Manchester Museum’s new South Asia Gallery an ode to the diaspora

The Singh Twins Mural, South Asia Gallery – Manchester Museum
The Singh Twins Mural, South Asia Gallery – Manchester Museum

Manchester Museum’s new South Asia Gallery, a British Museum partnership, is the first permanent gallery in the UK dedicated to the experiences and histories of diaspora communities from the Indian subcontinent. 

Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester, reopened to the public at the end of last week following a major renovation along with a permanent multilingual, story-led South Asia Gallery. It showcases over 140 historic artefacts and explores the culture of the Indian subcontinent through six major themes: Past & Present, Lived Environments, Science & Innovation, Sound, Music & Dance, British Asian, and Movement & Empire. 

The gallery is also among the first in the country to be co-curated with active participation of the community whose stories it depicts.

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, explains the importance of involving community voices and setting a precedent for the future of how museum galleries are curated: “I hope this will be understood as a new departure and opportunity to rethink the collaboration of communities in museums. It is a fantastic inspiration for everybody working in museums to think about how to be more inclusive and diverse, when it comes to engaging communities in what the museum is about.” 

The displays will take the audience through a time frame which spans over four to five thousand years. Artefacts and objects excavated from ancient cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa from the Indus Valley Civilisation, powerful historical women such as Nur Jahan of the Mughal Empire and the Queen of Jhansi, re-living Gandhi’s visit to Manchester and how the locals welcomed him are just some explorations of the historical events which the gallery showcases. 

Another highlight display shows traditions of recycling and re-using which are innate to the Indian subcontinent. Biodegradable plates and bowls made from leaves, recycling old newspapers to make paper bags, the earthenware used to store water and even the traditional Ganesha idols designed to be ecologically friendly. 

“In today’s world, we are once again talking about recycling and being environmentally-friendly, and you just have to look to know that the traditions already exist. My grandmother’s generation would never throw away bottles, for example. They would always be recycled and reused in some way. There is an inherent culture of recycling within South Asian culture,” noted Professor Anindita Ghosh, who teaches Modern Indian History at the University of Manchester. 

Other intriguing anthologies include the Science & Innovation – which looks at innovations of iconic, oft-overlooked individuals such as Satyendra Nath Bose, one of the seminal founders of modern quantum science, whose grandson Fal Sarker, shared the story of his impact on the scientific professions, including a correspondence between Bose and Einstein – and Sound, Music and Dance – which features various forms of musical expression from ancient instruments such as the hakgediya, a Sri-Lankan conch shell, to the secret South Asian Daytimers raves of the 80s and 90s.  

New commissions also populate the space, celebrating contemporary creativity and innovation, including a rickshaw imported from the subcontinent and decorated by communities in Manchester, as well as a 17-metre-long newly commissioned and awe-striking mural from British artists, The Singh Twins, illustrating an emotional map of South Asian diaspora experience. 

“Creating partnership gallery spaces like these is a vital part of our national programmes work to share our collections with audiences across the UK,” Fischer says about the gallery’s hopes to create a collaborative space which generates new connections told from the perspective of the diaspora. 

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