I decided to move to Manchester to study Art Gallery and Museum Studies after a particularly difficult day working in an inner city primary school. I was watching one of my students handling some local Iron Age pottery shards; rolling them over in his hands, listening intently to the archaeologists who brought them into our classroom. This student, maybe half an hour before had been in the throws of an uncontrollable rage; unable to communicate, unwilling to eat, play, rest or regulate his own body or emotions. This was the moment where the idea of learning and engagement outside of the classroom, with real authentic objects for children with additional needs like my student became something I had to pursue.
Manchester was one of the only courses at the time that offered modules in creative learning, and the chance to take on a work placement in a gallery or museum seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. I applied to take on the role of an Engagement Assistant at the Whitworth, which has turned into one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences of the entire MA. Working with the Learning and Engagement team has been affirming of my future career choices, challenging and full of room for me to grow and explore my own driving forces and passions.
After having a meeting with my supervisor, we established my role to spread across a few projects; assisting in the development and research of the Natural and Cultural Health Service; supporting and participating in the GROW programme and assisting the Gallery in gaining Autism friendly accreditation by creating new resources and working on funding bids. I am continuing to learn so much about a whole host of elements that go into developing, facilitating and maintaining engagement projects, and it has definitely helped me identify elements of which I feel I can now (with semi confidence!) call my own practice.
I have spent a lot of time at the Whitworth researching what’s taking place locally in the city, what projects already exist that support communities and other institutions that we can learn from. Being part of the University of Manchester, it feels like this ethos of research and experimentation is actively encouraged – which is so different to any of my other experiences in education and in other museums!
The research I have done has helped me gain a greater understanding of how museums and galleries sit within Manchester’s ‘big picture’, and how the people of Manchester see and use the available public spaces. I have learned that Galleries like the Whitworth can become tools for transformative change as part of its environment and community, especially for users who may feel unwelcome, underrepresented or unsupported in their visits to cultural institutions.