My name is Michelle Kenner, and I’m a postgraduate student in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. When I introduce myself, one of the first questions I’m asked is, ‘Why did you decide to come here?’ as if Manchester shouldn’t have crossed my radar in my search for Masters programs. One of the reasons I applied for the course was because each student is required to complete a work placement; for twenty days, students live and breathe real-life museum work and then reflect on the process.
I’m extremely indecisive, so when faced with a multitude of placements to choose from, I tried to be as strategic as possible. I knew I was interested in exhibition design, and I knew I wanted to work in a large museum environment because up until that point my work experience had been in small, locally-run museums. I narrowed the possibilities by placement position and location until I hit on my top choice: an Exhibitions and Interpretation placement at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.
MOSI has a very positive local reputation and a dedicated audience of families and school groups that tour its two-acre historic site. It receives over 600,000 visitors a year, and is looking to increase this figure exponentially as it redesigns galleries across its five buildings. I knew when I walked in the door on my first day that this was a dynamic and exciting time to be a part of what MOSI was doing; things were changing, and I had an inkling I was going to be a part of it.
I just didn’t realise in what capacity I would participate.
During my second week at MOSI, my supervisor approached me with a project: Underground Manchester, a gallery about the city’s sewer system from Roman times to present day, was in desperate need of repair and reinterpretation. She asked me to walk through the gallery, taking copious notes on what needed to be fixed or replaced, and then suggest new ways the Museum could interpret the gallery (Underground Manchester was originally installed in the 1980s and had since changed little). ‘You’ll be the champion of Underground Manchester,’ she said. The sewer champion, I thought.
My initial reactions to the gallery were not overly positive; many of the panels were in desperate need of repair, and the fascinating history they presented was lost in paragraph after paragraph of text. The gallery itself is maze-like beneath the Station Hall and 1830s Warehouse, and after an hour scribbling notes in the bowels of the earth I began to wonder if I would ever emerge.
But I loved it.
I loved thinking like an exhibition designer, looking for ways MOSI could connect with its visitors despite the outmoded interactives and peeling text panels. I was critical, but I could see why MOSI kept attracting visitors generation after generation: it invites its visitors to journey through how Manchester rose as an industrial power and repositioned itself as a world-class centre of scientific research.
I compiled my findings in a brief that I pitched to the head of the Exhibitions and Interpretation team. It was difficult determining what short-term improvements to suggest since interim refurbishment is on a tight budget, but discussing it with my supervisor helped me understand how large museums appropriate funds for specific projects. Though I may not see the final product of my underground labours, I’m confident that my research will help inform the Exhibitions and Interpretation team’s redesign of the gallery. And I’m also confident that designing engaging, relatable exhibitions is exactly what I’m meant to do.