Museums are often my first cultural port of call when travelling to a new region. Their concise and carefully curated exhibits can pack a lot of learning into a relatively short visit, giving you a real feel for the essence of what made the local region what it is today and a broader understanding of the specialist subjects they focus on.
Many of these august institutions have previously come across as passive organisations, presenting past artefacts and facts from the past in a measured way to increase our understanding of it, but give little thought to contentious present circumstances and how they could be changed for the better.
Manchester Museum is currently undergoing huge structural changes, with a £13.5 million project to construct new galleries and refurbish their current ones, with the work timetabled to finish in October 2022. That considerable amount of work underway on the fabric of the museum is accompanied by an arguably bigger shift in the reimagining of its role in society.
Esme Ward became director of the Museum in 2018, the first woman to hold the role in its 125-year history. Previously she worked at the Whitworth Gallery, during its £15 million transformation into its current form. During her time as director she has put a lot of time in “to think about the difference an institution like the museum could make and how it could be useful to a range of people in the city and really reflect a hyper diverse city like Manchester.”
The route to the new role of the museum is not mapped out. To help guide them through this journey the Museum has committed to the core values of inclusion, imagination, care and change. Forming part of this reimagining of the museum’s role is the Local Matters research project launched by the Museum in November. Running over the next two years, it will incorporate those values into its research into inequality and disadvantage in Ardwick.
Dr Carl Emory a researcher into disadvantage and poverty at the University of Manchester, is taking a lead role in providing the Local Matters project. Esme was impressed with his previous work in the schools in the northeast of England, where students grappling with English as a second language and the problems that created in communicating with others, was unearthed as a need which was then focussed on in his work.
Esme is keen for the programme to meet the needs of the people Ardwick. to be acted on by their programme so “Whatever emerges from that as a need, we will try and find a way to address that, and that’s one of the things I love about the programme. It’s one of the things Carl and I talked about. is How do we make sure we are open and attentive to what that community needs, and not the assumptions we make?”
The first Local Matters workshop, scheduled for January 2022, will be “devoted to the things we think we know about poverty and disadvantage,” Esme explains, and its primary focus is to listen to the local community on what their take of the situation is. Carl says of the project:
“Too often policy makers and practitioners see poverty as having a simple beginning, middle and end. It is viewed as something that can be fixed if we all just ‘do better’. I am delighted to be launching this programme with the museum to use research to really explore what poverty looks like locally, and how the museum and the university can respond to this through the needs of local people, local knowledge and resources.”
When it comes to understanding poverty and disadvantage in Manchester, Ardwick is a good place to start. The English Indices of deprivation, published by the ONS in 2019, provide an Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) score for each Lower Super Output Area (LSOA) in England, with 1 awarded to those areas experiencing the most deprivation, and 10 given to those areas experiencing the least deprivation. Of the nine LSOA’s in Ardwick, seven score 1 IMD.
Esme sees the project as a way of developing understanding between this neighbourhood, right on their doorstep, and the Museum. Keen to get away from the usual “one off project”, which Esme describes as no way to build a relationship with people, Local Matters has dispensed with the usual list of outputs and deliverables that can dominate the process. Year one will focus on developing the collective understanding of the neighbourhood, and year two will focus on what shifts need to be made to help create change, both for the community. and, Esme says, “I want it to almost be foundational in terms of us understanding how we start to shape the policies and the processes of the museum.”
Alongside Carl, Louisa Dawes from the University of Manchester will provide a social justice researcher training programme to the 19 Manchester Museum staff members who have signed up to support the project, which include the café manager and the head conservator.
Learning from other museums
After working with the Whitworth Gallery Esme took up a role with the Greater Manchester Combined Authorities (GMCA) public health team, where she worked on embedding arts and culture into health and equalities work in the region. She took on a cultural leadership fellowship, which allowed her to dedicate a year to “working out what the bloody hell are museums for”.
Her fellowship travels took her to Bangalore, where the museums are doing exciting work collaborating across sectors, and to Poland’s European Solidarity Centre (ESC), which Esme says is “probably one of my favourite museums in the world, in Gdansk, in the shipyards. It’s incredible.” The ESC is devoted to the concept and history of solidarity and contains the office of trade union leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa’s office on one of its floors.
The primary conclusions she came to were that museums were for learning, and civic and social action. The Local Matters project and other developments at the Museum are all leading towards a new role, and helping define it as they go, as they are still uncertain what the final result will be. Esme says, “But it does work,” Esme says. “And I know because I’ve seen it in other parts of the world, and it blew me away because it’s about opening up everything your museum can be and then people using that in a way that is genuinely useful for tackling greater inequalities within their work.” Esme went on to say:
“We will always do the work of museum. You know we’ll always collect, we’ll always do displays, exhibits, of course we will. And ultimately we’re storytellers, and I think there is a real shift at the moment, not in every museum, but more and more.”
Changing course through Covid
Although the Museum has been closed to the public over the pandemic period, the museum staff have been busy with other projects, outside of the usual exhibits and displays, that address inequalities and build relationships with other communities and organisations.
Manchester Museum registered as a specialist college for neurodiverse young people, and partnered with a charity called Project Inc, to offer regular classes to 16-25 year olds on the top floor of the museum. These classes have run over the last two years and the Museum is in the process of opening up to more educational charities. The top floor also hosts Invisible Cities, who provide support and employment to people who have been affected by homelessness.
Sustainability and the climate crisis are also understandably high on the agenda, and the Museum works with and provides a base for campaign group Climate Emergency Manchester, who have been keeping Manchester city council on their toes regarding their promises to tackle the climate crisis.
They also provide a base for the Climate Literacy Project, and have a joint post with them that they are currently recruiting for. A project to tackle ageism the Museum have been working on for over a decade, resulted in the creation of a UK centre to tackle ageism through arts and creativity, after significant funding was secured from the Baring Foundation.
The Museum should be at the forefront of public conversations around race, ecology, politics, inequality and any other issue that needs debating Esme says, but:
“We can’t do that on our own, nor should we, I think the future is collaborative. We have an extraordinary power to convene and bring people together to have these conversations to be relevant. But that also means people have to be able to shape what our work looks like.”
South Asia exhibition
In Greater Manchester 11% of the population is of South Asian heritage. To celebrate this fact a new South Asia gallery is being developed at the Museum which will be unveiled to the public on its re-opening next year. The gallery is in partnership with the British Museum, which has its own South Asia gallery.
The Manchester Museum team is keen to do things differently in Manchester. They decided to adopt a co-production process to develop the gallery, bringing in the voices and ideas of the South Asian diaspora to inform the final structure of the gallery. From initial consultations with larger groups of people outside of the Museum, a 31-person South Asia collective was formed. Esme says the gallery is:
“Co-curation on an epic scale and we will have the UK’s first gallery devoted to the South Asian diaspora experience and contribution…
“It’s not shying away from really difficult, complex histories that are British history, and it’s part of a broader shift in museums to really try and open up those narratives and those perspectives. I think that still isn’t happening very much in UK museums but is happening globally.”
In a world that is becoming increasingly polarised due to toxic online debates, I was taken by Esme saying museums at their best can be “empathy machines” and that one of the “best ways you build empathy is through storytelling”.
Describing part of the museum’s mission as building “understanding between cultures” and acknowledging the importance of narrative, Esme says: “You know we should be there starting to really challenge some of the thinking around the stories Manchester tells itself about itself, which I think needs some challenge.”
Echoes of empire
The emerging narratives from the South Asia collective are also intertwined with the history of the British Empire., and Esme points out that the Museum was “born of empire” and that many of the 4.5 million objects they possess originate from countries formerly in that empire. Esme says the collective has been invaluable because of the “perspective they bring around what it means to be British Asian, about the realities of that. What it means to actually be in institutions like a museum that could be very, very traumatic. To be in institutions that still hold collections that are looted, you know. What does that mean?”
A big challenge for the Museum over the coming years regarding the ownership of the objects within its collection, Esme says is to work out: “How do we start to not just address this, but actually bloody do something about it? You know deeds not words for goodness sake, we’re in Manchester.”
The Local Matters research project, alongside the many other initiatives Manchester Museum are working on, indicates a shift away from the museum’s commonly-perceived passive role, to a more active one, with the aims of addressing the current crises the people of Manchester face in an increasingly complex world where change appears to be accelerating. The Museum’s move towards change in order to grow with the times, and provide empathy in an increasingly fractious world, may well inspire others to do the same.
To find out more about the South Asia Gallery at Manchester Museum – click here.
This article is part of the Creating Radical Change series, to see more – click here.
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Featured image: Manchester Museum.