It closed its doors in August 2021 but, after an ambitious £15m transformation, Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester, recently reopened to the delight of visitors.
The impressive neo-gothic structure, built in 1890, is home to 4.5 million objects and has now been extended by a beautifully designed, modern two-storey extension that houses the new temporary exhibition hall as well as South Asia and Chinese Culture Galleries.
As part of the refurbishment, many of the existing galleries have been refreshed, too, and new interpretation has also been created for parts of the collections.
A key aim of the redevelopment was to become more sustainable. Manchester states that it wants to be the world’s first carbon-literate museum. By developing sustainable infrastructure, such as air-quality monitoring, reusing material during the renovations, and using local producers and suppliers, the museum has ticked lots of boxes and, on top of that, it has plans to invest in conservation and educational programmes both locally and internationally.
This is all very impressive. However, I feel that the museum has missed the opportunity to showcase to visitors what exactly carbon literacy means. It would have been great to have facts and figures displayed around the galleries to highlight the museum’s achievements as well as its plans for the future.
As you walk to the right of the main entrance, the first thing you come to is the large museum shop, which is packed with fancy gifts and merchandise.
You then arrive at the new Exhibition Hall, currently home to the exhibition Golden Mummies of Egypt. With more than 100 objects on show, the beautifully designed Meyvaert cases allow for 360-degree views, and it is clear that the display of the objects has been thoughtfully considered.
The soundscapes, setworks and lighting add to the atmospheric visitor journey. The audiovisual-interactive screens allow visitors to reveal scans of the mummies and were impressive and easy to use.
However, I felt that the timelines could have been accompanied by images allowing the information to be more contextualised for visitors, and also wanted to see more information regarding the display of human remains.
One of the most imaginative and thought-provoking additions to the museum is the Belonging Gallery, which is a new space on the first floor. It is a truly heartfelt and creative way to use the museum’s collections and diverse cultural perspectives to explore themes of belonging.
It looks at the relationships between humans, animals and the environment, and offers ways to explore hope for the future. What works exceptionally well in the space is the bright and playful use of comic book design to help captivate visitors and bring challenging subjects into a more digestible format.
A museum highlight
The new South Asia Gallery was five years in the making and was developed in partnership with the British Museum. It is the first permanent gallery in the UK dedicated to exploring the experiences, cultures and people of South Asian heritage.
Co-curated on an epic scale, with 30 members of a collective who have helped tell the stories of the community, you can feel the passion that has gone into creating this gallery. The co-curators are a mix of community leaders, educators, artists, historians, journalists, scientists, musicians, students and others from South Asian diaspora.
Not only does the gallery look at the history, but it also offers a dynamic, contemporary take on South Asian and British Asian culture. There are multiple approaches for interpretation, audiovisual projections, headsets, as well as adequate seating.
One noticeable issue, however, was the lack of explanation for audio headsets – black boxes with black headsets are somewhat difficult to see and there are no labels to describe the content, length and purpose. From an accessibility standpoint these could be made more visible, with an accompanying label to provide clarity to visitors.
Focus on | Community curation
One of the key moments as a co-curator of the South Asia Gallery came after months of “big thinking” and an abundance of ideas. It was the day we each had to choose just one story to go into the gallery.
Our chosen stories were grouped together by theme and we were assigned a curator from the British Museum or Manchester Museum – that’s when the real co-curating began for me.
Looking back at that time, it was a blur of Zoom workshops as we refined our stories, gave feedback on design elements and learned about museum processes. At times, we called in external curators with specialist knowledge. We also did independent research, we listened and we absorbed all the information coming at us – often agreeing with suggestions and sometimes saying no.
One session I particularly enjoyed felt like shopping in Manchester Museum’s collections. Curators from different areas of the museum presented objects for the South Asia Gallery Collective to browse through and then we picked out the ones we wanted for the gallery.
A fellow co-curator described the experience as feeling like we had “survived something” and I can relate to this. Some co-curators left the process by circumstance and others by choice.
With so many voices, conflicts inevitably arose. One of the things we learned is that care and conflict resolution plans need to be in place for co-curators and for museum teams.
Right now, we’re all on a high as we have seen the gallery open to visitors and we are celebrating our achievements. But I think we can also all recognise the importance of evaluating the process. Members of the South Asia Gallery Collective were involved in appointing an independent evaluator and I’m looking forward to seeing the outcomes of this.
Nazma Noor is a member of Manchester Museum’s South Asia Gallery Collective
The new Chinese Culture gallery is a multilingual space with interpretation displayed in Chinese and English.
There is a powerful sense of ownership from the Chinese community here. Exploring Manchester’s rich cultural Chinese heritage, this gallery gives a voice to the community to share personal stories on migration, friendships and collaboration to inspire empathy and understanding.
A beautiful space
The gallery is beautifully designed and objects are optimally displayed. Striking imagery and film give a contemporary feel. However, I would have liked the text to be larger and therefore easier to read.
Sections of the pre-existing galleries have been modernised and new collections added, while others have been given a fresh coat of paint. The charm of the old galleries – particularly the vivarium and living world galleries – is that they offer that nostalgic feel of a traditional museum experience, enriched with engaging objects and specimens. But it would be great to see more interactives in these spaces to engage more audiences.
The flow within the new spaces works perfectly from a visitor perspective and allows people to reflect and digest. But while access to the older galleries was adequate, they seem more cramped than the refurbished sections.
The new interpretation for April, which is the nickname for the museum’s the Tenontosaurus, was developed to evoke conversation, so it will be interesting to see how that is utilised by visitors.
The museum boasts new inclusive facilities such as an additional accessible entrance, Changing Places toilet, prayer room, quiet room and therapy room.
The quiet room had a sign to say it had been temporarily moved to the therapy room, but I was unable to find it so feel that the signage could have been better.
However, the new galleries are spacious and have clearly been designed with visitors of all abilities in mind in terms of height of interpretation and objects, seating and wheelchair usage.
The Changing Places toilet, which is more accessible than a standard disabled toilet, offers a well-equipped inclusive space for people with additional needs.
Facilities include automated doors, space for carers, privacy curtain and hoist. Such measures help to bring down barriers so that all visitors to the museum feel welcome.
The museum doesn’t offer audioguides or visitor guides in different languages apart from Chinese. Perhaps more options could be considered for the future to ensure that they are being more inclusive of visitors who don’t speak English.
Overall, Manchester Museum has constructed a beautiful, thought-provoking, inclusive and imaginative environment full of learning, diversity and exploration. This museum has so much to offer its visitors, who are sure to remain captivated by the existing displays while exploring the new galleries.
Kate Melvin is exhibitions project lead at National Museums Liverpool
Studio C102 and Mobile Studio Architects won the commission to design the South Asia Gallery in 2020. Manijeh Verghese, the head of public programmes at the Architectural Association, was then appointed to lead on the interpretation to determine how the personal stories of the South Asia Gallery Collective would shape the visitor’s experience of this gallery, with graphic designer Sthuthi Ramesh developing the 2D design for how this would be experienced.
The material palette takes its inspiration from South Asian design. Different options were discussed with the South Asia Gallery Collective, who stressed the importance of disrupting South Asian stereotypes.
A new datum of hand-patinated brass panels run the course of the exterior wall of the gallery, referencing a typical South Asian material present in many religious and everyday objects.
The objects selected by the collective within the gallery are incredibly diverse, ranging from a 4500-year-old Indus Valley baked brick to a newly commissioned Bangladeshi cycle rickshaw, so a challenge was to create an environment that could work consistently across objects of different eras, sizes, and light sensitivities.
The objects selected by the collective, from the collections of Manchester Museum and the British Museum as well as their own personal belongings, ranged from being muted in tone, such as the collection of disposable leaf plates, or quite small but vibrant, like the Mughal emerald set in a Cartier brooch.
Sitting against the ochre-painted walls, the cases are lined in jewel-toned silks that both showcase the more neutral objects while complimenting the hues of the more colourful artefacts to bring these South Asian stories to life.
The gallery orbits a central Project Space as a room for conversation, collaboration, and reflection with three-sided projections that construct an immersive space for performance.
The flexible and modular 2D and 3D design of the Gallery encourages a feedback loop where audience participation will continue to shape its contents going forward.
Studio C102/Mobile Studio Architects