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.

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A Discourse of Change

Last week I was lucky enough to spend a couple of  days at the Museum of World Cultures (MWC) in Gothenburg, Sweden (http://bit.ly/HUHAvr). I last visited the museum back in 2006 in a previous incarnation as Project Curator at the International Slavery Museum (http://bit.ly/izKSQ). This most recent visit was the culmination of my participation in the British Museum Fresh Leads project which was funded by Arts Council England. You can find out more about Fresh Leads in the British Museum’s 2012/13  UK partnership review.

I was drawn back to MWC after hearing about their latest exhibition Secret Love. This contemporary art exhibition about LGBT experience and culture in China was equally as cutting edge as those I’d seen back in 2006 such as No Name Fever. Both content and design were inimitably MWC – uncompromising, raw, and most of all bold. This boldness suffused their associated public programme too. Working intimately with West Pride (http://bit.ly/1dMECUq) performances and events included  Prejudice and Pride – The Norms of Functionality and Sexuality, What Happens in Russia and Why?, and Being Deaf and Gay.  MWC headed this programme schedule with the refreshingly direct title West Pride – This Happens at the Museum.

Secret Love. Museum of World Cultures, Gothenburg, Sweden.

Secret Love. Museum of World Cultures, Gothenburg, Sweden. 2013.

Such intrepidness has allowed MWC to position itself as an internationally renowned site of critical museological discourse.  It eloquently combines the local Gothenburg radical politico-cultural scene, not entirely dissimilar from Manchester, with the universal narratives encompassed by globalisation. The impermanence of each gallery and the unrivalled exhibition turnover rate has kept WMC enviably current. However, its latest project is a departure from the temporary as the core ethnographic collection will be permanently displayed en masse on site. For a discursive museum more familiar with concept than object this is a challenge. In playful WMC style creative solutions are being explored in the Test Room where ethnographic curatorial orthodoxies are re-imagined and objects scrutinised.

Test Room. Museum of World Cultures, Gothenburg, Sweden. 2013.

Test Room. Museum of World Cultures, Gothenburg, Sweden. 2013.

Relocating a traditional ethnographic collection at the heart of such a dynamic and reflexive institution has spectacular potential. Just as the recent re-displays at Manchester Museum have proved, with the right combination of ideas, ambition and collaboration, object centred projects can be transformational. Following my many conversations with Swedish colleagues last week I’m convinced that the results will be tantalisingly distinct and unmistakably WMC.

From Manchester to Sheffield and Liverpool

On the 26th June 2011 our most recent and celebrated temporary exhibition China: Journey to the East closed to the public. The exhibition has been with us for 9 months and was supposed to be heading home to the British Museum but instead will open in Weston Park, Sheffield later in the year. This new addition to the tour schedule proves just how popular the topic of China is with museum visitors and users alike. The exhibition has allowed the Manchester Museum to affirm its relationship with Manchester’s Chinese community and it will hopefully develop as we explore future opportunities for collaboration.

This Chinese porcelain tea-pot is currently on display in the Manchester Gallery with other fascinating objects from China. It dates to the early 20th century and was donated by Robert Dukinfield Darbishire. Hopefully, we'll be able to exhibit much more of our Chinese collection in the Manchester Gallery in the not too distant future.

In other news we’ve finally completed the transfer of an object from the Living Cultures collection to the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool. The object in question is a punishment collar from a 19th century plantation in the USA. It would have been placed around the necks of enslaved Africans who had attempted to escape. It had been on loan to the International Slavery Museum for several years so it made perfect sense to make the transfer. The process of transferring objects from one museum collection to another is often called rationalisation, and it has been occurring since museums began. The punishment collar is better placed in the International Slavery Museum as  it is an institution dedicated to exploring the very many experiences, histories and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade.

Stephen Terence Welsh

Curator of Living Cultures