Manchester Museum’s Human Bower

As mentioned in a previous post, we will be opening our Heritage Futures exhibition in December. In addition to the Polar Tombola activity, the Museum will be running a programme around our new Human Bower installation. In this guest post, Shelly Castle of Encounters Arts, describes how the idea for the Human Bower came about, what it involves, and how it relates to the Heritage Futures exhibition.

Working with social anthropologist, Dr Jennie Morgan, as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Heritage Futures ‘Profusion’ theme, we’ve been asking people questions about what they keep for the future.  Over a year of collaborations and conversations, we arrived at three key and seemingly simple questions that we felt important to ask in our age of profusion. These formed the basis for a creative community installation called the ‘Human Bower’:

•    What would you like the future to look like?
•    What can we hold onto to make that happen?
•    Is there anything we need to let go of to make that happen?

Participants were invited to create one bound stick whilst reflecting on, and talking with us about, these questions.  The resulting bower structure in Manchester Museum now contains the key words from these conversations, bound over with brightly coloured wool.

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Wool waits to be chosen by participants to bind the hazel sticks.

Visiting Manchester Museum was something of a revelation. Wellbeing is at the centre of this lucky institution (it is an associate of the Happy Museum and staff were getting free massages on the day I visited), light pours into large windows, pristine exhibits are held in stunning cases reflecting the gothic past but with neon text that plays with us to create a sense of timelessness around the taxidermy animals.  Past, present and (hints at potential) futures all come alive in the best museums, and Manchester is no exception.

A beautiful room (above) was the place to bind the sticks and talk to these questions with about 14 people taking part from Museum volunteers to staff.  With Torquay’s branches in the corner, the colourful collection of branches began to look very eye-catching and I did wonder what a bower bird might have made of them.

In a strikingly lucky outcome, the museum has a pair of taxidermy Satin Bower Birds (there are many different bower birds).  The structure of the Human Bower was inspired by the avenue that the Satin Bower bird creates.  The male doesn’t only like to decorate his bower entrance with found objects, but sometimes paints the inside walls with a feather or leaf using earth, spit, berries.  What does this extraordinary bird have to teach us in our (Western) ‘hyper-stuff’ society?  Through creating this installation with nearly 40 people, some from Manchester and some from Torquay, it seems that this bird with his bower helps us to think about the big questions around what to keep, what we need to care for in order to have a healthy good future, and ultimately what we as humans most value.

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A male Satin Bowerbird creating his structure

Leading this Manchester event, the activities and outcome of the Bower Bird highlights my sense that despite being surrounded by material wealth, we yearn for deeper connections with each other and nature and value, above all else, non-material qualities.  Whilst in the West many of us are fortunate enough to have choice (even if we chose to do nothing about it) we are painfully aware that things aren’t ‘well’ or ‘right’.  We seem increasingly clear about our collective need to focus on experiences, human qualities, and positive creative actions.

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Plastic laden shop shelves

Like virtually every animal alive, every eco-system and so many peoples across our planet, the Satin Bower bird is under threat.  We know why:  whilst savaging other species homes, other people’s homes and eventually our entire world, we decorate our bowers with some pretty unsavoury and wholly unnecessary items that have serious impacts elsewhere.  Out of sight out of mind, perhaps?

The Human Bower is a small creative attempt at opening up conversations and a space where we can all ask some simple but important questions that allow us a moment to think deeply about what we truly care about, what we want to keep for the next generation(s), what we treasure now and think will help the imagined future become a reality.

Writing an imagined future onto a stick

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Around the bound stick bower are the things people think we need to hold onto to make this future more likely.  They are strikingly similar to those answers that came out of our investigation in Torquay, they are hearty, meaningful, potent and utterly human ideas about what is important to keep, to nurture, to treasure.  And most tellingly, they are never about ‘stuff’.

Karen sharing what we all need to hold on to in the future.

The Human Bower is on display on the 3rd floor of Manchester Museum from now until January 2019.  Entrance is free.  It is part of the Heritage Futures project funded by AHRC in partnership with Encounters Arts.

The Museum’s Human Bower installation



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