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The Manchester Gallery Closes: What Will Take Its Place?

Jonathan Schofield suggests Chetham's School Of Music buildings as a new Museum of Manchester

Written by . Published on January 10th 2012.

The Manchester Gallery Closes: What Will Take Its Place?

THE MANCHESTER GALLERY in Manchester Art Gallery has closed. 

This was the space on the ground floor that celebrated the city and its history.

There was the obligatory and dreary Lowry painting, but there was also sculpture commemorating the Free Trade fight of the Manchester School, a section called ‘Attitude’ devoted to the city’s radicalism, portraits galore, modern works and much more. 

If promenaded slowly and thoughtfully it was an hour’s visit. It was an excellent gallery.

The ‘Attitude’ section allowed visitors to step inside the character of the city quicker than anything presently available. 

Or, even better, what about the old Chetham's School of Music buildings when the school relocates to its new buildings later this year. These 1420s structures would be perfect for The Museum of Manchester.


Now after decade it’s all been blown away. In May, it will come back but not as we know it.

Manchester Art Gallery, Director, Maria Balshaw has a plan. She says she wants “to refresh the space to create a new Manchester gallery. This will show the work probably of three artists and span a year. The work will be contemporary and be inspired by Manchester.”

“Our visitors have been saying that it’s time to change the space,” she continues, “it’s been up for ten years after all. There are so many Manchesters for people to enjoy, we’ll be telling the story of Manchester in different ways. For instance we’re thinking of asking a school to curate their version of Manchester.”


Maria Balshaw may well be one of the most talented gallery directors in the country, but it could be she’s got this one wrong.

Couple of points here.

As Manchester Art Gallery told us, there is no reason why they must have a gallery that concentrates on Manchester's past and present, it’s not primarily their job, art’s their thing not local history or local pride. Further many of the works, including the dreary Lowry will be viewable around the gallery, albeit, separately, after the changes.

The same argument is applicable for Manchester Museum on Oxford Road, which was set up as research museum of the natural sciences not as a building constructed to tell the Manchester story.

All we have left in terms of representing the city's history is the odd reference in museum's such as The People's History Museum and in libraries such as Chetham's Library but these can never tell the whole story, no matter how fascinating or clever they are.

Or there's the faded section on Manchester history in MOSI. This may also disappear soon. With the recent merger with the National Museum of Science it’s not unlikely that there will be a re-emphasis on science and industry at the expense of those out-of-date displays on the general history of Manchester. 

For a city with a history as rich as ours, it's sickening – click here for a glimpse of how rich a history. 

Liverpool has just opened a museum dedicated to its history and people - the Museum of Liverpool - London has a similar museum, but Manchester with a more significant story than our Lancashire neighbour 35 miles west, has no general modern interpretation.

It’s something Marketing Manchester and the City Council should aim to address fairly soon. As a tour guide I guestimate that a well-curated Museum of Manchester would have 400,000 plus visitors a year. This would contribute hugely to the city economy. It could have a room for displays of art by Manchester people or art that responds to the city.

There’s even a ready-made venue for the museum: London Road Fire Station. Surely Alex Langsam at Britannia Hotels would let it go for a reasonable sum, he must want shut of the building after abandoning it for 25 years.

Or, even better, what about the old Chetham's School of Music buildings when the school relocates to its new buildings later this year? These 1420s structures would be perfect for The Museum of Manchester. There could be performances of Manchester drama, poetry and music in the Baronial Hall and it would fit well with the existing Chetham's Library.



In a few weeks Manchester Histories Festival takes place. This will reach out across the city using history to bind people to their city and suburb by giving them identity, pride and some understanding of how and why Manchester is what it is.

It’s a crying shame that there is no central place to visit to mark our city’s stirring past and significant role in forming the modern world. 

It's also a shame that the Manchester Gallery has closed at Manchester Art Gallery. But while it was very good - and undoubtedly more interesting to more people, than what will replace it - it was never really big enough anyway. Still all those who are proud of the city's past and proud of showing it off will miss it.

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

Phil BarberJanuary 10th 2012.

What's wrong with the People's History Museum? Plenty about Manchester's history there...

1 Response: Reply To This...
user1770January 14th 2012.

Great museum!

the Whalley RangerJanuary 10th 2012.

Nice piece of brief writing for the MOSI or the PHM!

As stated earlier, this kids-in-art-galleries-business really gets on my nerves - what's wrong with culture for grown-ups? Not everything in life is PLAY.

Bee WomanJanuary 10th 2012.

What about Jabez Clegg? The plaques in the downstairs section make a good starting point. Failing that the PHM - fantastic space where "Manchester's History Museum" could live alongside them and the new initiative in the Manchester Art Gallery - there's room for new and old in this here city.

AnonymousJanuary 10th 2012.

I visited the Museum Of Liverpool last weekend, it's a great museum. It's what we should have done with Urbis!

1 Response: Reply To This...
user1770January 14th 2012.

Would be perfect, totally agree

GimboidJanuary 10th 2012.

Flippin hell Schofield, I had to re-read that headline three times before I realised it was only the gallery (small g) and not the whole institution that was closing down. Don't scare me like that.

3 Responses: Reply To This...
Jonathan SchofieldJanuary 11th 2012.

Thomas sorry about the headline but the gallery within Manchester Art Gallery was called Manchester Gallery so I'm not sure what else to call it. And those who use the gallery a lot will know what I mean I hope.

Peter JacobsJanuary 11th 2012.

Me too. That was a nasty shock for a moment there haha.

user1770January 14th 2012.

Good job I read the comments - I was still in shock, I bloody love the Art Gallery!

Julie JohnsonJanuary 10th 2012.

What Mr Hiles said.

And to the Whalley Ranger. Firstly your comment has nothing to do with the article. Well done. And secondly, while you might not care about galleries being accessible to everyone, or about future generations getting an early introduction to art and culture, actually galleries aren't run for your personal convenience in the just way you want. In Manchester at least this argument is over and you've lost. So wind your neck in.

1 Response: Reply To This...
the Whalley RangerJanuary 10th 2012.

Gosh, luv - if you read the article I think you will find that it does.

Have I tapped a nerve there?

Do you want to be 'top of your game', 'world class' and 'pushing boundaries' and most importantly, taken seriously? Well, all you've got to do is look at MoMa, Guggenheim, V&A, Museum Island Berlin, the Louvre and the likes.

No dumbing-down in pink and blue to the extent of the Manchester hotch-potch going on in either of those places...

I'd prefer to have one serious ART GALLERY in Manchester rather than 5 or more crap child crayon creches.

CBJanuary 10th 2012.

My impression of Balshaw it that she is only turned on by modern/contemporary art so this development, I feel, is no coincidence with her recent arrival at the helm.

I'd be interested to find out which visitors, or how many, have said that it was time for a change.

Do I recall the Manchester Gallery being funded by the Co-op too? Maybe there's some potential within their NOMA development. Never been inside Chethams but generally older buildings aren't great as modern galleries or visitor attractions.

Chris BamfordJanuary 11th 2012.

Agree that the headline is terribly sensationalist! I wanted to read the article only because I thought the whole place was shutting down!

Also agree that URBIS could do this job best, if indeed it needs doing (in one place) at all (impossible).

Whilst the Museum certainly needs to keep it's toes in the water of Schools and the National Curriculum, grown ups (me) and researchers (sometimes me) will be looking for something more challenging, revealing, and detailed. Hence, agree with the sentiment of 'boo'.

BTW Jonathan, your 'click here' link isn't working.

1 Response: Reply To This...
Chris BamfordJanuary 11th 2012.

I meant 'gallery' as opposed to museum btw :). Thanks for the reply Jonathan.

AnonymousJanuary 11th 2012.

about time they cleared that out. Utter twaddle.

Jordan McDowellJanuary 11th 2012.

Nearly had a heart attack after that headline.

Agree that Manchester needs a historical tourist spot, the vague references to the city in all the other galleries/museums gets tedious.

Perhaps the already rather Manchester centric John Ryland's Library on Deansgate could cater?

Either that or the Central Library, once finished...?

Jonathan SchofieldJanuary 11th 2012.

Chris sorry about the headline but the gallery within Manchester Art Gallery was called Manchester Gallery so I'm not sure what else to call it. And those who use the gallery a lot will know what I mean I hope. The link is working now by the way.

Jordan McDowellJanuary 11th 2012.

Also. The 'click here' doesn't see to work.

Maria BalshawJanuary 11th 2012.

Hi Jonathan and all who have commented. I agree that Manchester would benefit from a place where the history of our great city is told - and the Manchester (small g) gallery within Manchester Art Gallery did a bit of that very well. As Jonathan said though, it wasn't a big enough place to do it justice and after ten years it needs refreshing. I'm really looking forward to the reopening of the Central Library, as their Archives + project is a fantastic project bringing together our diverse histories in one fantastic space (see their blog at http://manchesterarchiveplus.wordpress.com/ for some amazing ghostly photos from their archives). We feel like we are passing on the baton to our fantastic colleagues there. But our Manchester gallery is still going to be the Manchester gallery - we'll just be rehanging the space annually. So one year it might be artists reflecting on Manchester, the next it could be a selection of Manchester objects chosen by our visitors - or even a Manchester blue badge guide. Every year there will be a Manchester gallery - because we're incredibly proud of the role our gallery has in telling the art, crafts and design part of Manchester's history.

We also refreshing other parts of the gallery - we'll be showing some different works from our historic collection (cos I am as interested in this as the modern stuff!), getting more of our costume collection on show and sharing brilliant things the gallery has acquired for Manchester over the past couple of decades. I hope everyone finds something to surprise, delight or intrigue them.
Maria Balshaw, Director Manchester City Galleries

and don't worry all, the Manchester Art Gallery won't ever be closing.

Jonathan SchofieldJanuary 11th 2012.

Maria, thanks for the gracious response.

I look forward to the new space within Central Library as well. I will miss - for my tourists and guests to the city the Manchester Gallery as it was - but if the new area across St Peter's Square can make up for it then that's grand.

A Museum for Manchester is still something to work towards in the fullness of time I reckon. Meanwhile I've already drawn up a list of Manchester objects for a Blue Badge Guide's turn at curatorship.

Jo NightingaleJanuary 11th 2012.

Yes - I've been bleating on about the lack of a museum of Manchester for yonks, an unbelievable omission in a city whose history is as significant as ours. It can be a challenge to make these things engaging and not too text-heavy (see MOSI's Mcr display, and the Museum of London last time I visited [20 years ago...]), but surely that's a challenge this city's cultural sector can rise to?

AnonymousJanuary 11th 2012.

Hi Jonathan,

For info - the whole of Chethams is not relocating, so the old buildings there will still be in use by the school. I think they do plan to open it up more to the public though.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
Jonathan SchofieldJanuary 16th 2012.

Anon, it's all about provoking debate

AnonymousJanuary 19th 2012.

That's good to hear, debate is great but only when the facts to be debated are clearly reported. I think the comments here bear that out, and should be taken on board as seriously and as graciously as you replied to the Important Lady. Your readers are important, too, as is accurate reporting first time. Looking forward to the New Journalism!

Jonathan SchofieldJanuary 11th 2012.

Anon, yep knew that, agent provocateur I suppose. Let's talk more about culture in Manchester though. Let's enjoy the debate more, let's be serious about what we can do and deliver. I love that Maria responded, I love that 10,000 people have read this.

1 Response: Reply To This...
user1770January 14th 2012.

It does give you hope!

Jo HaighJanuary 11th 2012.

i don't see what's wrong with not having a dedicated 'history museum' because Manchester is filled with historical wonderfulness in every nook and cranny! I like the fact that there are lots of different museums and galleries to choose from that show Manchester's history. I do think that there should be some kind of permanent music museum space for Manchester though.

Smyth Harper, Manchester City CouncilJanuary 16th 2012.

Cllr Mike Amesbury, the city council's executive member for culture and leisure, has asked me to post the following statement (he's been having difficulty posting rants - don't know if there's a problem?). Cheers, Smyth.

"Back in 2008 when I took up my post as Executive member for Culture & Leisure, two conversations stuck in my minds eye. One with Professor John Pickstone, whose passion & enthusiasm for a Manchester Histories Festival to tell the Manchester story persuaded me to support this, and the second was with Jonathon Scholfield who argued that there needed to be a coherent narrative in the city about Manchester History.

"Much has happened since then, the first Manchester Histories Festival was a success with over 4,000 people taking over their town hall to celebrate our radical contributions to the world. The second one will be even bigger and better taking place from Feb 23th to march 4th, manchesterhistoriesfestival.org.uk
The establishment of the Manchester Histories Strategy, was in large part a result of the Manchester Histories Festival. During the autumn of 2009, cultural and heritage partners from across the city of Manchester prioritised the need to make better sense of the rich, dispersed histories of Manchester and the City Region, in order to strengthen how these stories are told and to engage more residents and visitors with them and strengthen a distinctive sense of place. I cannot, of course fail to mention the success of Manchester Day, a parade that has revived the spirit of the great civic and political processions of Manchester’s past.

"Moving forward, as Manchester unashamedly does, our multi million pound transformation of the much loved Central Library will tell the historical story of Manchester louder and prouder than ever before.

"Manchester City Council submitted a Round 1 application to the Heritage Lottery Fund in April 2011, to obtain additional funding for Archives+ at Manchester Central Library. This Round 1 application has been successful in securing initial support for a £1.6m Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

"The major new Archives+ initiative in the Central Library, will raise awareness of and provide easy access to Manchester’s histories for the broadest possible audiences -existing and new ones. The project will make archives more accessible by creating exciting interpretive exhibition spaces to provide new ways for more people to discover the richness and relevance of archives, share their own stories and have a personalised experience of the City Region’s history. A new learning programme will help people learn about and enjoy this nationally important collection comprising 10km of items dating from the 12th century, including parchments, leather-bound volumes, photographs, glass negatives, film archives and over 50,000 rare books.

"Archives+ won't be a museum of Manchester - in fact it challenges that very idea. Do we need a museum when we can see that the city is already its own museum? - this new approach seems much more in keeping with Manchester as the original modern city. Archives+ will draw in new audiences, we hope there will be 2 million visits each year to Central Library, and then encourage them to go on to visit other museums, libraries and archives across the city region.

"Obtaining funding on this scale from the Heritage Lottery Fund is a two-part process, and a successful outcome to the Round 2 application later this year will be needed to secure the full £1.6m. In the meantime, work on the detailed Development Phase of the project has begun and a specialist exhibition designer has been appointed to enable detailed design of archive exhibition areas to commence."

"So three cheers to a great future celebrating our proud past."

Councillor Mike Amesbury
Manchester City Council

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousJanuary 16th 2012.

An intriguing concept but sounds like a bit of a cop out in the sense that it would be preaching to the converted; whereas a full scale museum has the ability to communicate and engage with the broadest possible audience. A museum faces inwards to an existing and to various degrees knowledgeable audience but it also projects outwards add fulfills a promotional, identity affirming and place making role. An enhanced archive service can only really hope to serve the inward facing educational role and is no substitute for a proper city history museum.

Mike AJanuary 16th 2012.

Agree only to disagree.
Central Library in it's last year of operation had 1.1 million visitors. Our aim with Archives plus as a major anchor will be to generate 2 million visits, a long way from being inward facing.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousJanuary 16th 2012.

Fair enough but at what point does an archive or even an "archive +" become a museum? Most museums have an archive but few archives market themselves as a museum. An archive implies something that is geared towards someone who is looking for something specific; someone with some sort of existing knowledge, someone local and already engaged in the subject rather than the tourist, the occasional visitor or the intrigued. The projected increase in patronage on the back of the archive + project alone is impressive though and suggests genuine ambition - in that case would a name change not be appropriate? 'Central Library and Museum'? 'The Manchester Institute'?

Debbie EvranJanuary 17th 2012.

I took my niece who is six to Manchester Art Gallery, I had to hold the tears back as I saw her face light up with inspiration at the paintings. When we got home - she got her paints out and painted a soldier on a big white horse.

Point: What might seem old to one person, can be a completely new experience to someone else.

AnonymousMay 28th 2012.

Neither have been in Lancashire for over thirty years...

DavidMay 28th 2012.

No wonder the writer wants a Manchester Museum,since he is a tour guide.No doubt it will benefit him.Maybe he would like to find the funding,and the site of such a museum himself.
There are lots and lots of things Manchester would benefit from,but this is not one of them.Just because Liverpool has one,why do we have to have one?.There are lots of things we have,that they don't have.

AnonymousMay 29th 2012.

A Manchester Museum is important because few people have an understanding of the city's heritage and identity beyond a shallow narrative of 'football', 'Madchester' and 'industry'.

Manchester's story is complex, distinctive and compelling and it deserves a to be told in a way that is accessible yet does justice to the physical, social, economic, political and cultural strands to the story of the city's development. An expanded archive and what little physical evidence remains of the city's historic development can only ever be a partial solution to the goal of celebrating and promoting the city's identity - only a full scale, high profile museum can do the job.

Ghostly TomJuly 15th 2012.

I have been to see what has replaced the Manchester Gallery and came away depressed by what I found. Apart from the sign over the door, I could find no connection to the city at all. Maybe they have forgotten to take it down. The same has happened to the 20th century gallery where beautiful, inspirational pictures have been replaced by a arts degree show of some kind. And I hear that the Dutch paintings are next for the chop. The Manchester Art Gallery is morphing into a city centre extension to the Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester is not big enough to support two identikit galleries. The present director of the gallery should look at the history of the gallery and understand what people want from it. There is room for the kind of shows that have taken over two galleries in the building, there is a large space on the top floor for that kind of thing but it is not appropriate for the rest of the building. A rehang is good, the wholesale destruction of a gallery is not. Imagine the National Gallery without its great set pieces? Well that is what seems to be happening to the Manchester Art gallery.

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