NWFed Board Member, Eleanor, reviews our recent In Conversation event at Manchester Museum

As well as being a wonderful opportunity to meet and connect with other museum professionals from across the North West, and hear about some incredible projects that have been happening in our region, NWFed’s ‘In Conversation: Museums – Places for Everyone event’ on Thursday 12 October 2023 was also an exciting opportunity for many to explore the newly redeveloped galleries of the host venue, Manchester Museum, which reopened in February 2023.

So it was fitting that after an introduction to the event from retiring NWFed Chair, Alex Walker, event attendees heard from Peter Fallon, Head of Visitor Teams at Manchester Museum. Peter shared with us the excitement of the museum reopening after its £15m refurbishment and detailed some of the striking conversations and interactions staff had had with visitors in recent months.

The theme of the event, ‘Museums – Places for Everyone’, encouraged speakers to talk about projects which encouraged, developed or demonstrated inclusive museum practice. Some of the key questions being asked were how we, as museums, can create a visitor experience which inspires and involves people, how we can tackle difficult displays and exhibitions, deal with challenged and contested stories, and how we can ensure that museums make people feel welcome and safe.

Lynda Jackson, Museum Manager at Judges Lodgings Museum, Lancaster, and Lela Harris, Artist, did the first presentation of the day and provoked a great deal of thought and discussion on this topic with their fascinating exhibition, Facing the Past: Black Lancastrians. Their project explored the provenance of the museum’s collections, which had strong links to slavery, as well as highlighting historic Black individuals who lived in Lancaster in the 1700s through a series of emotive portraits, which were shown alongside portraits of some of those who benefitted from slavery. The portraits were also accompanied by a young people’s exhibition, developed by local school children, exploring the life of ‘Ebo Boy’, an enslaved African boy. Lynda and Lela talked us through how the project came to fruition, their work with local stakeholder groups, schools and universities – including the Lancaster Black History group and The Institute for Black Atlantic Research at UCLan – and the importance of a collaborative and creative approach.

Up next was James Arnold, History Curator at the temporarily closed Harris Museum, Art Gallery and Library in Preston. James gave us some updates about the museum’s £16m refurbishment, sharing beautiful images of its new design and explaining how stories from the museum and its collection have been weaved into this. James then talked about an exhibition which the Harris co-curated with Preston’s Caribbean community, which took place in the city while the museum is closed. The exhibition presented stories and objects which give an insight into Caribbean community life and highlight the huge contribution that the community has made to the city for more than 60 years, including music, sport, food and Preston’s vibrant Caribbean Carnival. It also explored topics including the Windrush scandal and the Black Lives Matter campaign – reflecting the more challenging aspects of community life – as well as presenting images of local women of African descent conveying their beauty in a way they feel comfortable with. James highlighted learnings from this collaboration and prompted much thought about how museums can embed stories and the voices of communities in visitor experiences.

Amy Wilkinson, Heritage Officer at Englesea Brook Chapel & Museum of Primitive Methodism in Crewe, spoke next about a project the museum had worked on with the Probation Service. The exhibition they produced together explores how five shillings, faith and belief inspired the beginning of the Probation Service, as well as how the modern service works with people on probation. Amy covered a range of things involved in this collaboration, from the opportunities and challenges that the museum experienced in working with such a large organisation, as well as how they have coordinated the exhibition’s upcoming tour of faith venues around the country.

Before heading off for a buffet lunch and to explore Manchester Museum’s stunning new galleries, NWFed held a short AGM, covering reports from the Chair, Secretary and Treasurer among other items. Both the Chair, Alex Walker, and the Treasurer, Gordon Chancellor, formally retired from the board, along with Hilary Machell, who has provided outstanding digital, marketing, communications, and event coordination support to NWFed. All three were given a round of applause for their hard work and dedication over many years.

It was announced that Helen Fairs will become NWFed Chair, while Jessica Webb is taking over as Treasurer. Five new board members were elected and will become Directors of the NWFed for 2023/2026.

Following lunch, Dominic Bilton, Curator at the Whitworth Art Gallery and PhD researcher at the University of Leeds, spoke with Jez Dolan, Artist, about (Un)Defining Queer, a multi-artist exhibition which seeks to redress historic omissions that result from heteronormative museum practice, and examine how we can use a queer lens to define what the term ‘queer’ means. Dominic and Jez talked about their experiences of working on the exhibition, which was co-led by an intersectional group of people who self-identify as LGBTQIA+, as well as how the gallery is encouraging visitors to contribute to the development of a ‘Queer Glossary’. The two speakers also covered projects at Manchester Art Gallery, including the Derek Jarman exhibition, and at Bury Museum and Art Gallery.

Next to talk was Heather Smith, Access & Equality Specialist at the National Trust, on their Everywhere and Nowhere collaboration with the University of Leicester. This project explores the previously unknown stories of disability across National Trust sites and collections, with the aim of ethically building and sharing richer and fuller histories about them, and the people who lived and worked there. The project also highlights gaps and omissions, and raises questions about the stories cultural institutions choose to tell and those they overlook. Heather detailed how this project has progressed, the ethical framework the team have followed, how they have worked with a Disability Expert Group, and the interest its outcomes have generated among visitors, historians, and the press.

Last but certainly not least, Felicity Paynter, Interpretation Manager, and Ruby Duncan, Exhibitions Intern, both from the Science & Industry Museum in Manchester, discussed their work creating expression points for exhibitions. Their key focus was how expression points, including collaborative visualisations and pre-determined response options, could encourage discussion about difficult subjects like COVID-19 and transatlantic slavery. It was particularly interesting to hear about their work on the Cancer Revolution: Science, Innovation and Hope exhibition, and how the museum worked not only with people living with and affected by cancer and a Community Advisory Board, but also Cancer Research UK and the National Cancer Research Institute. Together they created questions for expression points, the responses from which were presented back to the research institute at an annual conference.

This was a fascinating end to varied and engaging day, which highlighted some amazing projects taking place in the museums sector across the North West. Speakers provided inspiration and ideas, as well as practical tips, but most importantly, they reminded us of the importance of inclusive museum practice and how we can continue to develop the work we do to ensure everybody feels safe and welcome at our museums and galleries.