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

Over the past ten years, Manchester’s Whitworth Museum has been transformed, both physically and in terms of its relationship with its audience, winning the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year award in the process. Eliza Williams talks to the museum’s Director, Maria Balshaw, about managing this decade of change, how she has reconfigured the Whitworth to open it up to its surroundings and to communities both in Manchester and abroad, and what it means for a museum to go from ivory tower to ‘social space’

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 Whitworth_01_Alan Williams
The Whitworth, photograph by Alan Williams

“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,” she continues. “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.

Visitors enjoying the new Witworth, photograph by Alan Williams
Visitors enjoying the new Whitworth, photograph by Alan Williams

They have done this through traditional means – connecting to local schools and community groups – but also by the application of some creative thinking. In order to reach a particularly inaccessible demographic – older men – for example, a member of Whitworth staff spent significant time with a local care home to understand what was preventing them from visiting the museum. The result was an exhibition curated by men from the home.

Research also showed that while the museum was popular with students, it had very little connection to 15–25 year-olds who were not in higher education. To remedy this, the Whitworth developed a successful programme of work with a group of young people, called the Whitworth Young Contemporaries, which was specifically aimed at getting them to bring their peers into the museum. “Peer-to-peer is what works,” says Balshaw, “and that group of about 25 young people who work with us really regularly feel the Whitworth is theirs, and that they have autonomy to programme creatively.”

School groups visiting the Withworth, photograph by Alan Williams
School groups visiting the Whithworth, photograph by Alan Williams

Balshaw in fact credits the Whitworth Young Contemporaries as being a direct factor in why the museum won the Art Fund prize, as they happened to be holding their first event the evening the judges visited. She admits that the team did consider whether this was the right time for the visit. “It was a huge risk to let them take over the entire building,” she recalls, “and it puts them under a lot of pressure if they’ve got the Museum of the Year judges coming, but we looked at each other and said ‘yeah, but fuck it, it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?’ What the Museum of the Year judges saw was some emerging bands playing in the Grand Hall, some grime, a hip hop band, and a really amazing combo who had bagpipes as well as reggae. They had spoken word, they had a mass art installation, they had performance activities taking place in the art garden and across the park, and they had 800 young people.”

The Witworth, photograph by Alan Williams
The Whitworth, photograph by Alan Williams

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,” she says. “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.”

Opening week activities at the newly refurbished Witworth, photograph by Jan Chlebik
Opening week activities at the newly refurbished Whitworth, photograph by Jan Chlebik

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”.

“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.”

Opening week activities at the newly refurbished Witworth, photograph by Jan Chlebik
Opening week activities at the newly refurbished Whitworth, photograph by Jan Chlebik

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.”

Opening week activities at the newly refurbished Witworth, photograph by Jan Chlebik
Opening week activities at the newly refurbished Whitworth, photograph by Jan Chlebik

“I think you can tell the places where there is that sense of positive teamwork and positive morale and pride,” Balshaw continues. “If the staff feel that, the visitors feel it. Museums are social spaces so you need that kind of spirit, and if you don’t find it in any form, I think you tend to not have such a nice time.”

Maria Balshaw cites this notion of a museum as a social space, rather than as an institution to be approached with hushed tones, as a huge transformation in the arts sector that has taken place in the last decade. “I think especially in the last five to eight years, there’s a much more sophisticated sense that being a social space doesn’t mean dumbed down, or that you’re just a café with a gallery attached,” she says. “Actually what we understand much better now is the social context for learning and the contribution that institutions that are run like that make to a sense of place. They have a really significant role to play in shaping international perceptions.

“In the 20th century, museums were treated as a kind of ivory tower, a scholarly retreat,” she continues. “But I don’t think that’s where most museums are at now…. 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.”

See manchester.ac.uk/whitworth

Whitworth Director Maria Balshaw was chosen as one of Creative Review’s Creative Leaders 50, our list of those leading change in the UK’s creative industries. See creativereview.co.uk/creativeleaders50
Whitworth Director Maria Balshaw was chosen as one of Creative Review’s Creative Leaders 50, our list of those leading change in the UK’s creative industries. More here.


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