In praise of small museums

Look carefully and you’ll find oodles of small museums in the North West, some which manage to be every bit as enthralling as the lavishly-funded, better-known attractions through the passion and ingenuity of the staff alone.

I’ve never been to the wilfully esoteric British Lawnmower Museum in Southport or Keswick’s infamous Cumberland Pencil Museum, where presumably most visitors go to see what type of people spend their weekends gawping at Fly-Mos and HB pencils.

Two of my personal highlights are Bacup’s cluttered yet charming Natural History Museum, which seemingly breaks every rule of display and is open just one day a year aside from its members’ meetings. and the Pioneers Museum in Rochdale, where you’re guided round the first-ever Co-op shop by a roaring, avuncular Welshman.

For the recent Heritage Open Days, the annual weekend where venues of various hues fling their doors open for visitors to mooch around for free, I ticked two more of the region’s smaller museums off the to-do list.

I wasn’t aware The Manchester Masonic Museum existed until I walked into the freemasons’ lodge on Bridge Street, Manchester. The museum, on the second floor, is what you’d expect: two rooms of display cases of masonic medals, aprons and books. Very underwhelming for the outsider, unlike the uplifting art deco building itself, all gleaming white and sweeping curves.

The architecture is a stark contrast to the dark, frankly creepy meeting rooms, which I suspect are not usually part of the museum experience. They’re decorated with Latin slogans, strange heraldry and all-seeing eyes, and stuffed with the type of ritualistic objects which caused my furtive imagination to go into overdrive.

Inside the Manchester Masonic Museum

Inside the Manchester Masonic Museum

You may have visited one of Daniel Liebskind’s high-concept, slick Jewish museums in Berlin, San Francisco and Copenhagen. The Manchester Jewish Museum couldn’t be more of a contrast – it’s tiny, pleasantly ramshackled and housed in a disused synagogue built in 1874.

Because it’s so small – about ten panels and glasses cases in total – it gives a broad brushstroke approach to the ebb, flow and lives of Manchester’s Jewish population, which was once heavily concentrated in the streets around the museum but has since dissipated.

Photo of me 'admiring an old iron Singer sewing machine'.

Photo of me 'admiring an old iron Singer sewing machine' by Jamie Lowe of the Manchester Evening News.

The temporary exhibition area, in an annex at the back, allows more in-depth focus, however. On my visit, this looked at the Red Bank area of Manchester, the working class Jewish terraced district on the Manchester/Salford border, a square mile of housing stock which has mainly been cleared by now.

Of particular interest to me, as a journalist, were the examples of shockingly anti-Jewish newspaper reports which could have been culled from Der Sturmer but were in fact printed by a local Manchester title. At the same time, Oswald Mosley set up his British Union of Fascists’ northern headquarters around here (17 Northumberland Street, Higher Broughton to be precise) and his Blackshirts marched between here and Strangeways, goading the Jewish population.

Such a dramatic story packed into a small museum. Well worth the ten-minute walk north of Victoria Station.

* Manchester Masonic Museum is on Bridge Street, Manchester. Manchester Jewish Museum is on Bury New Road, Manchester.

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