History boy Max wants community to share his passion

By Simon Yaffe

MAX DUNBAR was once involved in the sale of the 1871 silver FA Cup - the world's most expensive piece of football memorabilia.

But now the Manchester Jewish Museum chief executive has another goal - reintegrating the museum back into the community.

"It is a dream to manage a social history museum such as ours," the 35-year-old said. "One of the biggest things I have implemented is a bid to engage closer with the Manchester Jewish community.

"When I first started in the role three years ago, I was amazed that they were not involved with their museum - I thought it was bizarre. This museum tells the story of their community.

"We have 31,000 items in our collection and many of them relate to community members."

Max speaks with passion about his job, especially since he is not Jewish. He was, however, raised among many Jews in Sale, south Manchester.

He attended Sale Boys Grammar School, before reading American history at the University of East Anglia.

His course meant he spent a year in Louisiana and, on his return, Max took an MA in museum studies.

"Museums have always fascinated me, as has history, so working here is perfect," Max explained.

After completing his MA, he landed a job at the National Portrait Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, before moving to auctioneers Christie's, where he was involved with the sale of the 1871 FA Cup.

From there he became curator at the World Rugby Museum, Twickenham, before returning north and becoming project manager at the Liverpool Record Office.

Three years ago, Max succeeded the late Stuart Hilton at the Manchester Jewish Museum, which is housed in a former Spanish and Portuguese synagogue.

Since he started in the post, he has attracted such names as actress Maureen Lipman, historian Simon Schama and author Howard Jacobson to speak at the museum and he has also linked up with Tate Liverpool to host the Chagall, Soutine and the School of Paris exhibition last summer.

The museum also hosted conductor Carl Davis' Kindertransport production last year and the Jewish Theatre Group performed Bar Mitzvah Boy there, too.

Last week saw Sir Bobby Charlton launch the FourFourJew exhibition, which tells the story of the contribution Jews have made to football.

"The big names get people talking and the main aim is to raise our profile," he said.

Max, who lives in Hale, Cheshire, with wife Zoe and children Poppy and Kitty, has also introduced the Best Friends programme.

He explained: "It is a tiered scheme. People pay a fee and they receive an invite to our VIP launches.

"It is a great opportunity to raise funds and go behind-the-scenes at the museum."

Unlike other museums, however, they are one of the few which charges an admission fee.

"We are a small, independent charity, so funding is a big challenge," Max, who reports to a board of trustees, continued.

"We don't have a budget, so we have to cover costs, although we would love to be free."

Over the past 12 months, the museum received 15,000 visitors - 11,000 of them were school children on educational visits.

"One of the biggest problems with school groups is that they tend to monopolise the museum in terms of space," Max said.

"Other visitors don't feel comfortable walking through lessons.

"Therefore, we have plans to develop and extend, as we are restricted in space. For our big events we have to use a marquee, which is a big cost.

"I want new galleries about Jewish heritage, as well as spaces for education.

"One of the biggest areas we hope to have is a gallery dedicated to telling the stories of Manchester's Holocaust survivors.

"We are looking at funding, but we hope those in the community would support it. It is a big capital project, so it will take at least two to three years to complete."

He also revealed that plans are in place to restore the shul section of the building.

"The museum has bags of potential," Max said. "The stories we have in our collection, together with our vibrant and exciting events, gives us huge potential.

"What we are also finding is by putting on cultural exhibitions and events is that those people who would normally visit the Whitworth Art Gallery or the Manchester Art Gallery come here.

"They are fascinated by the building and Manchester's Jewish community. Engaging with different types of audiences will make us go places."

Max and curator Alex Grime are the two full-time staff members, while there are 40 volunteers, who work in the museum shop, conduct tours and hold educational sessions.

"Every day is completely different," Max added. "I massively enjoy the variation though - that is the beauty of the job.

"I am dealing with the public all the time, so it is not a normal office job."

Ambitious and positive, he has arranged for the museum to work closer with the city's King David High School for a project which starts next month.

Sharing Stories will involve him visiting the school and taking objects from the museum so pupils can learn more about the community's heritage.

"Getting younger people in and younger volunteers is key," Max said. "We work closely with the local universities."

While not being Jewish, Max said he feels firmly part of the community - especially where he lives.

"I have made a lot of Jewish friends," he beamed.

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph