Co-Curation: a personal account


There’s been a huge amount of progress with the co-curation of the South Asia Gallery, and in this guest post, Nazma Noor, one of Manchester Museum’s South Asia Gallery Co-Curators, shares her own personal account of the process.

Back in 2019, I became part of the South Asia Gallery Collective, a group of people from the Manchester community, who have links to South Asia, and who would be co-curating the exhibits in Manchester Museum’s new South Asia Gallery. Like all the other co-curators I started off with a personal story and absolutely no experience whatsoever in museum exhibitions. I wrote about my story, and my fascination with gems and jewels from historical time periods in South Asia, and the story of where these precious items are now, over on my blog Now, two years into this journey, I wanted to share what we’ve all been up to and my experiences of turning a personal story into something visitors will see in Manchester Museum.

Turning individual stories into anthologies

Each co-curator started 2020 by completing a detailed write-up of their story. Working alongside colleagues from Manchester Museum and the British Museum, we were challenged to think beyond just our own experiences and to consider ways in which our stories would resonate with Manchester Museum’s visitors. From March 2020 we switched our meetings to an online setting and actually being on Zoom was an advantage in some instances; all of the co-curators had the opportunity to get involved in the recruitment for the new designers and we watched and fed back on presentations made by prospective designers for the space. With our feedback taken into account, a team of designers were appointed and the next stage of co-curation began, with the Museum and Design teams reviewing all our individual stories and looking for themes to thread them all into a coherent visitor journey.

Past and Present group on zoom

Our stories were grouped into six areas, with mine being part of the (working title) “Past and Present” theme. Alongside my story about historical gems and jewels, my fellow co-curators also had stories about artefacts from ancient South Asian civilisations like the Ashoka Edicts, Nalanda University and “The Dancing Girl” – a symbol from the Indus Valley Civilsation, a look back to Gandhi’s visit to Darwen in Lancashire in the 1930’s and profiles of the strong female leaders in the Mughal Empire. Together there was a shared interest in using objects to tell stories about South Asia, through familiar and unfamiliar things and stories, providing new, different and alternative interpretations, both ancient and contemporary and over time.

My personal knowledge on these other “Past and Present” areas was in some cases non-existent, and in other areas very limited. But through our meetings and discussions and hearing the others speak so passionately and knowledgeably about their chosen stories I soon got up to speed.

Deciding on the key message for visitors

The next challenge was to shift our thinking from the individual stories to the collective messages that we wanted visitors to take away with them. After much discussion, we all agreed that our overriding message was about sharing some of the lesser-known aspects of South Asia’s history and encouraging visitors to re-examine any preconceived notions they may have about South Asia.

Choosing Objects

And so on to thinking about objects: What would visitors actually get to see in the Museum? Some of the co-curators in other groups have personal items, contemporary artworks and family heirlooms to share. In my case, I have no precious historical jewellery or gems to contribute, so we headed to the British Museum’s online collection to see what they had. The great news is that the British Museum has a fabulous collection of historical gems and jewels from South Asia, particularly from the Mughal Empire. The only issue being that most of these are already on display in the British Museum’s Islamic World Gallery. One item caught my eye though: a Cartier brooch from the 1930’s containing an emerald dating back to the Mughal Empire. Finding this item and reading the curator’s comments opened up a new focus for the story we want to tell with this item.

Cartier’s Connection to South Asia

Cartier is such a well-recognised brand today, among a wide range of people – including many people in my social circles who I know don’t visit museums. It signifies luxury and is a brand many people covet and aspire to. My thinking was, having a historical Cartier item in the museum would be a big “crowd pleaser” and once they’re in, we’ll delve deeper into the lesser known story of Cartier’s operations in South Asia, creating priceless items for South Asian royalty and re-purposing historical gems into fashionable jewellery for European tastes.

Slide showing brooch and the Star of the South diamond
Jewellery object selection ideas

This focus on Cartier also links back to one of my initial ideas for the South Asia Gallery, looking at the The Al Thani Collection of historical South Asian jewellery and the sale of these at Christies Auction House in New York. I wanted to encourage visitors to question who owns these items now and how did they make their way across the world from South Asia? The Al Thani Collection contained a number of Cartier items with roots in South Asia and the British Museum’s curator in this area, Judy Rudoe, wrote the auction catalogue descriptions for these. One of our main contacts at the British Museum and a key player in the co-curation process, Sushma Jansari, managed to set up a call with Judy and it was fascinating to learn more about these items.

Presentations and Feedback

With our group stories and themes taking shape, the next step in the co-curation process has been about sense-checking our ideas and getting some feedback. We started off by presenting our work – the key themes, stories and objects –  to the wider Museum teams and our fellow co-curators, and as well as providing feedback, this helped us to see how the different anthologies were taking shape and the connections within and between different stories. Next up was the (more daunting) task of presenting to a panel of ‘critical friends’ both from the Museum and beyond, who would be hearing our stories for the first time.

This has been an important part of the process, even if I personally found the presentation and feedback process to be quite nerve-wracking. The idea of opening up our ideas, personal stories and all of the work we’ve been doing for scrutiny was naturally going to be difficult, but the biggest take-away for us was the importance of our own voices within the gallery. We were reminded that the whole point of co-curating this gallery is to move away from anonymous ‘experts’ presenting the complete history of South Asia and  embrace the personal voices and stories from within Manchester’s South Asian community.

Hopes for the Future

As the building itself is nearing completion, we’ve submitted our final list of objects and stories. This now sits with Manchester Museum, the British Museum and the Design Team to start to visualise and plan our exhibitions within the physical space. I was so excited to finally visit the space this week and considering we’ve been meeting via Zoom for the last 12 months, it was great to see some of the South Asia Gallery team in person.

Woman stands in empty gallery space
Nazma in the new South Asia Gallery space

My hopes for what will happen next: For starters, I’m crossing all my fingers and toes that the loan request for the Cartier Brooch from the British Museum is approved. Once it’s in the museum and on display, I’m hoping to inspire visitors to look beyond the beauty, craftsmanship and brand name of this object and to seek out the history and life story of this and other precious gems from South Asia. If approved, the loan of this item will be on a temporary basis, so I’m thinking beyond this item, and I’d love to tell the story of other precious gems with a South Asian Heritage. Did you know Manchester Museum has a replica of the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond? They actually have two replicas – one of the original diamond at 186 carats, and another after it was cut to 105 carats to suit European tastes.

2 diamonds with museum labels
Manchester Museum’s replicas of the Koh-I-Noor diamond

There are so many stories like this and, as well as seeing the finished exhibition I’ve helped co-curate, I’m also really excited about the discussions and new ways of thinking that the stories we share in the South Asia Gallery are going to inspire.

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