While museums and historical collections can offer us some information and insight into different cultures and people, on the whole, we are realizing that much of what is presented to us does not represent these communities in an accurate or respectful way. This is because many of the things we see in museums today were collected during the colonial era, and relative to their white counterparts, there are not many museum professionals in the global West that are Black, Asian, or of different ethnic backgrounds.
This is why, when Saira Qureshi heard that the Manchester Museum was looking for people from the city’s South Asian community to run a new gallery, she knew right away that she wanted to be a part of it.
Qureshi is a volunteer who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and grew up in the UK. She is neither an artist nor a museum curator, but this is what makes her perfect for the job. The museum staff put together a group of 30 people from the community, including teachers, students, musicians, and others, to get their ideas about what works to show and what stories to tell in the new South Asia gallery, which opened on February 18 after a multimillion-pound renovation.
The revelation of community-led curation
Some museums have turned to community-led curation as a way to deal with this. The Object Journeys project at the British Museum wants to hear from people in Somalia, South Asia, and Kiribati. Apsáalooke Women and Warriors is a traveling exhibit that was put together by a woman from the Apsáalooke tribe.
However, the Manchester Museum project stands out because of the size of the gallery, the permanence of the space that was co-curated, and a large number of people from the community who were involved in all parts of making decisions.
Qureshi says that the new space’s focus on Manchester’s South Asian diaspora “puts a stamp on our existence here.”
Greater Manchester has one of the oldest and largest South Asian communities in the UK. More than 20 percent of the people who live there are South Asian. Some families have lived in the area for at least five generations. Many of them are from India and Pakistan, where British rule had a direct effect.
The South Asia Gallery Collective
Officially, they were called the South Asia Gallery Collective, and they worked together for almost five years. Members brought their own personal stories and experiences to the work, which they did by finding objects and writing text to go with them. They were also paid for their work.
The members chose the gallery’s flooring, mustard yellow color, and case placement.
“I think the biggest success is that [the community members] were there at the beginning,” adds South Asia Curator Nusrat Ahmed, who was hired for this role after being in the Collective. “They weren’t brought in after a seed was already sown. They were there to shape the gallery from start to finish.”
In the context of museum pieces taken without consent decades ago and not necessarily displayed with the object’s full story, centering community members resonates. Ahmed and British Museum South Asia Curator Sushma Jansari, who loaned artifacts to the Manchester Museum, prioritized this.
Ahmed claims he didn’t attend galleries, museums, or other art heritage places because he didn’t see himself in them. “For me, it’s been a very personal journey because this South Asia gallery will give future generations the opportunity to see themselves being represented in the stories and the objects.”
The Collective may display pieces from the Manchester Museum, British Museum, and other partner institutions. A 7,000-year-old Indus Valley brick and a Mughal dynasty emerald Cartier jewelry are on loan.
“Previously your story was told by an outsider,” Qureshi says. “But now you are telling your stories yourselves. You are seeing it from the inside.”
Telling stories from under-represented perspectives
Qureshi selected stories of inventors and scientists like Anna Mani, an Indian physicist and meteorologist who built hundreds of tools and gadgets, like the ozonesonde, to inspire future generations.
“My drive was to say, look, this is not just the world of one group of people, the elite,” she says. For her, it was important to send the message that anyone can do this work.
The new museum gallery stands out to Jansari. The typical gallery emphasizes the object, date, and substance. “But this is more about how people see history, how people see each other, how they see themselves here in the UK as part of the South Asian diaspora—and also how they want to present themselves and their history and their experiences and their thoughts about these different stories and objects,” Jansari asserts.
Collective member Kirit Patel noticed that sexual orientation was not mentioned during initial discussions on the gallery’s themes. He worked with a sexual health group and developed support services for Black and Asian homosexual men in Manchester after coming out in London in the 1980s.
“I refuse to allow other people to experience what I experienced as a young South Asian person being gay,” Patel says. “It would be a missed opportunity to not present our stories as equal to others.”
Patel says queer spaces, especially for people of color, are poorly documented. He created a bulletin board with late 1990s South Asian queer fliers, newspaper clippings, and postcards from his personal archive. The display includes short videos of community members discussing being gay and South Asian and coming out.
Collective member Nazma Noor knew she wanted her contribution to the museum to be an investigation of jewels—both a celebration of their beauty and a pointed questioning of how they got up in current hands and who may appreciate them.
The British Museum’s emerald Cartier brooch inspired her story. “But that gem has had a life long before it was in that Cartier broach,” Noor explains. It’s shown with anecdotes from Gandhi’s visit to Darwin in the same decade and female leaders.
There were many ideas for what to present, but space is limited.
“This isn’t an encyclopedia of South Asia,” Noor clarifies. “This is a gallery of collected stories from the community that we’ve chosen, that we think will be interesting.”
Noor’s joy about the final gallery is establishing a location where her niece and nephew, whom she brought to Collective meetings, may feel at home in the museum.