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At the end of last month Manchester Museum closed its doors until October 2022 to put the finishing touches to its £13.5m Hello Future project, which will make it more inclusive, imaginative and relevant to the communities it serves.
Here MuseumNext talks to Director, Esme Ward, on a project she says has not only extended the physical spaces but has also been a collaboration with the people of Greater Manchester on an ‘epic scale’.
When Esme Ward joined Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester, in 2018 as its first female director one of her main roles was to envisage the largest transformation in the organisations 120-year history.
Those plans are now materialising in the creation of a two-storey extension, a new Exhibition Hall, a South Asia Gallery, a Chinese Culture Gallery and a Belonging Gallery.
Manchester is a hyper-diverse city and inclusion really means you are seeing the communities you serve. It needs to be in the DNA
New spaces for learning and environmental action have also been created as well as a grand Oxford Road entrance and improved visitor facilities – such as a prayer room, changing facilities and more toilets – that focus on inclusive and accessible design.
Ward has past experience delivering a capital project as her previous role as Head of Learning and Engagement at the Whitworth Art Gallery – also located on Oxford Road and part of the University of Manchester – included a £15m renovation, completed in 2014.
She says the difference between the two projects is that at Manchester Museum she has had more time to work with the students, researchers, charities and the local communities in imagining and prototyping the new spaces.
The museum’s mission is to build understanding between cultures and a more sustainable world and she says that was the starting point.
“When I began in April 2018 we did a whole host of work with people in the museum and beyond – I wanted to really think about what values were driving the work of the organisation,” she says.
“Essentially it was a commitment to inclusion. Manchester is a hyper-diverse city and inclusion really means you are seeing the communities you serve. It needs to be in the DNA.”
According to Esme the future of museums is collaborative and she says this helps navigate the challenges museums face revolving around public conversations about race, ecology, politics, inequality, identity and the British Empire.
“We can’t do that or anything on our own.”
An example of this collaborative approach can be found in the way Esme and her team have established the South Asia Gallery, which is in partnership with the British Museum, but, rather than a being a professionally curated gallery, is co-curated with the museum’s South Asian communities.
This includes 31 people, none of them museum and gallery people, all of different backgrounds, predominantly South Asian heritage, bringing their lived experiences and working directly on the establishment of the gallery.
“To me that’s what being inclusive is, they are at the heart of the process.”
She says there are people whose lives have changed because of the South Asia Gallery, who have applied for the first time for Arts Council England funding and received grants through its Developing your Creative Practice programme to complete their projects for the new gallery.
“There will be some very beautiful personal objects from individuals in the community. I’m really honoured that they are going to be included and they can tell their own story. It means a huge amount to these people.”
“So many South Asian people living in Greater Manchester are here as a result of partition – that is a seriously dark moment in our history,” she says.
“And it is British history and they are bringing their insights and perspectives to the very heart of the gallery experience and for me that’s why the opening up of the museum is really important. This is not about having an institutional voice of authority but creating the conditions to have those multiple perspectives.”
As well as heading the UK’s largest university museum, Ward is also chair of the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance and says she is mindful of the broader role museums can play in terms of health, wellbeing and community cohesion.
Ward talks about the philosophy of caring, which means not just how museums care about collections but increasingly how they care about people and their ideas, how they care for relationships and essentially how they can expand their commitment to care.
“The museum is registered as a specialist education provider and a charity and for me that is part of what it means to become the museum our city needs us to be.”
The top floor of the museum is now a co-working hub for environmental and inclusive educational charities that share the museum’s vision. Being based in the museum these organisations can use its resources and expertise to increase capacity as well as influence future displays.
Project Inc, an educational charity that works with neurodiverse 16-25-year-olds, is one organisation that has been benefitting from having its headquarters in the museum. The charity is developing digital innovation for a forthcoming exhibition and some of the students are creating products for the new shop while also completing GCSEs and A Levels.
“This is a bigger process of opening up your museum and really understanding your local context and how you can be useful to that. And of course if you do that, it changes your museum.”
Manchester Museum is keen to support the city on the current challenges it faces including Manchester’s commitments to limiting the impact of climate change and becoming zero carbon by 2038. This has seen the museum create a shared post with the Carbon Literacy Trust that will involve coordinated activity with a new Greening the Museum group to improve its environmental approach.
“On our new extension on the roof we will have air quality monitors that feed directly down onto a display on air quality and collections in the gallery. This is linked into university research but it’s also monitoring the situation on Oxford Road, which has not met the UK standards on air quality for months. And we will work with schools on recording the air quality levels in the roads around them.”
When it comes to inequality the museum again supports programmes that are underway in the region such as the Greater Manchester Inequalities Commission.
Within walking distance of the museum is an area called Ardwick, which has significant levels of inequality, poverty and depravation, and over the next two years the museum will carry out a large scale research and pilot project with that community. Called Local Matters it focuses on poverty research and the experiences of families with 15 staff being trained as poverty co-researchers.
“Being the museum the city needs us to be is being responsive to these concerns and issues and finding different ways to be attentive and more understanding of the experiences of residents, students and researchers.
“So, if we need to do things that museums don’t normally do we just need to get on and do it. We need to be a better neighbour.”
Ward hopes that when the museum reopens it will introduce a breakfast club for those local families in a new picnic area it is developing, which will be an extra space for visitors to take a break other than the two cafés.
One challenge to the redevelopment of Manchester Museum that could not have been predicted was the COVID-19 pandemic, which not only caused disruption to the building work but also resulted in the redundancies of 20 per cent of its staff.
“I have lost 150 years of experience and I am heartbroken it happened,” says Ward.
However, with the footprint of the museum growing by 25 per cent, the museum is now in a position to recruit more than 30 new posts.
And Ward says in everyone’s job description is a commitment to public engagement, teaching and research.
Last year Ward wrote a book chapter for The Inclusive Museum Leader for the American Alliance of Museums and said she was able to put some of her thoughts into words.
“When COVID-19 hit I was thinking about what museums are really about. And they are about the complexity of human experience in our world – if the first few months of COVID taught us anything, I really hope it taught us about solidarity, belonging in communities and hope.
“Part of this for me is a shift in curatorial practice. For example, our curators and conservation staff are all working on projects such as Local Matters.”
This is clearly visible in the museum’s work to create a new Belonging Gallery, which will be the first gallery visitors see as they make their way from the entrance hall to the first floor.
The aim of the Belonging Gallery will be to draw on the museum’s diverse collections to explore how humans, plants and animals can create a sense of belonging in a place, community or environment.
“The entire space is going to be about belonging in all its different forms. What I really love about this gallery is that it is genuinely the place where you start to think about multiple perspectives.
“For people to feel they belong has more impact on their life than anything else. It’s part of envisioning the museum our city needs us to be. I think this gallery is born of this moment, it’s been refined because of the pandemic. This is our chance to be the museum we need to be post-COVID.”
Manchester Museum has also been building bridges with communities that claim ownership to objects in its collection through its Tide of Change repatriation initiative.
In 2020 it became the first museum in the UK to return ceremonial items to Aboriginal groups. This was in partnership with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies and traditional owners from Ganaglidda Garawa.
Now the museum is about to introduce a new curator of indigenous perspectives to continue this work with communities around the world. This includes working with the aboriginal communities on a display for the Belonging Gallery, which will show what happens to collections following repatriation.
“For me it’s a collaborative approach but also about the connectedness that we feel to each other and our world. I think there is something extraordinary we can do in museums and that really means bringing in these different perspectives and approaches.”
As well as continuing the refitting, returning the collections and building the displays, Manchester Museum will also be engaging with the public during closure with its mobile inflatable museum, specific prototyping sessions within the museum, and plans for two large events leading up to its reopening in autumn 2022.
Its first Exhibition Hall show will be Golden Mummies of Egypt, which is a Manchester Museum and Nomad Exhibitions partnership currently on tour in China.
Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.
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