Islamic & South Asian Collections in Manchester

Since April Jenny Norton-Wright, Early Career Curator at Manchester Museum, has been exploring the Islamic and South Asian collections across Manchester Museum, the Whitworth, and Manchester City Galleries (http://bit.ly/1sYozk4). Jenny’s research is part of a wider project to better document these collections, make them more accessible, and up skill curators to work more closely with them. The long term goal is to use this research and development to produce an exhibition in the not too distant future. The project is being generously funded by the John Ellerman Foundation (http://bit.ly/1u7qJtV).

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Jenny Norton-Wright with Professor Tim Insoll, University of Manchester, and Dr Salman Almahari, Bahrain National Museum, discussing Manchester Museum’s Islamic collection [left]. Dr Salman was able to help identify a set of currency from Bahrain donated to Manchester Museum in 1926 [right].

The process of developing curatorial skills will include visits to sites of best practice in the UK and abroad, such as Birmingham Museum (http://bit.ly/14pvA0a) and Art Gallery or Museum für Islamische Kunst (http://bit.ly/1Wuul8Q). It will also include a series of workshops and an ambitious international conference. The first workshop, which we are currently planning, will take place this October and focus on key elements of Islamic and South Asian history and culture. The international conference will take place in late February 2017, it will feature speakers working on some of the most innovative Islamic and South Asian museum and gallery projects across the UK, Europe and further afield. Once plans are affirmed we’ll share them on the Manchester Museum website and other social media platforms.

27th September 2014: Big Saturday ‘Discover the Pacific’

September’s Big Saturday event is inspired by the Living Cultures collection – specifically by our important collection of objects from the Pacific. The limited gallery space in the museum only allows us to show a tiny fraction of the museum’s collections, which include over 6000 Pacific objects in the Living Cultures collection alone. A day of activities on the 27th September is set to draw attention to this important area of the collection.

Get up close to objects from behind the scenes - including one of our large textile pieces usually kept in storage.

Get up close to objects from behind the scenes – including one of our large textile pieces usually kept in storage.

Some of the events taking place on the day will be*:

  • ‘The ocean between us’– A short talk looking at how the Pacific Ocean links people to each other and to the rest of the world through history by Professor Karen Sykes, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester.
  • Didgeridoo performances
  • A chance to see one of our large pieces of Fijian barkcloth from the stores. Meet trainee curator Kiera Gould to ask questions and find out more about the manufacture of these impressive textiles.
  • Hands-on craft activities: make a miniature kiwi bird, decorate a boomerang or make a Hawaiian flower lei to wear as you explore the museum.
  • Meet our Curator of Botany Rachel Webster and get up close to some of the natural materials people used to live on remote Pacific Islands.
  • Learn more about our up-coming Easter Island exhibition.
  • Have a go at the traditional Vanuatu art of sand-drawing and learn more about this fascinating cultural practice.
  • Join students from the University of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences who will show examples of volcanic rocks and demonstrate seismic waves to show how we can understand the structure of the earth.

We hope that visitors will also look out for objects and specimens from the Pacific as they explore the galleries all over the museum. Families can pick up a Pacific Island Trail map at the Welcome Desk and hunt for clues around the museum which will show them the diversity of objects we hold from the Pacific. You might even spot some live animals in the Vivarium which come from this far flung corner of the world!

Why can't kiwis fly? Find the answer as you explore the galleries and spot objects and specimens from the Pacific.

Why can’t kiwis fly? Find the answer as you explore the galleries and spot objects and specimens from the Pacific.

Join us at Manchester Museum on Saturday 27th September to ‘Discover the Pacific’. Activities run 11am-4pm, are free and suitable for all ages.

*The programme for the day is currently ‘to be confirmed’, keep an eye on the blog and Twitter (@KieraRGould) for updates.

Sept Big Saturday flyer FINAL high res

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.

 

Islam & ACE

In 2013 Arts Council England decided to support a new Subject Specialist Network (SSN) for museum professionals responsible for collections of Islamic art and material culture in the UK. A lot has happened since this decision including several SSN meetings, the appointment of regional representatives (I’m the North West representative), a study day at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and the dissemination of a survey to identify where and what Islamic collections exist in the UK.

Rebecca Bridgman is the chair of the SSN and is Birmingham Museum Trust's first specialist Curator of Islamic and South Asian Art.

Rebecca Bridgman is Birmingham Museum Trust’s first specialist Curator of Islamic and South Asian Art, and chair of the SSN.

If you’re a museum professional reading this you may have already received aforementioned survey from the SSN project researcher Jenny Wright. This survey provides a unique opportunity to map the extent of Islamic collections in the UK for the very first time. It will also help determine what support museum professionals need in the curation of Islamic collections. If you need any assistance in completing it you can always contact Jenny or the nearest SSN regional representative, for further details please contact islamicmappingproject@gmail.com. Late April 2014 is the deadline for completion and return.

Kate Newnham is Senior Collections Officer, Visual Arts, at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, UK. She has curated Bristol's Asian and Islamic collection for eleven years. She is the SSN South West representative.

Kate Newnham is Senior Collections Officer, Visual Arts, at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, UK. She has curated Bristol’s Asian and Islamic collection for eleven years. She is the SSN South West representative.

It’ll be a busy year ahead for the SSN as the survey results are compiled, further study days and an annual conference are developed, and a website is designed.  To keep up to date with events, opportunities and developments join the Facebook page (http://on.fb.me/1g4sKMU) and Twitter feed (http://bit.ly/1fVka6O).