Greater Manchester hosts a variety of museums seeking to display Manchester’s extensive and diverse history. With the lifting of COVID restrictions, many of Manchester’s museums have sought to take a fresh look at the city’s history and culture.
The People’s History Museum is located in Spinningfields and presently displays the stories of migrant communities living in Manchester. Inspired by the words of the late Jo Cox, the museum internalises the quote “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us” in the shaping of its exhibitions and connecting communities within Manchester. The People’s History Museum offers an opportunity to understand and connect communities in Manchester, whether its visitors be migrants, refugees, displaced people, students, or Manchester locals.
Similarly, the Manchester Jewish Museum seeks to connect communities by using its collection of over 31,000 items to tell the story of Jewish migration and settlement in Manchester. In the years leading up to WW2, growing antisemitism in Germany and Eastern Europe led to a large Jewish migration moving West, to Britain and the U.S. Jewish museums were built as part of a community initiative, with the first museum being built in London in 1932. Manchester’s Jewish Museum opened in 1984 in a Grade II listed building, originally constructed in 1874. A visit to the Jewish Museum offers a combination of artistic, activist, and historical perspectives to connect its visitors to the history of Manchester’s Jewish communities.
The northern Imperial War Museum (IWM) is part of a series of similar museums in the UK. The first IWM was built during WW1 to help rally support for the war. Today, IWM North takes a critical and emotional look at wars ranging from WW1 to the present day. Built on a bomb site from the Manchester Blitz, the IMW North is deeply connected to war history. The building was built by famous architect David Libeskind (architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin) and it has been carefully designed to make its visitors feel disorientated and unsettled whilst spectating upon the Museum’s representation of war. With access to large archives and creative display technology, the IWM North provides an immersive experience with regularly changing exhibitions and installations outside of the main exhibition. Visitors have until June 2022 to learn about the Falklands War as the 40th Anniversary approaches.
The Manchester Museum is closed for renovations until February 2023. Undergoing a £15 million renovation process the museum will modernise and extend its collections. At the centre of the Museum’s objective is to create a more inclusive and communicative space for visitors to explore its contents. Included in the exhibitions for its reopening are South Asia Gallery, Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery, Belonging Gallery, and The Future of Education. The opening of the redesigned space will offer visitors the opportunity to develop their understanding of Manchester’s culture and history, which are all located conveniently within the main campus.
Manchester museums have been paving the way for change by pursuing the mission of decolonising their museum spaces. The Whitworth Gallery and Manchester Museum have been undergoing the process of repatriation of stolen items to their place of origin. This has been a crucial step in museum transparency and some Manchester museums have been paving the way in their non-conditional repatriation of items. In November 2019 the Manchester Museum committed to the unconditional repatriation of 43 Aboriginal objects to their communities. Stolen from Australian Aboriginals nearly 100 years prior, the Manchester Museum became the first museum in the UK to return an Aboriginal artifact to its place of origin.
The Whitworth Gallery has taken a more critical eye in its institutional relationship with colonialism and its presentation of whiteness. Current exhibitions such as What Kind of City (by Suzanne Lucy) and Standardisation and Deviation offer a critical look at the history and future of the Whitworth. Similarly, to the Manchester Museum, the Whitworth Gallery is owned by the University and the Gallery hosts two floors of exhibition space that seek to be interactive with visitors and the wider community. The Gallery has a fantastic café which is predominantly glass, allowing one to see most of Whitworth Park and sculptures within it. This is an idyllic spot for studying and the Gallery offers a relaxing break from the campus study spaces. Additionally, the Gallery offers the opportunity to learn about the history of famous art and artists in Manchester and how we can view their works in the contemporary world.
The National Football Museum in the city centre takes a more active and playful approach to Mancunian culture. The Museum’s activity space engages visitors, from young and old, to show off their football skills and get involved in the space. The Museum also uses photography to display the history of football culture and the idolisation of football heroes. Whilst the Football Museum takes a less critical approach within its exhibitions, the museum seeks to highlight the joy that football has brought to Manchester’s communities.
This article has demonstrated that Manchester has a rich visual culture for its population to explore and experience. Public history is essential to community relations, just as communities inform the presentation of public history. Manchester’s community is at the heart of these museums, and they offer an excellent space to engage in the rich history of Manchester.