“2017 is the 70th anniversary of Partition and there’s a UK/India Year of Culture. Having the South Asia Gallery well underway, although clearly not open, is going to be an important milestone.” – Nick Merriman
The history of Manchester Museum
I’ve been Director of Manchester Museum for nearly 10 years. When I started, the Museum had recently finished a major capital investment, which gave it expanded facilities, bringing the building into the 20th century, if not the 21st.
But it didn’t update or address most of its permanent galleries, so my job has been to raise funds for a rolling programme of gallery renewals, approximately one a year. We’ve now come to the end of that cycle, and all the galleries that were about 25 or 30 years old have been updated and modernised. Over the same period, visitor numbers have more than doubled. There was an original target of getting up to 200,000 visitors a year to come to the Museum when the developments were all complete. We’re now at nearly 450,000 so we get very congested at times!
Our temporary exhibition space is only 184m2, which means we can’t participate in most large-scale national and international touring programmes. The obvious next step for us is to expand our facilities so that we can meet the needs of larger audiences and extend those audiences to some of the areas that we don’t cover. In particular, we don’t get quite get enough adult visitors – we’re seen as a family museum. Niche groups, such as people of South Asian descent comprise 11% of the city of Manchester population and 9% of Greater Manchester, but only 2% of museum visitors.
The opportunity to do the South Asia Gallery can help us address that. I think that one of the reasons we get a relatively low turnout is that South Asian cultures are not very strongly represented in the Museum.
“It’s an important two-way relationship for our staff and British Museum staff to have the opportunity to work together.”
Our partnership with the British Museum
We’ve had a partnership with the British Museum for a very long time – we’re one of the oldest regional partners, so it was quite easy for us to move on to the next stage, which was to think about a partnership gallery when the opportunity arose.
The University and the City of Manchester’s relations with modern India are extremely important. Also, as our largest South Asian populations are from Pakistan and Bangladesh, there’s a large percentage coming from those countries to visit friends and relations in local communities. In some ways, it was an ideal opportunity to bring together a whole series of issues and to be able to draw on the British Museum’s collection, where our own is relatively weak. It’s a fantastic opportunity.
Of course, there are all sorts of benefits to working in partnership. One is the British Museum playing a truly national role in bringing its objects to Manchester. It’s an important two-way relationship for our staff and British Museum staff to have the opportunity to work together. As a university museum outside of London, we’re able to be a little more experimental and act as a laboratory for museum practice.
We have a tiny curatorial staff compared to the British Museum, so being able to work with colleagues in the learning and curatorial departments means that we can gain greatly in terms of skills. The partnership with the British Museum also helps us with fundraising, because the British Museum brand is such a leading one. I’m certainly very optimistic in terms of that helping the South Asia Gallery and the overall project.
“We’ve got quite a nice story already, which makes links between the British presence in India, as it was then, and the South Asian diaspora in Manchester…”
Plans for the new South Asia Gallery
The South Asia Gallery is just one component of our overall capital redevelopment, which will also include a new entrance and a 500m2 temporary exhibition space.
The team has just done an initial concept design, with options for where the South Asia Gallery will be. We’ve had some very fruitful meetings with British Museum colleagues – from the Asia Department, but also from the Middle East Department, Prints and Drawings and so on – to work with our curators on a storyline. They have provided examples of objects that could be made available, whether that’s Mughal art, coins or Buddhist statues. We’ve got quite a nice story already, which makes links between the British presence in India, as it was then, and the South Asian diaspora in Manchester – particularly post-Partition – from the 1950s onwards.
2017 is the 70th anniversary of Partition and there’s a UK/India Year of Culture. Having the South Asia Gallery well underway, although clearly not open, is going to be an important milestone.
Engaging the public
The public will be involved in the development of the storylines for the South Asia Gallery and we’ll work with British Museum colleagues and community representatives to select objects, but a lot of the selection process will come down to pragmatics about what’s available. We’ve already started consultation with a range of South Asian community groups and individuals in Manchester, and specialist academics. This week we submit our bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, where, if we’re successful, we will really begin work on the detail. Most of the work and the community input will come at that stage.
“I’m looking for a stimulating debate about ideas as well as practicalities.”
On Museum of the citizen
I think for us the aim is to raise awareness of the South Asia Gallery, particularly on the back of the successful funding bid. It will be a celebration and a kick-off. There are many more hoops to go through to raise the rest of the money, but we’ve got a fair wind behind us now. Museum of the citizen will be about the practicalities of the South Asia Gallery – what it will be and what it will do. I’m particularly interested in discussing some of the issues that we need to address, in terms of the representation of different cultures, how religion is handled, how recent history is handled, how communities will be engaged and have a voice – all of these issues which usually come up around representation, which we’re familiar with and sensitive to. I’m looking for a stimulating debate about ideas as well as practicalities.
Nick Merriman, Director of Manchester Museum