A guest post from Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures, with an update on the development of the Museum’s South Asia Gallery.
Since spring our South Asia Gallery has undergone somewhat of a radical transformation, shifting from a gallery primarily focused on chronology and collections to one embedding co-curation and lived experience. So how did we get here and where are we going next?
In April this year our new director Esme Ward joined us and this provided the perfect opportunity for us to reflect on the development of the gallery to date. In short, we asked ourselves whether the gallery was as caring, inclusive and imaginative as it possibly could be. We recognised that lots of key work had already taken place but further innovation was needed to place Manchester’s South Asian diaspora communities at the heart of the gallery. This motivated us to develop a co-production approach inspired by the diversity and multiplicity of South Asian literature festivals and anthologies. Our ambition was to co-curate several collections based anthologies, with co-curators working alongside the museum team to create narratives, develop interpretation and select collections. We set about exploring how this could be achieved with communities and colleagues from spring onwards.
In July, Vermilion restaurant generously hosted an event for us at which we shared our vision with those already familiar with the gallery and others connecting for the first time. Needless to say, there was overwhelming enthusiasm for this approach and innumerable ideas for anthologies. This event was followed by two others at the museum in September during which we explored what co-curation would entail and what other opportunities existed to engage with the gallery. We also received over thirty co-curation proposals from artists, academics, actors, activists, campaigners, community workers, designers, historians, journalists, politicians, scientists, writers and many more. These proposals provided the stimulus for several overarching anthology themes, which included:
• Arts, Culture and Storytelling
• Food, Home and Ritual
• Health and Wellbeing
• Politics and Conflict
• Science and Mathematics
• Trade and Industry
In November and early December we held two workshops with aspiring co-curators, those interested in the co-production process overall, British Museum colleagues and our designers Ralph Appelbaum Associates. During these workshops we’ve been collectively considering which stories, perspectives and co-curation approaches would deliver the most captivating anthologies. Our third workshop in late January will focus on which collections can help bring our anthologies to life and will follow a visit by our co-curators to the British Museum.
Over the coming months our co-curation practice will undoubtedly adapt, develop and respond as further opportunities, challenges and questions are posed. This has been the case since summer and we continue to listen, learn and grow with our co-curators who have been both inspirational and enthusiastic throughout. As we head in to 2019 a truly ground-breaking gallery is beginning to emerge and the Manchester Museum team would like to thank everyone who’s helped us reach this crucial point.