South Asia Celebrated in Reimagined Manchester Landmark

This iconic Museum is back with a more inclusive spirit.

Mar 6, 2023
South Asia Celebrated in Reimagined Manchester Landmark | This iconic Museum is back with a more inclusive spirit.

There’s a lot of talk about migrant communities and multicultural society. But what’s it really like growing up in a country with quite a different culture to the one you’re immersed in at home? And how does it feel when entertainment and cultural venues ignore your everyday lived experience? This is something that the recently reopened Manchester Museum wants to examine with its brand new South Asia Gallery, reports South Asia Time

This new, permanent gallery not only showcases the experience and contributions of the South Asian diaspora to the UK, but has also emerged thanks to locals from the South Asian community, from all walks of life.

Welcoming 30 co-curators from the community
Manchester Museum’s South Asian gallery is among the first to involve the diaspora community, its core focus, from the get-go. 

Here’s what gallery director, Esme Ward, told the Guardian newspaper: “Museums have long told fairly one-dimensional stories, whether that’s from the perspective of the collector, who is usually white and male, or the institution itself,” she said. “But it’s time for a whole host of other perspectives. And that feels very right for Manchester.”

A key way that Manchester Museum, working closely with the British Museum, has leveled up in terms of diversity in creating the new gallery, is through its callout for involvement from the local South Asian community, so the story of South Asians in Manchester can be told from the perspective of South Asians themselves. 

Hartwig Fischer, British Museum director, explains it like this in our video above: “It was decided that this gallery be curated by members of the South Asian community of Manchester who applied by sending in suggestions and from that process, a collective of 30 people [co-curators] was created.”

As South Asia Time details, among them are community leaders, educators, artists, historians, journalists, and musicians.  Georgina Young, head of exhibitions for Manchester Museum, tells Design Week that this co-curation process is “quite a departure” from the norm, and underlines how it means that the gallery has been shaped through the eyes of diaspora members, so it “will be the first time [for audience members] to see themselves reflected in a space of culture.”

Professor Anindita Ghosh of the University of Manchester, shares in this same video that this is an amazing achievement she feels would have been unheard of just a few years back. 

So what’s in the new South Asia gallery?
True to its focus on everyday culture in the South Asian diaspora community, the 140 exhibits aren’t just a mix of artefacts like ancient coins, and jewelry, sculptures and other art. There are also everyday items like clothes, CDs and even “British Asian sound systems in 21st century London”, as the Guardian puts it. 

The gallery’s design reflects multiple voices and perspectives on South Asia through “six overarching themes: Past & Present, Lived Environments, Science & Innovation, Sound, Music & Dance, British Asian, and Movement & Empire”, reports South Asia Time.

The space is also celebrating contemporary South Asian creativity and innovation including a hypercolored rickshaw brought in from Bangladesh, and a 17-metre-long (56-foot) mural from British artists, The Singh Twins.

The gallery also shows global history through a regional lens. For instance, it explores the many cultures and countries that were part of the famed local textile industry that saw migrant communities contributing to the tapestry of life in Manchester’s large industrial hub. Some displayed objects, such as a British army uniform, belong to the co-curators themselves, and help in telling this story. 

The controversial, often colonial route to museum acquisitions, and the ways that this influenced representations of South Asia in museums is also explored within the gallery’s descriptions, which spotlight how histories are remembered and retold.

More about the spirit of this pioneering gallery
In her recent speech at the reopening of the museum, Nazma Noor, one of the gallery’s 30 co-curators, talks about it being a living tribute to the upbringing and cultural influences of the diaspora community from South Asia. She believes that its reach will extend as more community voices chime in, and performances and future exhibitions spark interest. It is, she says,  a “selection of stories that are deeply personal to each of us. Including parts of ourselves, our family histories, subjects we are passionate about, stories that mean something to us and the different communities that we come from.” 

Cultural hub, Manchester’s Finest, believes that the project stemmed from the museum’s mission to care for people, their ideas, beliefs and relationships. Museum director, Ward, tells this arts portal that she hopes visitors will agree that it’s now a more inclusive and imaginative museum.

Echoing this sentiment,  Noor sees this gallery as an opportunity for genuine harmony between cultures, led by youth:  “We hope that this gallery will be a space for people to come together. For different generations and ethnicities, for our young people to be curious, to question what they know, and maybe help heal some of the divisions we feel in our communities today.”

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Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.