Director, Manchester Museum
“Investment in culture is really interesting because it’s also an investment in communities, in health. It’s about thinking: ‘What’s the city that we want to live in?’”
Esme Ward, Director of Manchester Museum, on her love of culture and the city.
“My mum is from Manchester and actually I really wanted to come here and study but I didn’t get in. So I went to London instead. Eventually I fell for a Manchester lad and he moved back up to Manchester and I followed him. I’d been working in museums: the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Dulwich Picture Gallery and I left these wonderful jobs and came up to Manchester.
“And people said, ‘there’s no culture up there, where are you going to work.’ And I encountered all of these fantastic art galleries and museums and I went to the Whitworth art gallery for the very first time and was blown away by this gallery and its collections and I wrote to them to ask about me being their first ever education officer, because they didn’t have one.
“They wrote to me very politely to tell me. ‘No!’ And eventually the job came up and I did get it and I haven’t really looked back since.
“I’m the first female director here at the museum. It only took 127 years! In Manchester, of all places.
“What really interested me about this museum is that it has got a mission to build understanding between cultures in a sustainable world. When the museum opened back in the day, 1890s, it was presented as this appeal to the civic spirit, the scientific curiosity, and the devotion of the townsfolk of Manchester. It’s gorgeous. And that is still who we are and what we do.
“I’ve never been a director of a museum but I had such a clear sense of what this museum could be, how we could really think about its civic role, about learning, it’s full of awe and wonder and such interesting stuff, I had to go for it. And it’s in a city I very much love.
“The big plan for the museum is to make it even more deeply loved and more widely loved. We just want to make it as relevant as possible. The ambition is for the museum to be the most inclusive, imaginative and caring museum in the UK. We are shaping the museum, building a whole brand new two storey exhibition hall, a South Asia gallery, a Chinese culture gallery. We’re looking worldwide and we’re doing it with people, some of them who have never been to museums.
“We want this to be a place that makes everyone’s heart beat a bit faster.
“One of the things I do love about the cultural sector in Manchester is that if you’ve got an idea, probably a bit left field, in fact, probably the more left field the better, you just roll your sleeves up and get on with it.
“The museum is extraordinary, over 4.5m objects, it’s a lot of stuff. But it’s people who make places. One of the things I love about this museum is that you don’t quite know all the stuff that happens here. We have live animals here in the museum. We have a live animal collection. It’s quite unusual. And we’ve been doing a whole load of work in Panama, looking after this frog which is endangered.
“And what I love is that encounter that you might have wandering through the museum. You are suddenly connected to a whole new part of the world, or thousands of years ago. And that’s happening here in Manchester. That local and the global happening right here in Manchester, side by side. You can encounter that on a Friday afternoon, or whenever you’re wandering around.
“if you think that our mission is to build understanding between cultures, we are a city which has more than 200 languages spoken. We want to become the first multi-lingual museum. We’ve got more division now on society than probably ever before. Actually, to be here to build understanding between cultures, that feels a pretty relevant place to be. And we’re here to really build a sustainable world. To think about what it means to build a viable future for our planet.
I think if you work in museums, everyone assumes that you’re obsessed with the past. Actually, often your obsession really is about how in caring for the past, you’re really just staking a claim on what’s going to matter in the future. That’s what this museum does and it does it in Manchester, in a city that’s always been interested in its place in the world.
“I’m not quite sure what the city is going to look like five or ten years from now, because it’s changing so fast. But I think the investment in culture is really interesting because it’s also an investment in communities, in health, actually it’s about thinking about ‘what’s the city that we want to live in?’
“From being toddlers, to how you live well and age well in your city, and how creativity and culture can be at the heart of that. That feels pretty good to me.
“What wouldn’t I change about Manchester? I don’t care that people say that there’s bravado and swagger. I love it. I would never change our wearing of our history on our sleeves. I am proud of suffragettes and the radicalism of this city. It shapes who we are, it shapes who we’ve been, and I really hope it shapes our future. I would never change this museum and its spirit. I think that sense of how you create a space that’s about devotion and people’s love of it, that’s a great ambition.
“We’ve started to think about what would happen if we liberated our collections, and they go and find new meaning and relevance all over the city. We’re known as Manchester Museum but what if Manchester became our museum. Where would our collections go. Would our polar bear go and be on the snow ski slope, because it needs to feel snow under its paws again. Would you have collections that go back to communities that deeply care about those collections. Those collections are for everybody in this city. So our ambition is to get them out and get them used by people.”