trew
Exhibition Designer: All Things Studio
Conservation Consultant: Smithers Purslow
Graphic Designer: Twelve
Landscape Consultant and Planting Specialist: Mary Nightingale
Project Manager: Buro Four
Principle Designer: Citizen Design Bureau with PFB
Approved Building Inspector: C3 Design Approvals
Exhibition Fit-out Contractor: Hub
CAD software used: Microstation, SketchUp


Image: Joel Chester Fildes