Manchester Histories Festival and Emory Douglas @ Urbis

Manchester Town Hall

Fortunately, last week’s conference coincided with the Manchester Histories Festival, so I stayed in Manchester until Saturday and was able to go along to the Town Hall and check out the huge diversity of local and community history activity taking place in Manchester. The festival was a new event this year, and is a joint project between Manchester City Council, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester NHS Primary Care Trust, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Manchester. The aims of the festival are:

  • To bring people together
  • To inspire lasting pride in our city
  • To be a celebration
  • To show that there are many histories of Manchester
  • To develop links between Manchester’s educational and cultural institutions
  • To develop original educational resources
  • To stimulate interest in the Manchester’s future through a greater understanding of its past

Of most interest to us is the link between no. 4 (showing that there are many histories of Manchester) and 1 and 2, which together suggest that the idea that diverse histories can contribute to fostering social cohesion (‘bringing people together’ and ‘lasting pride’) is being widely taken up.

Manchester’s many histories were most apparent in the Histories Around Us section.  The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Trust (where on Thursday I had conducted an interview) were present here, as were the Jewish Museum, the Irish Diaspora Foundation and several other groups representing the Chinese and Italian presence in Manchester, for example, not to mention Manchester’s LGBT heritage. The Federation of Chinese Associations of Manchester (FCAM) had on display printouts of the maps produced in conjunction with the University of Manchester (and described in the previous post), suggesting a strong sense of community ownership over this material.

Google Maps at Federation of Chinese Associations of Manchester stall

Lots of the stands were full of material that one might expect to find in a community archive: photos, newspaper cuttings, old leaflets and I took the opportunity to ask people where their material was being held and how they were looking after it. The lady from the FCAM stand (which included material going back to the 1970s, including photos from the first Chinese supplementary school) told me that all the material had just been lent to her by individuals in the community, whom she knew personally. Nowhere was the material being gathered and preserved. I heard the same story from the Manchester Italian Association, where one of the members of the group proudly showed me the photo collection (mostly of images of the Madonna della Rosario procession, a 100 year-old Manchester tradition), which again was gathered together from members’ personal collections. Did the organisation have records and where were the photos being kept I asked? “Someone had suggested,” that perhaps the group should “think about an archive” and they were just starting to look into it. I suspect, although I don’t know for sure, that this contrasts strongly with the many local history associations, focusing on the history of a particular geographic location, which often seemed to have links to local studies centres and seemed almost to revere the documentary record.

I was also surprised by the absence of a mention of archives where I might have expected to find them. I stopped to chat to three young women from the British Muslim Heritage Centre. They spoke enthusiastically about their vision to ‘facilitate access to Muslim heritage’ (from their website) but whilst this would entail a permanent exhibition and a library and resource centre they did not seem to have considered the idea of developing archival collections.

Inside Manchetser Town HallInside Manchester Town Hall#2

Overall, I came away with the sense of a huge ‘buzz’ around local history, in all its diversity, and not just family history either, not least because the accompanying lectures also seemed to be attracting a good crowd. But I couldn’t help thinking that the small local history societies still seemed much more aware of the value of their material (to the point of fetishising it?) than many of the ‘ethnic’ community groups, who whilst keen to celebrate their long histories in Manchester did not seem so immediately attuned to the potential uses of archive material. This difference in attitude risks in the long-run creating a somewhat distorted picture of the history of Manchester (in this case, but it certainly applies elsewhere) in that in the imagination of the general public (as embodied in the audience for the festival) and possible the local heritage services, those heritages that have the most enthusiastic advocates end up becoming the most visible.

Still pondering such questions I left the Town Hall for Urbis, where I was delighted to be able to catch the Emory Douglas exhibition. There’s little I can say that has not been documented elsewhere, for example in Felicity Heywood’s review for the Museums Journal where she described this as possibly ‘the most explosive exhibition of recent years’. If you have the chance before it closes on 19 April do go and check it out.

Intriguingly, the vast majority of the items were on loan from a private collection, the Collection of Alden and Mary Kimbrough, who would appear to have been major collectors of Black ephemera. How would anyone tell the story of Panthers today if they hadn’t had the foresight to collect this material? And how many stories cannot be told because nobody did?

Responses to the exhibition can also be viewed here.


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