Building understanding between Britain and China
I love the way Manchester Museum does everything with a global perspective and a huge ambition, yet with a human touch. Its mission and vision have been a guiding light for my local museum in Banbury, where I now chair the board, as we shape our own plans for becoming ever more relevant and effective.
I was thrilled to work with Manchester Museum in the autumn to review and develop interpretation plans for their new Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery. It is part of hello future, a new project which will see a new two-storey extension with galleries, an exhibition hall and a new welcome space. The aim of the new Chinese Culture Gallery is to build understanding between Britain and China – and Manchester is the perfect place to do this, as the local authority with the largest Chinese diaspora community in England, and more Chinese students than any university in Europe.
Last year I worked in Singapore, with the team who are developing a new national Children’s Museum. The island state is where thousands of Chinese immigrants made new lives in the 19th and 20th centuries, sometimes escaping famine in China. I visited the new Chinatown Heritage Centre located in three side-by-side shophouses typical in Southeast Asia. You saw the rooms that each housed a family, the adults going out to work to mend shoes, hawk food, or sell clothes. At the back was the tiny shared kitchen with a bathroom behind a screen. There were letters written to and fro with family in China, and stories of how a community became established, despite hardship and danger. The personal accounts were tremendously powerful and moving, and even more so because my husband’s family is Singaporean Chinese.
Stories of struggle and hope are universal, but they play out differently in each individual place. The history of Chinese people in Manchester is rich and varied, and there are thriving Chinese community organisations. Several of these have collected records, oral history and photographs of people and places. From the individuals and families who arrived in the early 20th century and set up businesses, to today’s diverse landscape of Chinese academics, students, settled families and international visitors, there is a wealth to draw upon.
There is a bigger and earlier perspective too, of course. While Britain and China were initially in imperial trading relationships that were often unequal and antagonistic, there was a fascination and reverence for the orient in Britain. This is reflected in the collections of Manchester Museum and its partners, which contain porcelain, paintings, botanical, geological and entomological specimens, manuscripts and maps, textiles, carvings and more.
Beautiful items will go on display in the new gallery, but with an aim that fits with the museum’s vision of imagination, inclusion and care. The interpretation strategy review was a chance for me to work with the team, led by curators Bryan Sitch and Andrea Winn, to ask: how do we give the objects a context that inspires empathy? what stories encourage us all to see each other’s perspective? and how can the gallery and its themes build understanding between two nations?
The latest research at the Manchester China Institute helps inform the thinking around these questions. The gallery’s location within the University of Manchester also gives access to people who are currently building some of the most productive intellectual and practical relationships with counterparts in Chinese universities.
It was a privilege to contribute to the project, which will continue to unfold and develop, and I can’t wait to see the final result in 2022.