Manchester Museum to reopen with ‘ordinary folk’ co-curating new gallery

Director says it’s ‘time to tell new stories’ as people from south Asian diaspora contribute experiences

A museum with a dizzying, encyclopaedic collection that spans Egyptian mummies, dinosaur skeletons and live Costa Rican frogs is to reopen next year after a £15m revamp – with a promise to be more inclusive and imaginative.

Manchester Museum has about 4.5m objects from around the world, a mix of exhibits from natural sciences and human cultures all under one roof.

The collection includes 4,000 archery objects, tens of thousands of coins, a million preserved animals – from aardvarks to zebras – and, unusually, an internationally important vivarium.

Manchester Museum, lion
Museum director Esme Ward said the museum was making a commitment to inclusion and imagination. Photograph: Chris Bull/Manchester Museum

It means Manchester is the only place outside Panama where variable harlequin toads can be found. “They had a really good lockdown,” said the museum director, Esme Ward. “They bred.”

The museum has been closed since October last year for a redevelopment that will give it a new entrance, more exhibition space and, Ward said, the opportunity to tell stories differently.

“Our mission has not changed, it remains to develop a better understanding between different cultures and build a more sustainable world. What has changed is the way that we’re choosing to do it.

“Museums have told the same story for the past 150 years so we’re really interested in it being time to tell new stories.”

The revamp includes a new south Asian gallery, a partnership with the British Museum. Back in 2015, the then chancellor George Osborne pledged £5m to it as part of the “northern powerhouse” agreement.

It was originally going to be a chronological, professionally curated space. Instead it has been co-curated by 31 people from Manchester’s south Asian diaspora communities.

A Singh Twins exhibition
Artists the Singh Twins are making a mural for the revamped museum. Photograph: Manchester Museum

“Just ordinary folk, not museum folk,” said Ward. “Just extraordinary, ordinary people. It is co-curation on an epic scale … it is their lived experience and the collections coming together and we hope it will be like alchemy.

“You will essentially have a sense of diaspora and experience and contribution that you won’t find in any other museum.”

It will have amazing objects from museum collections but it will also tell lesser known stories, including of the day Mahatma Gandhi visited Darwen, Lancashire, in 1931, after being invited to see hardships caused by the Indian independence movement’s boycott of British goods.

Other objects include a rickshaw from Bangladesh decorated by communities in Manchester and an object offered by one of the “ordinary folk” curators – the first world war uniform of a great-grandfather.

Artists the Singh Twins are making a mural, which they say will be an emotional map of the south Asian diaspora experience.

Ward said the museum was making a commitment to inclusion and imagination. “We are an institution born of empire. How are we grappling with the complexity of that? What does an ethics of care look like for an institution like ours?”

One of the liveliest debates for museums at the moment is repatriation, with some arguing that there are thousands of objects in British collections that were taken in dubious circumstances or violent raids.

Stan the T Rex at Manchester Museum.
Stan the T Rex at Manchester Museum. Photograph: Manchester Museum

In 2019, Manchester voluntarily returned 43 ceremonial objects in its collection to Indigenous Australian communities.

Ward said she did not know if more objects in the collection would follow. “We’ve had no direct claims since then, even though many people told me the floodgates would open.”

The museum, part of the University of Manchester, will reopen on 18 February.

The revamp also includes a new Chinese culture gallery, a dinosaur display, a “belonging” gallery and a new exhibition hall. Its opening exhibition will be Golden Mummies of Egypt – making its UK debut after a tour of the US and China – which includes eight mummies and 100 objects from Manchester’s bountiful collections.

Ward said it would also still be the museum loved by generations of families.

“There will be lots and lots of things that are deeply familiar in what is a deeply loved place,” she said. “I think about my kids who are now young adults, they essentially perfected their crawling techniques on those floors.”

For example, the much-loved Stan the T rex is not going anywhere, but he will be next to a new display about how to view the world like a palaeontologist, said Ward.

“I take very seriously people’s love of tradition and I hope people feel that we’ve not messed with the things they love.”


Mark Brown North of England correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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