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Reimagining the museum: Maria Balshaw on making museums a social space

The Whitworth, photograph by Alan Williams, Original Publication: Creative Review
Last summer, the Whitworth Museum in Manchester pulled off something of a coup. Only a few months on from its reopening after the completion of a major refurbishment project, it won the Art Fund’s prestigious Museum of the Year award.
The development and the prize were the result of a decade of leadership by Director Maria Balshaw, who arrived at the museum in June 2006 with an explicit mandate for change.
“It’s the culmination of a ten year programme of becoming a different kind of museum, and finding new and ever-more innovative ways of connecting to audiences that might think galleries are not for them,”
she says. “In particular, for us, really changing the relationship we have with the park around us [the Whitworth is situated at the University of Manchester and then the communities that live on our near-borders. It’s the most diverse part of Manchester, and it’s also a part of the city that has the most acute social and economic challenges.
“The physical transformation of the building was driven by a central idea which was we want to make our collection, our exhibitions and our building porous to the people around us.... so physically you can see into the building now.”
Maria Balshaw describes the impact that the £15 million refurbishment has had as “fundamental”.

Visitor numbers in the past year have increased by well over double – fuelled, no doubt, in part by winning the Art Fund prize – and Balshaw and her team have successfully built strong relationships with the wider community.
As well as its links locally, the Whitworth has achieved both national and international regard, particularly in the past year. But Balshaw believes that there is no real separation between local and international needs in terms of programming, and that the groups in fact work in tandem.
“Tourists visiting the city and local people actually want the same thing, which is curious, amazing, tremendous art, and that is what we are focused on... But we operate all the time with a strong sense of our international audience. Manchester Airport is only 20 minutes from the gallery, and we’ve got routes into South Asia and the Far East and China and America and we programme with that in mind.”

Again, some clever creative thinking is applied: for the second major show at the Whitworth after the reopening, for example, a group exhibition of contemporary Chinese art was shown, and launched to coincide with the direct flight routes opening up to Hong Kong and Beijing from Manchester.
“We think really hard about how can speak quite directly to the international destinations that are priorities for Manchester,” says Balshaw. Recently the Whitworth has received funding alongside the Liverpool Biennial and the Tetley in Leeds to partner with five art organisations and events across South Asia to develop “a programme of new commissions, sharing exhibitions, sharing expertise”. “It’s a part of the world that we’ve had connections with for centuries,” says Balshaw. “12% of the population in Greater Manchester is South Asian.”
As well as its significance internationally, this link up is also testament to the collaborative and supportive nature of the institutions and artistic groups in the local area. Rather than be in competition with each other, the various museums and art groups in the north actively support each other via social media and the like, with a view that by doing so, everyone benefits.
“Quite a long time ago in the city, not just for museums but across art forms, we got to a place – with most people, not with absolutely everybody – where you can say that if we do something really good and have a huge success, this does not steal success from you. In fact, it’s more likely to bring extra people to you as well. Even the Arts Council has noticed this.”
As well as the Whitworth, Maria Balshaw is director of Manchester Art Gallery.  When addressing the question of how she has managed the significant changes she has introduced across the two sites, she says “it takes time”.
Photographs by Jan Chlebik

“You have to go through the process of bringing everyone to a point where they know what the change is, they understand what it’s going to take, and they are willing to accept that. I’ve got, in both galleries, really, really fantastic staff, who have been on a long, and sometimes very, very difficult journey. But I’m immensely proud of what they’ve achieved.”

Balshaw sees the staff at the museums as a hugely important asset. “Cultural organisations are people intensive,” she says.

“You need a lot of people to make the organisations work well, so why wouldn’t you invest in developing them? We have organisational structures that are very different from those which might have existed ten or 20 years ago, and we’ve made lots more changes to deal with the reduction of public funding for the galleries, but it doesn’t mean we haven’t invested in people and their expertise.“We’ve protected curatorial knowledge. But our curators are the people who think in public – they’re not hidden away. Because actually what our visitors tell us is that the thing they love more than anything else is that sense of knowing what a curator thinks, and we want to share their knowledge.”

"The cultural impact of museums is about bringing people and ideas and objects and artists together in a conversation about how we understand ourselves. That’s just so important in the 21st century.”

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Maria Balshaw

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  • Director of The Whitworth and Manchester City Galleries
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