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The Manchester Gallery review

Jonathan Schofield visits Manchester Museum’s new gallery and calls for a proper Museum of Manchester Life

Written by . Published on April 8th 2009.

The Manchester Gallery review

This is what the official website description of the new Manchester Gallery says:‘The Manchester Gallery (explores) four themes: journeys, our environment, the Museum and collectors. Discover the stories behind our objects and the journeys that have brought them to Manchester, which often mirror the journeys of people and communities. Explore Manchester's changing environment – discover an underwater world full of coral reefs; a swamp that deposited the coal that fuelled the industrial revolution; a desert and an ice age and an urban metropolis. You can also find out about the Museum's changing relationship with the city, from its Victorian beginnings to the modern day. Meet the people who donated the Museum's collection, from working class collectors to wealthy donors, academics and British soldiers’.

It does some of this. Objects referred to in the above description are present. But the display method is odd. In line with much modern museum practice, we have to do all the thinking. There’s no logical sequence in any of the themes or if there is, we have to get into the curators’ heads and work it out.

Andrea Winn, the curator of community exhibitions, explained to Confidential that the technique of exhibition used is mind-mapping. You probably know all about this: it’s the way detectives always seem to work on TV. Trevor Eve’s character on Waking the Dead is never without some coloured pens linking evidence with big circles and arrows on a glass wall. The idea is to let ideas fly free and associate randomly around a central idea. This way the mental juices might flow more creatively.

The problem is that to understand another person’s mind-mapping, you have to be there when it’s done. Or you have to be the person who does it. Otherwise it can be bewildering.

Thus in the Collections section there’s a picture of where an earlier museum of Manchester used to be off Peter Street (Museum Street still exists). Then there’s a reference to the Peterloo Massacre and then there’s some Peterloo Massacre medallions (see picture). This is an accident of geography. There’s no link between the old museum and the Peterloo Massacre apart from they are both part of Manchester history. But that’s it. Clearly in the curator’s mind there was some need to put these things together but how do we know what he or she was thinking?

There’s another problem in this method too. It doesn’t allow much in the way of description. I know what the Peterloo Massacre was because I do guided tours, write about city history, and learnt it in school, but what if you haven’t? What if you’re a Paraguayan studying in the city?

There’s also a scholarship issue here. For example in 2008 a Roman altar was found off Great Jackson Street, just off Chester Road in Hulme. It’s in the Manchester Gallery and there’s some simplistic text telling us it was put up by Aelius Victor, but then it fails scholarship by not telling us when it was originally carved and erected. 'So what?' you might say.

Well you have to do these things because they’re industry standard and it’s the right way – it adds definition and content in a very concise manner. Some people will just think, ‘Roman, old, impressive’, and that’s fair enough. Others who come to a museum to add a little to their store of knowledge, or who already know quite a bit about the Romans, will want to know more and dates are crucial. It’s why grave stones have the birth date and death date of the individual. This is a real oversight.

To be fair to the museum, there are folders in nearby cupboards with loads of information backing up the exhibition – as they did in the Lindow Man exhibition (for our review of the later click here). You could sit and look through these to get a comprehensive view. But will people – or rather, will a significant number of people – do this in a museum? Will they sit down and read folders, especially if they have kids? The answer is no.

This doesn’t mean the new Manchester Gallery is without value. A wander around is interesting because of the artefacts, not because they are arranged in a way that presents a coherent story. For instance the display showing how the darker peppered moth took over in smoky industrial Manchester from the lighter one is a treat. This refers directly to the city as the title of the gallery indicates, and clearly shows Darwin’s Natural Selection at work.

But the name does imply an in-depth look into what made Manchester and this gallery doesn’t deliver that. The museum says it was never meant to. It’s far too small for one thing. This was apparent at the launch when several hundred arrived and it was a crush.

The result is, unlike London, and unlike Liverpool in the near future, we still don’t have a dedicated museum to Manchester. And aside from the capital, this city can make a case for being the most significant in these islands. This is in terms of social thought, in terms of science and industry, in terms of culture and popular culture.

Get a load of this lot: the Peterloo Massacre, free trade, the suffragettes, the unit of energy, the splitting of the atom, the oldest railway station, precision engineering, the first true computer, the Halle, the Lit and Phil, The Smiths, Manchester United. And these are just a small part of the achievement.

What this new Manchester Gallery does more than anything is throw up the desperate need for a proper Museum of Manchester Life. This would be good for tourism and for building local pride and identity.

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9 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousApril 8th 2009.

Probably wait for the people's history museum to re-open, that always used to be good for manchester history.

darren ScottApril 8th 2009.


Simon TApril 8th 2009.

Not usually one to agree with the thoughts of a building, I'm with Urbis on this. A Museum of Manchester Life would, firstly, inevitably, look parochial. It's the kind of thing you'd expect some trying-hard place like Hull to come up with. Secondly, many of the city's institutions have a dedicated Manchester space/gallery and isn't this preferable? - it means that whether it's the Art Gallery, or the Manchester Museum or wherever, visitors/tourists are, then they're always being reminded of the city's contribution to the big world themes. Perhaps what's needed isn't so much another building but a digital space where the jigsaw of Manchester spaces/galleries in the various institutions are brought together and paths plotted for the visitor/student to get their full sense of the life and history of this city.

AnnaApril 8th 2009.

I think what Manchester Museum are trying to do needs to be given a more reflective review than the one above. There are inherent problems with the more traditional model of numerous text panels and purely artefactual display. Manchester Museum is a forerunner in post-modern museological approaches and aims to foster debate. In terms of access I am sure that interpretation (through the additional information provided, gallery assistants, workshops, events and schools education programmes) will open up Manchester history beyond the prompts of the display. This makes the visitor more engaged and allows for more detail than the display space can allow. It also allows the interpretation to be more open and inclusive.Regarding a museum dedicated to Manchester history I think that it would much more mature and beneficial to develop what is already there at the existing museums and galleries, opening up stories and other aspects of Manchester's past. Events such as the Manchester Histories Festival the other week is a good example.

citizenandrewApril 8th 2009.

and there's always Urbis.

AnonymousApril 8th 2009.

To urbis,does it matter that the Pankhursts were staunch Conseratives ? and yes most Mancunians are proud of our city and its industrial past. Why shouldent we show off the rest of the world.

AnonymousApril 8th 2009.

Agree with anon (above) about the people's museum. You also have to remember that Manchester's history over the past hundred years has been massively industrial, and so the environment of Manchester has changed. This (i feel) is what they are focussing on. Manchester needs more than a "museum about manchester" to fuel tourism and pride... it needs a greater focus on arts and culture too. Lets take London out of the equation (for now), Liverpool itself has more internationally-significant pieces of art on display (admittedly through the Tate) than we do, and believe me, there are plenty of significant pieces of art installed in the homes of Cheshire, maybe a bit more engagement to create benefactors?

citizenandrewApril 8th 2009.

I always thought the Free Trade hall would have made a good museum of Manchester history. Too late now.

Jonathan SchofieldApril 8th 2009.

Hey, I wasn't being snarky or sarcky apart from you representing the whole of Urbis but not giving your name. I very rarely promote my tours on here....but hey that's an idea. We also review your shows and frequently compliment them as well. Still we do need to present and sell the story of Manchester better, but in a more comprehensive and coherent way. Aside from the MOSI display it's all through oblique or indirect references.

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