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Manchester Museum's South Asia Gallery gives a voice to diasporic art

The reopened Manchester Museum's new South Asian Gallery, will mark the UK's first permanent space dedicated to the lived experience of the South Asian diaspora.

by Rahul Kumar, Samta NadeemPublished on : Mar 18, 2023

Manchester Museum's new South Asia Gallery, a British Museum partnership, is the first permanent gallery in the United Kingdom, dedicated to the experiences and histories of the South Asian diaspora communities. This new multilingual gallery, opened in February 2023, explores the connections between South Asia and Britain’s legacy of Empire, presenting a fresher perspective on British Asian and South Asian art and culture.

What stood out as a first, and perhaps a unique format, was the involvement of the local diaspora—the exhibit has been co-curated by 'South Asia Gallery Collective,' a group of 30 inspiring individuals. This method allows for a truly inclusive style, allowing the very community, the stories belong to, to lay out the narrative. Showcasing over 140 historic artefacts from Manchester Museum and British Museum collections, along with new contemporary commissions, and personal objects provided by the Collective, the art gallery presents a range of personal stories, providing visitors a window into South Asian lives. Some of the works include I beg you to define me by Azraa Motala, a rickshaw imported from Bangladesh and other large-scale installations. The gallery’s story-led cultural art and design will reflect multiple voices and perspectives on South Asia through six overarching themes: Past and Present, Lived Environments, Innovation and Language, Sound, Music and Dance, British Asian, and Movement and Empire.

STIR interviewed Hartwig Fischer, director of British Museum, and had a conversation with Esme Ward, director of Manchester Museum and Nusrat Ahmed, curator of the South Asian Gallery at Manchester Museum.

Installation view: The Movement and Empire Anthology | Manchester Museum | STIRworld
Installation view: The Movement and Empire Anthology Image: Courtesy of Manchester Museum

Ward and Ahmed deliberated on a renewed interest in South Asian arts and culture, especially in the context of western contemporary society. Ward feels that it is because of a desire to represent diverse communities that the art museums serves, more so in the context of a multicultural city like Manchester. Ahmed adds that the creativity of artists from the region itself evokes a sense of energy. The region is buzzing as an epicentre of culture for a whole new generation and the South Asian Gallery at Manchester Museum aims to engage broader audience groups through its programming, including potential exchanges.

Breaking hierarchies was another aspect that the museum focused on. “This is a five-year journey, and really early on, the community, the collective, did not know the professional language and terminology. I myself hadn't a clue of some words that were said and what they meant. That broke down the hierarchy. We said let's just all speak the same language, we made sure that everybody was valued for their input, everybody's paid the same rates, and everyone was given that time and space,” explains Ahmed.

I beg you to define me, Azraa Motala at South Asia Gallery | Manchester Museum | STIRworld
I beg you to define me by Azraa Motala at South Asia Gallery Image: Courtesy of Manchester Museum

The duo also deliberated on the increasing realisation that almost nothing is universal but common. The ‘common’ values becoming an evident source of inspiration for respectful cohabitation within, between, and across communities. Ward shared her views on how a museum finds, defines and becomes ‘common ground’ for a diverse, hence, complex public. “I am really happy to say I don't know and nor should I, because to me, all of this isn't about a director of a museum having the answer. What I want to do is to have a meal, and I want to get loads of people around the table, and we'll work it out together. We talk about the future being collaborative. If there are things we don't know how to do, that's great, because we can draw on others and we can try and work it out together,” she says.

Ahmed adds, “I have been thinking about this when I was walking around the gallery. Finally, there were people in it, and I was listening to some of the conversations. Things have been censored by museums, at their best they can be almost like empathy machines, they really give you that chance to see the world from a slightly different perspective, to empathise. And, that question, actually, for me, is about us understanding how we can build empathy. And that collective voice is really powerful.”

Museum Wide Shots-17, The Singh Twins Mural | Manchester Museum | STIRworld
Museum wide shots-17, The Singh Twins Mural Image: Courtesy of Manchester Museum

Fischer shared his views about this new format to include the diaspora art community and its partnership with Manchester Museum. He said, “The British Museum has a wide network across the UK, and across the world. Our partners research to do training, to do excavations, community work, preservation of knowledge, and a wide range of activities related to cultural heritage. So, the partnership with Manchester Museum has grown out of that engagement. The British Museum doesn't have another British Museum, and so, in other cities, we support existing museums.” He says that the inclusive nature of the South Asian Gallery at Manchester Museum is not fundamentally different from the British Museum. It has done a lot of projects with communities, including community participation in curating an exhibition, a new presentation, or for the permanent collection. “Manchester Museum worked to find the right balance between personal experience and personal take on aspects of the history, and the curatorial. And I think what is really wonderful in this gallery, apart from its obvious beauty is that that balance has worked out wonderfully. It's been a challenging process, because that form of collaboration had to be established,” he adds.

Manijeh Verghese, part of the design team for the South Asian Gallery worked with Studio C102 and Mobile Studio Architects. “We worked with the local experts from the South Asian diaspora to develop ways to tell their stories. One of the things we did was to start by understanding what the individual stories were and then to theme them in various sections,” she explains. The team closely worked on details like the choice of textile colour to showcase the objects, and the overall role design could play in bringing different elements together.

The Bodhisattva Maitreya at South Asia Gallery | Manchester Museum | STIRworld
The Bodhisattva Maitreya at South Asia Gallery Image: Courtesy of Manchester Museum
Rickshaw imported from Bangladesh at The South Asia Gallery | Manchester Museum | STIRworld
Rickshaw imported from Bangladesh at the South Asia Gallery Image: Courtesy of Manchester Museum

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