A South Asian Summer

Unbelievably it’s been almost a year since I last blogged! Since my entry in August 2016 I’ve been working on a number of exciting South Asia related projects, and had the opportunity to visit India.

In December 2016 I travelled to India with colleagues Menaka Munro, Learning Manager, and Dr Nick Merriman, Director. We met museum professionals, explored potential collaborations, and conducted research in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. The visit culminated in Kerala where we joined colleagues from Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds at the Kochi Biennial.

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Market, New Delhi, December 2016

The visit was part of our preparatory work for three exhibitions opening this summer, and a new gallery dedicated to the history and culture of South Asia opening in 2020. From mid-August onwards Manchester Museum will be brimming with South Asian art, culture and history:

  • Memories of Partition – A collaborative project documenting the collective memory of families in Manchester affected by the 1947 Partition of India into the independent nations of India, Pakistan, and subsequently Bangladesh in 1971. Opens to the public on August 15
  • Celebrating Ganesha – A temporary British Museum loan of a magnificent stone sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesha dating to the thirteenth century. Opens to the public on September 2. Find out more here
  • Reena Saini Kallat – A solo art show featuring the work of contemporary Mumbai based artist Reena Saini Kallat. This show is part of the wider New North and South project. This show will open with a series of others at the Whitworth, Manchester Art Gallery, and Manchester Museum of Science and Industry from September 29 onwards. Find out more here   

In some way each of these projects will contribute to the creation of the new gallery. The South Asia Gallery is being developed in partnership with the British Museum and Manchester’s diverse South Asian communities. It will explore the history and culture of South Asia from the earliest periods of human occupation to the modern day diaspora. The gallery is part of Manchester Museum’s wider Courtyard Project that will see an extended and revitalised museum opening in 2020. Find out more here.

Tracey, Manchester & Multiculturalism

Here’s my second Thematic Collecting short film featuring Tracey Zengeni. Tracey’s collaborated with Manchester Museum over several years on a multitude of projects and it was fascinating to hear her thoughts:

I’ve got one more film to share with you from this current series so watch this space!

Isabelle, Museums & Migration

As part of our Thematic Collecting project I’ve captured the thoughts and opinions of several of Manchester Museum’s collaborators. First up is Isabelle Cox:

Over the next few of days I’ll upload a couple more, watch this space!

Curious About the Congo? The Study’s the Place to Be

On 11th September 2015 Manchester Museum opens it’s dynamic new space The Study. The Study will provide stimulating surroundings and resources for users ranging from hobbyists to academics to explore and be inspired by the museum’s encyclopaedic collections. Part of this new space is a temporary exhibition gallery.

The Study

The inaugural exhibition for The Study’s gallery is The Phantoms of Congo River: Photographs by Nyaba Ouedraogo. Nyaba is an internationally renowned photographer and previously exhibited work in Manchester at Manchester Art Gallery in 2012 during the season of West African art called We Face Forward. This exhibition is Nyaba’s response to Joseph Conrad’s infamous 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. The text raises challenging questions about 19th century colonialism and racism in Africa, questions that Nyaba confronts in his work.  The curiosity and critique embedded in Nyaba’s work is the kind of new thinking The Study aims to facilitate and encourage.

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On display will be 13 of Nyaba’s most powerful prints accompanied by stunning objects from the Living Culture’s collection. You’ll be able to peruse the full series of prints in Nyaba’s catalogue which will be publicly available in the Discover area of The Study. We’ll also have copies of Heart of Darkness in the Share area. From 11th September onwards there’ll be an exciting series of events across The Study, including those related to the Congo, so keep up to date at the Manchester Museum website (http://bit.ly/1AuFKXTand The Study Twitter feed (http://bit.ly/1INaiY2).

Student Engagement with the Living Cultures Collection

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Students from the East Asian Studies programme explore highlight objects from the Museum’s Chinese collections led by Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures and Dr Pierre Fuller, Lecturer in East Asian History

Students are introduced to the Museum’s collections as part of formal teaching programmes in several different departments across the university. Our curators and conservators deliver teaching on many courses, both in the classroom and in the museum itself. In recent visits to the Living Cultures stores from students on the Archaeology, Social Anthropology and East Asian Studies courses, we have aimed to inspire students to carry out research using the collections. There are many objects in the collections which would make fascinating topics for original research, as we only know a very small amount about their histories.

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Christian Pollard, (pictured, left), visited the Anthropology Collection stores as part of a seminar for the East Asian Studies programme in December 2014:

“We got to see some really interesting artefacts enhanced by having the curator there to guide us through the objects. It was certainly a worthwhile trip for anyone who is simply interested in finding out more about history or for someone thinking about a dissertation topic in need of an interesting, and maybe even unstudied, artefact.

Thank you very much for having us, I really enjoyed being able to get a look at something physical as opposed to documents.”

Students also engage with the museum collections through work placements, volunteering or as part of extra-curricular societies. Recently, I was asked to run a workshop for ArchSoc, the University of Manchester’s Archaeology Society, to introduce cataloguing and collections management to a small group of undergraduate students from across three year groups. As well as showing the group a small section of our stores ‘behind the scenes’, I also gave them the chance to have a go at writing a simple catalogue record for an object. This allowed us to discuss the importance of recording context and provenance, and of effective collections management in the museum setting.

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Students from the University of Mancheser’s Archaeology Society have a go at cataloguing using objects in the collection

There are many ways in which the work of the Museum overlaps and collaborates with its academic colleagues in other departments in the University; from showcasing research through the temporary exhibition programme, to hosting talks, conferences and events. Our collections include field collections from Manchester’s academics and students, and are informed by their research. We aim to engage and inspire students wherever possible, showing that there are many different ways to use the collections, and many relevant contemporary conversations to be had around our historic objects.

Making Migrants: The British Empire and Mass Migration

Given the anti-migration rhetoric currently dominating the political discourse you’d be forgiven for believing that Britain has always existed in a state of perpetual ‘splendid isolation’. The truth is the British Isles geographically, economically, culturally and politically have always been a beacon for migrants both historically and contemporarily. Concomitantly Britain as a former imperial power has instigated and enforced migration in other parts of the world. One of the most critical examples of this was the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. For a brief overview of this world changing event the following video produced by The Economist should help:

The partition of India and Pakistan resulted in an estimated 15 million people being displaced with another 500,000 dying as a consequence of conflict. The speed with which Britain drew up partition plans and then subsequently withdrew has been cited as one cause for the violence. With ongoing civil unrest and political instability post-partition many people sought refuge by migrating to Britain. Following a war between East and West Pakistan in 1970-71, the result of which was the creation of Bangladesh, many Bangladeshis fled to Britain.

Astonishingly this globally significant event which resulted in unfathomable mass migration and interminable conflict is left relatively unexplored in UK museums. As part of our thematic collecting project (http://bit.ly/16WpOEzI’ll be exploring Britain’s role in instigating such migration and how it has impacted on collections and communities in Manchester. Soon I’ll be shooting a short film which will examine the effect partition had on diversifying Greater Manchester.

Pacific Collection Review

Since I joined the Manchester Museum at the end of April 2014, I have been working on the important collection of material from the Pacific, with the aim of improving our collections documentation and the storage conditions for our objects.

Systematically working through the stored collections, I have been making sure that objects have correct locations recorded on our database – a crucial piece of data for good collections management. I have also been photographing objects to add images to the database, which is helpful is allowing us to quickly identify a particular object when we receive enquiries from colleagues, researchers and members of the public.

Indigenous Australian objects in our store.

Indigenous Australian objects in our store.

This approach to reviewing the collection has brought to light a number of issues; how should we look after objects which are secret or sacred in their originating communities? How do we deal with historical terms which have been used to describe objects in the past, but which would be culturally inappropriate or easily misunderstood today? These issues are particularly relevant to an ethnographic collection amassed from cultures which have changed in the post-colonial period, adopting different names for indigenous groups and for their countries as they gain independence or greater recognition.

Two large shields from the Asmat region of West Papua. Large objects like these are challenging to store, especially when they include materials like feathers which are particularly sensitive to insect damage and storage conditions.

Two large shields from the Asmat region of West Papua. Large objects like these are challenging to store, especially when they include materials like feathers which are particularly sensitive to insect damage and storage conditions.

A further issue to contend with in the museum is how to store our collection most efficiently. Many of our stores are now full, and cannot take further material. However Manchester Museum is currently developing its approach to collecting, with the aim of continuing to develop the collections with contemporary material. As I continue through my placement with the Living Cultures collection, I need to think about how our storage space could be used more effectively to incorporate future acquisitions alongside the valued historical material.

Working through the collection has allowed me to identify areas where storage can immediately be improved - these Indigenous Australian dolls have been repacked into new acid-free boxes with the help of our volunteer Eleanor Myers.

Working through the collection has allowed me to identify areas where storage can immediately be improved – these Indigenous Australian dolls have been repacked into new acid-free boxes with the help of our volunteer Eleanor Myers.

While under-taking this ‘behind the scenes’ collections management work, I’m also becoming involved with the public programme at the museum. Using the Pacific collection as inspiration, I’m currently developing a ‘Big Saturday’ event for the 27th September 2014, which will allow visitors to engage with the cultures and environments of the Pacific through a wide range of activities. I’m also hoping to assist in delivering further events over the next nine months to broaden awareness of the fascinating Living Cultures collection and its relevance to contemporary issues.