A sky-blue 17m mural greets visitors at the entrance of the newly opened South Asia Gallery at the Manchester Museum. The digital mixed media artwork provides a window into the complex history of South Asians and the British Empire.
Created by contemporary British artists known as the Singh Twins, it is far from just another artwork. Specifically commissioned by the museum, the piece — which is significantly positioned upfront in the gallery, not hidden inside the museum — is a step towards drawing South Asians into the everyday narrative.
The gallery has been created in association with the British Museum and was completed in February this year; it is part of the 130-year-old museum's £15 million ($18.38 million) overhaul. The transformation focuses on people, their ideas, beliefs and relationships. It builds on the premise that museums play a pivotal role in building understanding and awareness of different cultures, between generations and across time.
The opening of this gallery is an important moment of reckoning for the South Asian diaspora who for decades have called the UK home. The museum has opted to shine the spotlight not only on treasures amassed during the long period of colonial rule, but to bring to the fore the lived experience of people of the diaspora. “There is a large community of people of South Asian heritage in Greater Manchester, and it's important that museums reflect and work for the cities they serve,” says Nusrat Ahmed, curator of the South Asia Gallery.
As a first-generation British-born South Asian, growing up Ahmed felt alienated from museums. She represents a growing number of people in the UK and says: “If I had the opportunity of seeing myself within museum spaces, through the stories being told, then finding a way to connect to my heritage would have been far easier.
“Initially, the gallery was going to be designed chronologically, but in 2018 Esme Ward became director of Manchester Museum and asked, is the gallery as imaginative, inclusive and caring as it could possibly be? This motivated a co-curation approach and the South Asia Gallery Collective was formed,” Ahmed says.
The 30 individuals who form the South Asia Collective are an eclectic group that includes educators, historians, musicians, artists, journalists, scientists and students. “Much of the content in the gallery draws on the collective members’ lived experience and heritage. It’s rare for co-curation to be done on such an epic scale, which is one of the reasons this gallery is so significant,” Ahmed adds.
From science and music, to tales of migration and displacement, the museum displays unseen artefacts, personal objects and collectibles through six overarching themes ― Past & Present, Lived Environments, Sound, Music & Dance, Science & Innovation, British Asian, Movement & Empire. Ahmed calls these anthologies and says they were shaped by the stories and narratives to be displayed rather than the other way around. For the first time objects from personal family archives and heirlooms have come into the public realm. Collective member Fal Sarker, grandson of Satyendra Nath Bose, one of the founders of modern quantum physics, shares correspondence between his grandfather Bose and Albert Einstein.
But it's not all about the past. The story-led exhibits also focus on the changes that are shaping the diaspora. “Stories range from what it is like to be a young British-Asian person today,”, Ahmed says. “Everything in the gallery has equal importance and is drawing in visitors of South Asian backgrounds and non-South Asian too.” Curator Somaira Wasty, a dentist, worked on an exhibit that commemorates the role of the NHS and the role of the many South Asians who work in the organisation, including those who lost their lives to Covid-19 while carrying out their duties. Wasty's grandfather, Dr Syed Balaghat Hosain, served as a doctor in the British Indian Army in the Second World War and his Royal Army Medical Corps training book is on display.
Far from steering clear of difficult conversations, the museum takes a bold step in turning the spotlight on the long period of colonial rule and the atrocities of partition that led to the division of India and Pakistan. An opium pipe on display touches upon a dark period of addiction in China caused by the British-run opium trade.
Ahmed's personal favourite piece, besides the mural at the entrance, is a clay water pot dating back to 1980 from Gujarat, India. A simple design, the pot is an object of wonder as it keeps water cool in the summer months. She says: “I remember thinking they were the equivalent to our cold-water dispensers. What I really like about this object is that it I still see these pots on my visits to Pakistan as they are still widely used across South Asia today. The story that the pot shares is about South Asia’s use of natural materials and that recycling is an important part of daily life.”
On what lies ahead Ahmed says: “It’s impossible to capture everything about South Asia in one gallery, which is why this space will continue to evolve and we’ll continue to co-curate and collaborate with new people so that we can represent different cultures and countries. We’ll also hold events that are co-curated to keep communities engaged.”
The representation, long overdue, feels reaffirming. As Ahmed says: “It is wonderful to be part of something that is so special, and I hope my grandchildren and great-children will feel that they belong in galleries and museums.”