Nick Merriman was appointed as Director of the Manchester Museum in March 2006. Since then he has focused its mission on promoting understanding between cultures and working towards a sustainable world, and has overseen the refurbishment of most of the Museum’s permanent galleries.
This, together with a major programme of public engagement, has led to a doubling of the Museum’s visitor numbers to 450,000 a year. Prior to moving to Manchester, Nick Merriman was Director of Museums and Collections, and Reader in Museum Studies, at University College London, for eight years. During this time, he developed new courses in museum and heritage studies, and created a new university-wide museum service. From 2004 to 2006 he was a part time Fellow on the Clore Leadership Programme, undertaking a bespoke scheme of training and development in cultural leadership.
Nick began his career at the Museum of London in 1986, as Curator of Prehistory and subsequently Head of the Department of Early London History and Collections. While there he led a pioneering project called ‘The Peopling of London’ which told the story of the capital’s cultural diversity from ancient times to the present. He studied archaeology at Cambridge University, and his PhD, on widening participation in museums, was published as ‘Beyond The Glass Case’. He has published widely on museum studies topics, was Chair of the International Council of Museums (UK) from 2001 to 2004, President of the Council for British Archaeology from 2005 to 2008, Chair of the University Museums Group from 2009 to 2013, Convener of the Museums Association’s Ethics Committee from 2008 to 2014 and is currently Chair of the Collections Trust.
Nick recently visited Pakistan and ArtNow had the opportunity to speak with the director and ask him about the intriguing projects the Museum has taken on.
JA: Could you tell us about the Manchester Art Museum and what it means to be a university museum?
NM: Well, it is a museum of human and natural history and is about 125 years old. It is also one of the leading university museums in the country. We ensure that everything in the museum needs to be contemporary. With over 4 million objects, our mission is to continue promoting cultures of today as well as cultures of the past. Our museum has also been working towards two green agendas where we have started working with contemporary artists to aid these initiatives.
Now the university that was founded in 1979s was initially created to teach students and therefore has a more public role in the world, it can be seen as having a civic role and a social responsibility. This in turn also allows our hometown to play a wider role in the world. We continuously work with the local communities, schools etc. to bring our locals to the museum as that is one of the most important things for us, to ensure that we are a museum for the public and that their interest in the history we have to offer does not die out.
JA: Tell us about your work as a museum director (e.g. your years of observing artists’ practice, organizing exhibitions, and managing an art museum collection).
NM: Ultimately I am responsible for the work in the museum; I also must ensure that everything is running smoothly and the tasks are designated accordingly. I overlook the museum’s efficient operation as well as look into projects happening in next 6 months. As a director, I also take the lead in fund raising. As you may have heard and like I mentioned earlier we have been working with contemporary artists, so most recently we worked with Reena Kallat. Now the curator is the one who usually works with the artists in detail but I do make sure that I always know who the artist is, like Reena who I met during the course of her work with us.
JA: How does the museum decide on the artists they would like to work with?
NM: Well we work with two galleries here in Manchester, so we get a good sense of who may be appropriate from places like Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. So, for example, when we were choosing artists we were actually looking at 10 different one and finally came to the decision that Reena Kallat was most suitable for the agenda. Through her work, she manages to evoke the natural world, her geographical background so it just made sense for the green initiative.
JA: What do you think is the primary challenge facing museums today?
NM: Primarily to be relevant, in UK and all across the world. To make sure it resonates with the population. So that those that don’t usually visit may change their opinions and give the space a chance.
JA: In your opinion what do you think is the difference between commercial galleries and museums?
NM: There isn’t so much of a fundamental difference but it would probably the contemporariness of the gallery that the museums don’t usually have. In a gallery, the works are designed as a form of visual art, to be viewed by an audience; it has that specificity. However, in the case of the museum, you would have displays of animal specimens and potteries whose primary focus was not looking at visual aesthetic. Also the contemporary art market is not replicated in other parts of the museum. In the gallery you have to engage with the collectors and critics etc. but that element of sale is absent in the museum.
JA: Tells us more about the current exhibition happening back in the museum, namely ‘Memories of Partition’?
NM: We were aware that the 70 years of partition of South Asia was coming up and we were very interested in bringing back the stories of those who were there. This project looked at the people who actually witnessed the event. In Manchester, in the museum today, this exhibition houses oral histories from the witnesses as well as six videos and objects lent from that period. This is also for the new permanent exhibition of South Asia in Manchester.
JA: How useful do you think biennials are for a city and how do you think it would affect Karachi now, nationally and internationally?
NM: They are particularly important. In South Asia the dynamism in the art scene is quite evident and KB17 is a clear manifestation of that dynamism. The work is spread all around the city far away from the interiors of the traditional based museum or commercial galleries. It is easily available to new audiences, new people and because of it spread out locations, it is guaranteed to attract a diverse range of people. Also these unusual venues kind of bring back life to these spaces, which are not usually frequented by a number of people. As far as its effect on Karachi, I think that it needs to keep happening for a noticeable change. Make the first successful and then second and third successful. Make it a regular fixture and its influence will be visible. Also, it’s coming at a really good time. From what I hear, during my visit to Lahore, is that Pakistanis have started investing more in art and culture on a national and international scale and the Karachi Biennale is an example of that.
In UK, there have been two festivals, the Wynchwood festival and the Manchester International festival that has both transformed the image of the city and also put culture in the heart of its people and the city itself. Cultural investment goes hand in hand with attracting people. These festivals were trailblazers for the local council to take an initiative as well as take an interest in the culture of the area. They began investing in initiatives all around the city and eventually transformed it from a post-industrial city to where it is today.
JA: Finally, tell us about your experience with the kb17? Wat did it feel like to experience Pakistani art first hand?
NM: Really good, we have a partnership five north of England organisations, and five south Asian organisations which comes under our project, ‘New North and South’ and it is such an ambitious feat. One of these South Asian organisations was KB17 and when I arrived to Pakistan and saw it, it was a great triumph. Amin Gulgee has done a brilliant job along with all the board of trustees and volunteers and it was amazing to see it all being done on small resources. It was wonderful for me to see a number of different venues in a new context and allowed me to get a sense of the city. They really did pull off such a great event on such minimal resources
JA: Anything you would like to conclude our conversation with?
NM: Yes, I would just like to talk about this project a bit more. This project ‘the New North and South’ will be working for 3 years with five South Asian organisations through commissions, exhibitions and intellectual exchange as a way of celebrating our shared heritage. Another organisation we are working with is LB17 and we wish them good luck and sincerely hope that they too are a great success.
JA: Thank you for your time.
To find out more about this project please visit: http://www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk/whats-on/events/newnorthandsouth/