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In conversation with: Esme Ward, Director of Manchester Museum

Esme Ward, Director of Manchester-Museum – Photo by Katie O’Neill

MuseumNext caught up with Manchester Museum Director, Esme Ward, to find out more about what museumgoers can expect from the hello future transformation project in 2023 and why health, wellbeing, inclusivity and accessibility lie at the heart of the museum’s future plans.

It was back in September 2021 that MuseumNext last had the chance to sit down with Manchester Museum Director, Esme Ward, for an interview. At that time, the doors of the museum had just closed and a £15m transformation project known as hello future was entering its final stages.

Supported by public funding from Arts Council England, The National Lottery Heritage Fund, The University of Manchester and a number of other supporters, the project has been described as the “most ambitious transformation in a generation”.

Now, nearly 18 months later, Esme and the team are on the cusp of being able to welcome visitors back to enjoy the new Exhibition Hall, South Asia Gallery, Belonging Gallery, Chinese Culture Gallery and much more.

With a range of new spaces for learning and environmental action, a prayer room, expanded changing facilities and a therapy room, the museum is ready to fulfil its bold new social mission to become the most “inclusive, imaginative and caring museum you might encounter”.

But what does caring mean? And how can an institution demonstrate its ability to meet this lofty but almost intangible goal.

“Since I first took on this role it has always been critical to me that we, as an institution, understand what a commitment to care is; what an ethics of care is,” says Esme.

“Museums have always been really good at caring for ‘stuff’. We know how to look after objects incredibly well. And, with 4.5 million objects at our museum, that stewardship is certainly important. But actually extending that to people and beliefs and relationships really matters.

“Four years ago, those were beautiful words that we perhaps didn’t fully understand. Yet, if the incredibly hard challenges of the pandemic have taught us one thing, I think it’s that we’ve all been forced to grapple with what ‘care’ and ‘community’ really mean to us.

Manchester Museum -Living World’s Gallery

“It’s become very clear that we can’t simply demonstrate a veneer of inclusion – inviting people into our spaces on our terms. Instead, I believe we have to be much more focused on serving the needs of people in the ways that work best for them.

“Importantly, that may require museums to let go of some of the control over what they are doing.”

Esme explains that to gain a greater understanding of how best to serve people – to entertain, to educate and to support their wellbeing – it is incumbent on museums to get under the skin of what the hopes and needs of people really are. It is that challenge that has led Manchester Museum to support 15 staff to train as social justice researchers. The museum is about to recruit a new post of Social Justice Manager to lead this work.

“If we are serious about making institutions appeal to more than the traditional museumgoer, we need to understand what families in our local area are going through. Without this understanding, museums are ill-equipped to meet the needs of our communities.

“We aren’t taking these steps at Manchester Museum for the sake of it; we genuinely want to make the biggest difference we can. We are part of the University of Manchester, which is committed to social responsibility as well as teaching and research.”

According to Esme, one of the most critical elements of the hello future project is the collaboration and consultation with many of the city’s stakeholders – from students and researchers to charities and local community groups – that has shaped the museum’s new spaces. This will ensure that the museum is fit for purpose in a hyper-diverse city that finds itself navigating big issues relating to race, ecology, identity, politics and inequality.

Singh Twins Exhibition at Manchester Museum

“First of all it’s about creating spaces that are really fit for the future and meet the needs of somewhere like Manchester,” says Esme. “With a new South Asia Gallery and large diaspora population, of course we need a suitable prayer space available.”

She continues, “Similarly, the top floor of the museum has now been opened out into a coworking space for educational and environmental charities. We are a museum; but we’re also a registered college for neurodivergent young people, home to charity PINC College, because there is limited provision in the city. And, actually, the museum space really works for that function.

“Alongside that we’ve installed the therapy room because that’s what the reality of working with young people requires in today’s society.

“We want to have that sense of connectedness running right throughout the museum, so that people feel welcomed, included and enriched by their experiences with us. As someone said to me: ‘it’s more about emotional connection than civic commemoration’.

“That feels right to me. Our civic role is really important but if we aren’t primarily a space where people feel they can connect emotionally then I don’t think we’re doing the best job we can.”

Two of Esme’s many other hats are as the Strategic Lead for the Greater Manchester Ageing Hub, and the Co-Chair of CHWA, the National Culture Health and Wellbeing Alliance. Through these lenses she believes that museums have the potential to be incredible resources for the exploration of health and wellbeing within the community.

Contemporary multimedia artist Gordon Cheung, Chinese Culture Gallery. Photo by Gordon Cheung Studios

“I’ve got a great example of how this works in practice. During lockdown we witnessed a really interesting phenomenon from Egyptology. Their live Q&As became incredibly popular and our wonderful curator, Dr Campbell Price, noted that a substantial portion of the questions received related to death, mourning, rituals and afterlife.

“Now, that’s perhaps not surprising given that Ancient Egypt really had their funeral and afterlife practices nailed. But it also spoke to a need for people to talk about their relationships with death and mourning.

Off the back of this insight, Campbell worked with Manchester Museum’s Families Coordinator, Vicky Grant, to develop a programme called To Have and To Heal. Esme says,

“Essentially, we take our Egyptian collections out to care settings and community groups. Discussing the objects acts as a catalyst for conversations with the elderly, caregivers, care home staff and broader support networks about their relationships with death and mourning.

“For me, it’s a really beautiful example of how we can create the conditions for people to have meaningful conversations. The collections and their stories sit at the heart of things but they serve our broader mission of care and wellbeing.”

Esme also suggests that the museum’s programming is being designed to move away from siloed “Arts and Health” programmes in favour of a more holistic approach, which sees health and wellbeing being embedded across the piece.

“Museums are among the few civic spaces that still have the power to bring people from all walks of life and all generations together, connect them and cultivate that sense of the collective. That’s a responsibility we should all take seriously.”

Find out more about how museums are approaching health and wellness at February’s Museums, Health and Wellbeing Summit. Tickets are available now.


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