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Reconnecting with the north

In Museums on August 23, 2015 at 10:15 am

Over the last few months I’ve been exploring Manchester and the north, reconnecting with the place where I grew up. Much has changed here since I left for the bright lights of London in the 1990s, but it’s great to be back. I find I’m loving (re)discovering such a wide cultural offering here and that the lights are just as bright as in the capital. Everything from museums and galleries, to sport and live gigs.

Part diary – and part to establish myself as a heritage consultant here – I’ve been writing a few articles about what I’ve found.

For The Skinny I wrote a review of Show Me The Money, a new temporary exhibition at the People’s History Museum exploring how artists have used money and finance as inspiration for creative work – from the South Sea Bubble right up to the current Greek debates about financial futures. I also skipped over the Pennines to York to write a piece for Northern Soul about the recently reopened York Art Gallery.

Back in Manchester I previewed the next exhibition at HOME – the new arts space. I Must First Apologise … is the work of two artists responding to scam emails. Since 1999 they’ve collected thousands of emails asking for our help and are now inviting us to think about who sends those emails and how we react to them.

But it’s not all been focused on life in the city centre. For the online magazine Creative Tourist I wrote a series of articles about how to get out of town using a handy £12 day ticket called ‘Wayfarer’. The day routes are themed around exploring nature, finding great food, walking in the hills, family activities and, of course, a day around exploring museums and heritage in the region.

And I selected some things to see at RHS Tatton’s flower show last month for The Manchester Wire.

I’ve also been keeping up the tweets and Instagram posts of things I find as I go about my life here.

Someone asked me recently if I’ve fallen back in love with Manchester – I actually don’t think I ever fell out with the city. But’s it’s been great fun getting back to grips with it. And there’s even more to explore …

Why do you love museums?

In Museums on June 10, 2015 at 9:02 am

Today we are being asked to think about – and share – what we love about museums.

#ilovemuseums is a campaign aimed at getting us thinking about the value of built and cultural heritage and objects and the institutions that collect them.

Despite working in the museum sector for nearly 15 years I still find it difficult to answer that question.

As a social researcher I could take issue with being asked about this – it’s a loaded question as it starts with an assumption that one does actually love museums. And that means that it will only receive positive responses. There’s no #ihatemuseums day for those who would see our nation’s museums closed down and turned into shopping centres. Or no #whatcouldmuseumsdobetter day.

But maybe that’s overly cynical of me. I supposed I ought to play nicely and answer the question properly. Given that I do love museums, why do I love them so? There are a few reasons.

Museums have special things
They are repositories for objects and specimens which document our human journey, and that of our environments. These objects allow us to find out about ourselves, our ancestors and the world we live in. They aren’t pixels or sound bites. They’re real things.

Making objects talk
But objects on their own – collected, documented and wrapped up in store cupboards – can’t speak for themselves (okay, most of them can’t speak). We, as museum professionals, get to tell our audiences about those stories. As a consultant I help museums with this storytelling – we call it interpretation. Interpreting objects for visitors is what I do. And I love it.

A place for everyone to talk
One of my favourite trends in museums in recent years has been to release some of the constraints of who gets to select what story we choose to interpret for the visitor. Curators still hold a lot of sway when it comes to interpreting objects, but now everyday folk do as well. Consulting audiences about what they would like to see in museums means exhibits become more and more relevant to people’s lives.

What a great job
People often say they are jealous of my job, so I suppose I also love museums because they provide me with continued employment. They are amazing places to work – I feel privileged each time I step behind the scenes in a museum. I’m passionate about communicating that infectious enthusiasm I see in curators to the public.

In summary, what I love most about museums is the experiences they provide for visitors – access to culture, learning (in its broadest sense), inspiration and as places of reflection.

There’s an argument to say that the real value of museums is their collections, and it’s true that without the objects museums wouldn’t exist. But they wouldn’t exist without visitors either.

Why do I love museums? It’s because you love museums.

Exploring indie arts in Manchester

In Museums on May 28, 2015 at 1:47 pm

I’ve recently relocated from London to Manchester. First stop for me, in any new city, is to check out the cultural life.

Think of Manchester and you’ll think of some great museums (IWM North, Museum of Science and Industry, People’s History Museum, Whitworth etc) as well as the Royal Exchange Theatre and the Halle at the Bridgewater Hall.

But I’m quickly finding that there’s more to Manchester than mainstream offerings. In just a couple of weeks I’ve come across a few independent gems already.

Nexus Art Café in the northern quarter is a charming spot to hang out. I’d previously thought of it as just a place for coffee, cake and a chat amongst mismatched tablecloths and organic tea. But then I was invited to see an exhibition there. BMC Art Collective is a group of students from Stockport who have displayed their work in the back room of this café. Taking music as a starting point, the artists have responded in different media – textiles, graphic art, illustration – and in a range of styles. And just to underline how non-mainstreatm they are, they’ve mounted this show in an underground zine library. An art collective in a zine library in a basement. It’s like a Russian doll of alternative culture.

Around the corner Manchester Craft and Design Centre is home to 30+ artists, working, displaying and selling their works in a converted Victorian market building. It’s fun to skulk around the place, watching artists and craftspeople paint, etch, carve and glaze products right in front of your eyes. Just be careful not to take too much spare cash, or you’ll be coming home with tote bags filled with canvasses, jewellery and ceramics. But do stop in at their café for some Guinness and Whisky cake.

Slightly more mainstream is the talk of the city’s cultural offering right now: HOME. Whatever the political wranglings over how it came to be, HOME is offering a range of artistic programming that is enticing audiences in and giving them much more than cinema blockbusters. I’ve already seen two pieces of world cinema and their opening theatre production The Funfair. The play is not only impressive as a performance, but also a sign that HOME intends not to play it safe when compiling a programme – it’s a bold and, some might say, daring first piece which has surprised audiences.

Here’s to more surprises in Manchester.

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