Brief Encounters

Manchester Museum boasts a new, permanent gallery that speaks of South Asia’s history and also the lived experience of its people who have moved to the UK

By Veronica Simpson

REGULAR READERS of this column may recall an enthusiastic encounter I wrote up in 2014 about an exhibition in Rotterdam called ‘Echte Rotterdammers’ (translation ‘true Rotterdammers’). It took the idea of participatory or co-design to exhilarating extremes: the storylines, the themes and the exhibits all emerged from extensive workshops with hundreds of Rotterdammers of varied origins, both local and global. The resulting show demonstrated a profound sense of ownership and authenticity in the lived experience of this diverse and bustling city. I had never encountered anything quite like it in a museum – before or since – until I sat down with architects Kyriakos Katsaros (Studio C102), Chee-Kit Lai (Mobile Studio Architects) and architect, curator and teacher Manijeh Verghese (head of the AA’s Public Programme) to hear about the new South Asia Gallery at Manchester Museum. This trio has spent the last three years collaborating on an intense programme of community engagement, which has then informed their journey of co-curation, interpretation and design for the gallery.

The germination of the South Asia Gallery dates back more than five years, to the start of a relationship between Manchester Museum and the British Museum, which blossomed through various temporary exhibitions on South Asia. When funding became available for a new wing for the Manchester Museum, the opportunity arose to create a permanent gallery dedicated to this important local population. That gallery, says Verghese, ‘was originally planned as a survey of South Asia, but when Esme Ward (formerly head of education at the Whitworth) became director, she decided rather than simply consult with the local community, they should actually shape the content…it should be a co-curated gallery and it should tell the stories of the local diaspora.’

Speaking from his own family’s experience as part of the UK’s Greek diaspora, Katsaros knew that a strong sense of cultural identity and purpose can ‘be more prevalent than back home’. For Verghese, who was born and raised in Bengaluru, there were new perspectives on her own culture: ‘Working with the Collective of local South Asians was an incredible experience, even for me as a South Asian growing up in South Asia: I learned so much about my own culture from all of them, because I think the spread of generations, ethnicities, languages, just lived experiences was so diverse.’

The Collective is a group of 30 Manchesterbased people from South Asian backgrounds with whom the museum has consulted over several years. A supremely varied group, Verghese lists a few occupations: ‘Community organisers, artists, nanophysicists, dancers, GPs, some are university students.’ But this time, they really stepped up into a leading role, even donating items from their own personal memorabilia.

The South Asia Gallery has taken three years of intense community work. Image  credit: Gareth Gardner

Says Verghese: ‘As a design team, our role was really to translate. We would have these conversations with the collective. They would tell us their stories, their hopes…and what they would like the gallery to be. They were very keen that it shouldn’t be a stereotypical view of South Asia, but revealing more of intuitive feeling, which was quite a big challenge for us because not everyone had the same picture in their mind of what it could be.

‘We went back and forth to explore what that meant in terms of tone of voice for the text, or for the materiality of the design, the typography. What was great was their willingness to be part of the process. We had so many conversations, even though the pandemic threw up a lot of obstacles.’

The pandemic also threw up an unusual opportunity for people to tune in to the shared conversations online, sometimes three times a week. Says Verghese: ‘They are all incredibly busy people…We did a lot of the work in the evenings and weekends to work with their schedule. We were able to show them the work in progress, get feedback, iterate and then bring it back to them, which was a really interesting way of working.’

A set of six themes – or anthologies – emerged to frame the different stories and their related objects, which are presented in six distinct sections in the museum: science and innovation; sound, music and dance; past and present; lived environments; movement and empire; and the British Asian experience. The British Museum team drew up a shortlist of desired objects, some of which came from theirs or Manchester Museum’s collections, but many of which were put out to the collective. And it’s extraordinary what treasures they found. For example, an ‘heirloom’ sari, with gold threaded into the material – portable wealth was vital, when you’re fleeing a military crackdown. A collective member – Nusrat Ahmed, who has since been brought in-house as the gallery’s curator – contributed her father’s scrapbook, containing his memories of travelling during partition from Pakistan to the UK.

As the eclectic object list evolved, there were further challenges. Says Katsaros: ‘In terms of text, interpretation and design, how do you give equal weight and priority to an artifact that’s 4,500 years old and an album cover from the last decade? How do you exhibit them in such a way so that it doesn’t prioritise one over the other?’ In the end, all objects are presented in the highest conservation standard cases.

Colour and atmosphere are injected into the 372 sq m space via jewel-toned silk display case linings and graphic panels, as well as a continuous datum of hand-patinated brass panels which runs along the exterior wall, referencing a typical South Asian material as familiar in domestic as well as sacred spaces. Walls are painted a deep ochre.

Elegant furniture was sourced from The Phantom Hand. Commissions include a new exhibition title typeface conceived by Sthuthi Ramesh, with multi-lingual caption typefaces created by Bangalore and Reykjavik-based type foundry Universal Thirst. Another striking commission is a film, Pardesi Raga, from young Manchester based artist Alina Akbar, which is screened in the central ‘project space’ – a neutral, grey-walled room within the gallery – reflecting on her memories as a second generation Punjabi immigrant. ‘It’s really beautiful,’ says Verghese. ‘When there is nothing in the space, this film will be showing. But it can also host workshops, performances. We also thought it was important that there was a space for care. These often traumatic and difficult histories are very personal, and having a space where you can take some time out or meet with other people who are feeling the same way is really important.’

The gallery opened on 18 February, and by mid-April had already received half a million visitors. Curator Nusrat Ahmed has been thrilled to see the responses: ‘There have been many times I’ve caught glimpses of how meaningful the gallery is, especially for those who emotionally connect to its stories and objects, lots of tears (of sadness and joy) and much gratitude for the creation of the gallery.’ She sees this approach as setting a benchmark for the future: ‘Museums and galleries have a crucial role to play in helping us make sense of what is happening around us, broadening our understanding of who we are in relation to one another.’

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