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Manchester Museum travels to India with ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant

Esme Ward, Director of Manchester Museum, travelled to India with an ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant in October 2018.  This is Esme’s report from her visit.

The original purpose of my visit was to create and consolidate a series of new relationships through a multi-site programme of research and mutual collaboration between Manchester Museum and potential strategic partners in India.

  • To undertake additional research and scoping exercises of potential partnership opportunities.
  • To harness mutually beneficial, international collaborations to inspire a series of co-commissioned exhibitions, performances, critical dialogues and professional development activities.
  • To facilitate my own personal development and leadership of Manchester Museum, with a particular focus on its future engagement with South Asia.
  • To realise at least three, long-term strategic partnerships, and formalise the basis for future collaboration.

In Bangalore, my focus was two-fold.  On the one hand to connect with new and emerging museums – MAP (Museum of Art and Photography) and Indian Music Experience Museum. I also met with the ReReeti Foundation, which is leading thinking and practice in museum engagement across India.

The other focus of my visit to Bangalore was to engage with the ecology of arts-education-tech charities, start-ups and studio spaces to understand more about grassroots community based work and develop potential collaborations for Our Shared Cultural Heritage youth programme (exchange) and the wider South Asia Gallery development. A critical success factor was the support of Archana Prasad, JAAGA, who convened networks and facilitated introductions.

Partition Museum, Amritsar

Partition Museum, Amritsar

In Amritsar, my visit was focused on visiting the Partition Museum and exploring whether the Jallianwala Bagh exhibition (currently on display) might travel to Manchester, including a visit to the site (Bagh).  I had already met with Lady Kishwar Desai from TAACHT (The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust) to find out more about the approach and development of the museum and we had started to identify opportunities for collaboration.

In Delhi, for a much shorter time, I visited the Crafts Museum and met with colleagues from the Partition Museum and academe, connected to the Partition Museum.  I also undertook a day-long visit to the Taj Mahal and Agra.

It was a hugely enjoyable, varied, tiring and energising visit.  It was my first time in India, though not of travelling and working internationally. I had significant support in developing my itinerary (not least my PA) and this was critical in ensuring I made the most of the time available.  One key success was how, during my time in Bangalore, I had the opportunity to engage with so many cultural leaders and organisations.  Archana Prasad, who I had met during my Clore Fellowship, helped develop my programme and convened her networks in a series of informal dinners and visits.  This made a huge difference and I met and visited far more people than I would have otherwise.  Archana and I had skyped several times in the preceding months, I trialled DARA chatbot to explore collaborations and discussed who I was most interested in meeting and identified the most innovative and relevant work.  I am hugely grateful for her generosity, insight and support.  After nearly a week in Bangalore, I felt that I was starting to understand some of the key challenges and realities of working there.

One of the challenges of visiting the Partition Museum in Amritsar was that core staff were not based there (I met them later in Delhi). I did meet with the museum manager, but our discussion focused more on visitor feedback and the operational practicalities of running the museum (which was fascinating), rather than collections or strategic partnership. I picked up this conversation in Delhi.

Esme Ward, Director, Manchester Museum

Esme Ward, Director, Manchester Museum

I developed my understanding of the geography, political and social context for the work of museums. I had spoken with several Indian museum colleagues and connected via Twitter, but the opportunity to visit cities and sites, see the issues and discuss them at length was invaluable.  As a result, I started to identify parallels and soon found key areas of work of shared concern and potential for collaboration.  My knowledge of how arts, education and social sectors coalesce and collaborate in Bangalore has developed significantly. I am regularly in contact with those I met there (a digital archivist visited us in Manchester just last week) and we are exploring next steps and shared projects.

My knowledge and understanding of Indian colonial history has developed significantly.  The exhibition Jallianwala Bagh and a visit to the site of the massacre has parallels with Peterloo commemorations in Manchester and we are now working to co-curate (with Partition Museum) an exhibition due to open in April (and also to tour to the Nehru Centre in London and Birmingham Library). This would not have happened without this visit. This raises the profile of the Partition Museum and has become an important step forward in our work to build the South Asia Gallery and decolonise the museum.

Top Tips: 

  • Be curious.  Visit organisations (sites, museums, arts organisation) as a visitor as well as to meet colleagues.  Work hard to find others who have visited or can connect you with key individuals.
  • Be clear on what you want to explore and encounter (rather than the specifics of where or which organisation).
  • Plan the logistics – esp travel and transition – as far in advance as possible.  Do an itinerary with emergency numbers etc.. and don’t stress if you don’t stick to it.
  • Use twitter or social media in advance to get tips on places to visit, eat, networks to connect to etc.. Sort out a phone (or plot wifi spots) if alternative needed.
  • Pace yourself.  Allow time to reflect and keep a diary or notes from your visit.  Give yourself downtime.
  • Take hundreds of photos.
  • Share widely – at the time (I tweeted a lot about my visit, who I met, what I encountered…and had lots of positive feedback and new connections as a result) – and when you return (I’ve done two all-staff presentations about my visit).
  • Enjoy…it’s a brilliant opportunity.

Next Steps:

The partnership between the Partition Museum and Manchester Museum will continue to develop and they are interested in how we might work with them to collect diaspora stories.

In addition, the Jallianwala Bagh 1919 exhibition prep is fully underway.  Co-curated with the Partition Museum, this is direct outcome of my trip.  Opening in April 2019 at Manchester Museum, a touring version will also open at the Nehru Centre, London and Birmingham Library.  We are seeking funding for programming and events and would like to bring colleagues from India to Manchester for a conference/seminar on how to co-curate across continents and build new kinds of partnerships with museums around practice (rather than simply collections).  I would be keen to talk more about this.

As part of the Our Shared Cultural Heritage Programme there will be a youth exchange programme between Manchester and Bangalore (with Jaaga, who are concurrently developing their young peoples programme) in late 2019-20.

Manchester has just signed an MOU with Bangalore re: tech partnerships. We would like to explore a new kind of city-to-city partnership – which makes the most of the parallels between the two cities and the self-organising/ecology-approach to the arts, cultural, education and tech sectors.  I am discussing how strategic R&D investment in this might work with Kathy McArdle at the British Council.

The MAP (Museum of Art and Photography) wants to explore – in partnership with Manchester Museums – skills exchange programmes for staff and touring exhibitions programmes.  We are very keen to do this.

My visit has enriched our exhibition programme, supported our ambition to work more closely in partnership with the Indian museum sector and catalysed new thinking about shared programming and professional exchanges.  It has developed my knowledge, networks and ambition to work collaboratively with partners in India and encouraged new thinking, insight and shared learning across my teams.

ICOM UK