BLOG POST: NWFed Meeting at Manchester Museum, 28 June 2019

Last Friday we were treated to a brilliant double session themed on Asia and hosted by Manchester Museum. Catherine Lumb, Learning and Engagement Co-ordinator, told us about the current exhibition from India, then Bryan Sitch, Deputy Head of Collections and Archaeology, described his research in advance of planned displays about China. Bryan said that the arrival of Esme Ward as Director in 2017 had focused the Museum’s activities on engaging with audiences. They are doing this by highlighting human stories, especially in the Lee Kai Hung Gallery of Chinese Culture. The gallery has been developed as part of the Museum’s ‘Hello Future’ project, which also includes a £13 million transformation, including a new South Asia Gallery (in partnership with the British Museum) and a new temporary exhibition gallery.

While many venues across Manchester are gearing up to commemorate the bicentenary of the peaceful but brutally suppressed rally which we know as Peterloo, the Museum is commemorating the even worse events at Amritsar in 1919. Catherine, who has led on the Jallianwalla Bagh 1919: Punjab under Seige exhibition from the Partition Museum in Amritsar, led us through the exhibition which tells the story of the terrible events of 13 April 1919 when General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to open fire on unarmed men, women and children, killing at least 300, who had gathered to protest against their British oppressors. The exhibition also explains how the background of decades of injustice meted out by the British occupiers in the Punjab led to the massacre. It also covers its aftermath, namely global condemnation of the British which accelerated their departure from India twenty-eight years later. Tragically, as is well known, that departure led to the ‘Partition’ of Pakistan from India and terrible atrocities committed by both Muslims and Hindus. The Singh Twins have painted a superb picture of the massacre, hung near the entrance to the Museum as the central panel of a triptych, to be joined by one showing the events before 1919 and one showing the aftermath.

Catherine told us how she carried out almost all the liaison with the Partition Museum by Skype, only visiting Amritsar once at the end of negotiations, and she said that the five-hour time difference had presented challenges! A great outcome of the exhibition has been a co-curated approach, working with Manchester communities, which is central to the development of content for the South Asia Gallery.

Bryan explained how he had been awarded a Headley Trust Art Fund Fellowship to research content for a new Chinese Culture Gallery, which is planned to open around the same time as the South Asia Gallery in late 2021. A substantial donation from Businessman, Dr Lee Kai Hung (a Manchester University Alumnus) is funding the new gallery and Bryan is unearthing some of the amazing links between China and Manchester as part of the content. Bryan has so far unraveled the stories behind some of the great Chinese objects in the Museum’s collections, exploring the stories of Manchester’s people and their connection to China. The aim is to stimulate empathy in the visitor, fostering a stronger understanding between communities in the UK and China – including the missionary Alfred Bosshardt who was held captive by the Red Army and his relationship with the general Xiao Ke.

There is never a better way to find out about new approaches to the development of new galleries and exhibitions than hearing it from the people involved. We are grateful to Catherine and Bryan for sharing their vision and passion for creating a museum that focuses on empathy and collaboration.

If you have a project or an idea you are working on and would like to share it with the NWFed and its members, please email our News Editor, Emma Sumner: hello@emmasumner.com

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