The Archives+ exhibition at Manchester Central Library represents the centre piece of a £50 million refurbishment of the Grade II listed building. The exhibition comprises an array of digital screens and interactive displays designed to engage the people of Manchester with archival content from the library’s collections. Available to the casual visitor is film footage from the North West Film Archives, family history records and historic maps of the city centre.
When I began my placement with Manchester’s Library, Information and Archives Services in January 2015 the Archives+ exhibition had been opened for almost a year. The library staff, now comfortable with the reception and use of the exhibition, wanted me to provide new content. Specifically I was tasked with the responsibility of designing an interactive digital display on the subject of the Peterloo Massacre for the ‘radical thinking’ hub.
The Peterloo Massacre was an interesting topic to research. The historian Robert Poole provides an up-to-date account of the event and related contemporary research in ‘Return to Peterloo’, a 2011 edition of the Manchester Regional History Review. Peterloo took place between 1 and 2pm on Monday 16th August 1819 in the area between The Manchester Central Complex centre and Peter Street. Around 60,000 people gathered to hear the radical MP Henry Hunt call for the reform of Parliament in order to extent the voting franchise to the common people. Things went horribly wrong however when the town’s magistrates attempted to break up the meeting, calling on military assistance. Within the hour 15 lay dead and 600 were badly injured. It was the single bloodiest event to occur on English soil in the 19th Century.
It was my job to create a digital display which would be both accessible and engaging, satisfying the library’s ambition to increase participation and engagement in local history by local people. In the beginning I decided to draw inspiration from the existing digital screens. I soon found out that in separate areas of the exhibition screens are programmed to present information in alternative ways. A screen in the very centre of Archives+ allows visitors to explore a three dimensional map of Manchester for example. Others encourage the user to create postcards out of old images of the city and email these to friends and family. A digital wall near the visitor entrance meanwhile depicts a large interactive bookcase. Visitors can touch the screen to open books revealing historic documents, photographs and even film.
After discussion with my supervisors I discovered that the screen on which the Peterloo display was to be shown had an ingrained design template. This consisted of a scattering of images across the screen with information attached to each. Images could be expanded and contracted, rotated and moved (See image below). When the Archives+ exhibition had first been put together, the designers at Figment Productions had wanted to make the design of exhibition screens simple so that library staff could update exhibition content quickly and easily. This meant that my design ideas had to conform to this existing design template.
This presented a real difficulty for me as this design template does not lend itself to displaying a linear chronological narrative message. Visitors are encouraged to examine images and the information which accompanies them in whichever order they please. Whilst this allows for free-choice learning, it inevitably leads to visitors picking and choosing the information that most appeals and leaving with only a half-formed idea of the subject they engaged with. In order to attempt to tackle this I presented fewer images and more information when discussing the sequence of events at Peterloo. Information attached to images could be loosely traced chronologically as I had included the times events took place. Overall I hoped visitors would leave with a more wholesome idea of the Peterloo Massacre. I returned to the library on 13th May to help with a handling session, allowing visitors to gain access to primary source documents and objects from Peterloo.