The Lockdown Interviews – 14 – Esme Ward, Director, Manchester Museum, June 2020

Lockdown interviews – Esme Ward, Director, Manchester Museum.

Manchester Museum.

1 – What is the current situation for Manchester Museum?

Manchester Museum is part of the University of Manchester, it is one of the largest university museums in the UK; it is what is known traditionally as an encyclopaedic museum, you have both human cultures and the natural world all under one roof. We have large collections, over 4 and half million objects, across disciplines.

Before lockdown we were only half open, we are in the midst of a very large capital project which is called ‘hello future’. Even being half open we have around 360,000 visitors a year.

More than ever, we’re asking what is the museum for? Its mission is really quite straightforward – it is there to build understanding between cultures and a more sustainable world and is very clearly values-driven. From the very first moment the doors opened in the late 19th century it was an appeal to civic spirit, curiosity and devotion of the townsfolk of Manchester. That is still its DNA. It is a university museum, absolutely at the heart of the university, doing all the things you imagine a university museum to do, but it also has a really clear civic role.

We talk about becoming the most inclusive, imaginative and caring museum you will encounter. We want to really reflect the communities we serve and boy have we got our work to do!  We also want to frame caring as not relating just to collections, but to people, ideas and relationships.

2 – How many staff do you have and how many are furloughed?

We have 78 staff and up to 200 volunteers. One thing that is a bit unusual about the museum is that we do have staff in everyday and we have done the whole way through lockdown, because we have a live animal collection.

When we closed I asked the vast majority of staff to just stop for a week; to just breathe, sort out the corner of your kitchen! or work out how the heck you are going to do this with the kids?! Me included! You’ve got to be human first, it is so unsettling for everybody, it is important to just take that time.

We have done what lots of other museums have done, we have had socials, team meetings on zoom and cocktail hours. Just after lockdown we had been working with an art therapist who was going to be based with us to work with staff. So what we did was just extended that, she was available for staff, anybody who wanted 1-2-1 on Zoom. That was a bit like our ‘Boost’ staff wellbeing programme, that supports staff through our capital project, but on those ‘lockdown’ terms.

I’ll be honest, I am really quite worried about the different experiences members of staff have had during lockdown and how to bring us all back together. In our case up to 50% of the museum team will have been furloughed at some stage. We have been doing furloughing on rotation for some and that was as much about well-being as anything else.

I am very conscious that those who aren’t furloughed have never worked harder, me included. It is pretty relentless, it is full on. Then you have others who are furloughed who feel a real mix, some of them feel guilty, others are having a really interesting time discovering new things. We are all having such different experiences, I don’t think we should underestimate, in Manchester Museum and as a sector as a whole, the work we are going to have to do to bring us all together to feel cohesive, that is going to be massively important to the resilience of us as a sector.

3 – When are you planning to re-open? How do you see the museum working with social distancing?

The half that we will reopen is almost the wrong half! So the lovely cavernous space that we desperately need is of course the half that is currently closed for redevelopment! We have incredibly narrow stairways, so we are in the midst of working out how we will do it. I am pretty sure we will be opening much more closely in line with the university campus opening. We are at Oxford Road, in the heart of campus, so we are probably looking at September.

We will almost certainly not be opening the same hours we were before, we are currently exploring what different modes of opening look like and whether we do specific openings for special groups – we are exploring all of that at the moment.

Whilst, of course, like everyone in museums I am desperate to get back in, we are also not ready yet. I am not pushing for us to open, I don’t believe in Manchester we are ready yet. We have to be absolutely assured not only for the safety of staff and visitors, of course, but also so that we can try and enable the kind of experience that is going to be meaningful.

We have slightly stepped back on pushing for opening, that is its own kind of exhaustion. Of course we need to know how to do things, we also need to observe. If we are endlessly coming up with ideas of one way systems and how we can manage visitors it is really draining for staff. It might be better to spend some time phoning someone, maybe in Lisbon for example, who has opened a museum – being curious, talking to others is a much better energy.

We feel we need to have all the answers, I have been doing work around accepting that we are living with uncertainty. The immediate desire is to solve all the problems, which is human nature. Let’s not do that. Maybe we need to ask different questions and see where that leads.

Manchester Museum – ‘hello future’ capital project

4 – How has your capital project – ‘Hello Future’ been affected by the shutdown? 

February 2022 is when we were due to re-open. At the moment we are modelling up to a 13 week delay and up to half a million pounds extra cost. We just don’t know whether it is going to be that much. We hope it is an ‘up to’ and not that.

I’ve been reflecting on where we might usefully put our energy at this moment? We could waste a lot of time and energy on things that we just don’t know if they are going to happen. So one of the things we have been doing is looking at the whole project, that is what I am most interested in for us moving forwards; beyond the financial challenge and staff wellbeing. Is there is something more fundamental around what this city needs the museum to be for the future?

I am rethinking our capital project through the lens of what we are now and what that future need might be. For example, the Chinese Culture gallery takes on a particular resonance in this context. The South Asian Gallery is a big co-curated project, and we are having conversations with communities about how the South Asian diaspora have been disproportionally affected by Covid19. I get the sense that this space – where communities can come together and their heritage is explored and celebrated – is going to become even more important for them moving forwards.

We have this huge exhibition hall on the ground floor of our new two storey extension, and already it isn’t an exhibition hall, it is just a hall! Which doesn’t mean it won’t do wonderful exhibitions, but it also needs to speak to the future of what the museum might need to be. It might also become a huge zero waste hub, a food hall maybe? I have got really interested in how we create ‘flex’ within the museum we’ve got. In part because we have always done it.

Just before lockdown I grabbed some papers about what the museum did in 1914 for World War I. It really inspired hope in me. In WWI Manchester Museum worked with the education service for the city. Many of the schools had been commandeered for war use and so the museum became the school for the city. The staff – particularly the curators – became teachers almost overnight and thousands of children throughout the course of the war went and had their lessons at the heart of Manchester Museum.  It is why I think we have the oldest museum education service in the country. It is really wonderful, and the questions they were asking themselves then were the same as the questions I was asking myself in week one of lockdown – What does your city and university need the museum to be now and moving forwards?

I am an optimist, we have always done this. I hold on to that actually, because we have got the ability to ‘flex’. What I love is that whilst we aren’t still a school, that commitment to education and learning is in the DNA, it is who we are and what we do, it has impacted the whole museum. Where we are at the moment is really opening up and having all sorts of conversations with people about what ‘healing’ might need to look like moving forward and whether the museum has a role to play there. Whether we can be a space that helps people understand how to be together again. What is the need and appetite? Maybe they just need joy!

That is the bit that feels exciting because out of that we will genuinely become exactly what we are needed for this moment. We won’t lose sight of ourselves, I absolutely believe that, it will just be us building on work we have already done but doing it in a way that is hopefully relevant.

5 – Manchester Museum is a museum at the heart of your community – how have you been able to connect to audiences while you have been closed?

We have a whole host of people who are having a ball with the digital stuff, they are really experimenting and we are learning a huge amount – around what digital volunteering looks like, around live broadcasting, around the way that we can build our resources and curate them for the moment we are in.

Very soon after lockdown, we launched a mobile site called ‘Manchester Museum in Quarantine’. There was nothing on that site that didn’t exist before. We essentially built a mobile site that enabled us to put all of our resources together and speak to the moment we are in. So you have resources for home schoolers, resources for carers and digital volunteering opportunities.

In a way, because we only used existing resources, it bought us a bit of time and space to think about how we get used to where we are now and set up the systems and structures that support each other and hopefully enable us to find a way moving forwards.

We are doing quite a lot of work on our digital offer, which has had such phenomenal reach and that won’t disappear. We are looking at this kind of blended relationship between the two, the physical visit and the digital one. If I am really honest I don’t think we yet know what that relationship between the digital work that we do and the live experience in the museum is going to be but it will be very interesting to see how we can make it work.

For example, we have Frog Friday online! If we were doing that in the museum, we might have around 20 people, but we have had thousands from all over the world take part.

I think my job, in part, is about creating the conditions for staff to do their best work. At this stage the conditions are around experimentation, around trying things, around being more open. One of the things that has been really fascinating to observe is the hierarchy dissolve, that sense of collaboration has escalated not just within the museum but with other museums.

You have this hyper-local engagement too – which is what will happen when we re-open – but you also have that hand in hand with the global. I think that is really interesting. For our new South Asia Gallery, as part of our capital project, some of the museum team have a meeting with another team in Bangalore soon and we are just all sharing our digital experiences, that now feels really easy to organise! We are also building a Chinese Culture gallery, which is all about building understanding and empathy between the UK and China and arguably we are going to need that more than ever.

I’m trying to understand and accept as we move forwards that things have changed. It is not about throwing stuff away but it is about really understanding the moment we are in and seeking and building on those new opportunities, we have to. As Chair of the Culture Health and Wellbeing Alliance, it is something that has really helped me in the last few weeks, I’ve tried to see the bigger picture.

6 – How will being a university museum impact on your funding in future? Do you think the funding model for museums needs to change?

This is what is taking up a lot of my time, energy and thinking at the moment. As a university museum, on the one hand we have all the impacts around loss of commercial income, loss of donations from visitors but we also have the added impact upon the Higher Education sector. My university, the University of Manchester, is modelling up to an eye-watering £270 million pound loss this financial year. That is at least a 25% decrease in its income.

I am currently looking really hard at how we can make significant savings. We have a particularly challenging case at Manchester Museum because we are half closed and when we re-open we will be a third bigger. You are having to shrink and constrict your organisation just at the moment when you are growing, and the maths do not add up.

I have been doing a lot of work with University Museum Group and others, because unlike lots of other organisations we don’t automatically have a main funder. The way that our funding works is split between Research England, Arts Council (alongside the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery we are National Portfolio Organisation called Manchester Museums Partnership), our host university, commercial income, Trusts and Foundations, philanthropy and donations. We have several different income streams, which means that there isn’t one automatic body that takes full responsibility for your funding. It’s all too easy to fall between funders.

The stark reality for us that is our host institution is having to make significant savings. At the University of Manchester at the moment there is a recruitment freeze, voluntary severance schemes and pay reduction schemes. The impact is now, we are having to save money for this year and we still don’t know what student numbers we are going to receive, which is where the money comes from.

It is the very challenging combination of dealing with great uncertainty and (the thing you know is certain) that your organisation will have to grow in the next two years in the face of constriction and that is going to require full-on creativity!

Everywhere you might look for funding – philanthropy or trusts and foundations, they have pivoted – quite rightly and understandably- towards Covid. It feels like the perfect storm.

Like many museums such a high proportion of our budget goes on staff so it becomes really challenging when you are looking at savings.

It is also critical to understand our role in how we think about sector wide support. One of the things I love about Manchester Museum is our relationships and collaboration with other museums. We have the Museum Development Team based at Manchester. We have specialist curatorial staff, we have an Egyptology Curator, an Earth Sciences Curator, etc and other specialist roles. All of these colleagues work collaboratively with other museums in our region, so my concern isn’t just for my organisation it is around us as a sector and how we hold and value expertise. For example, there is an Early Years specialist at the museum, obviously that benefits Manchester Museum, but it also benefits our city, region and sector.  This is what is at risk in the coming years.

I hope we see a lot more shared roles moving forwards and not just between museums but with other sectors too. We probably need to get messier if I am honest!

One thing we probably won’t be doing in future is touring international exhibitions. We currently have an exhibition stranded in the US – Golden Mummies, it is our first ever international touring exhibition and it will probably be our last. As a business model and for environmental reasons that isn’t how we should move forwards.

Across the sector, we may sadly get to a point where we lose museums and we lose collections. Where are they going to go? How do we dispose of those collections? How do we avoid collections going oversees? The story of Manchester Museum’s collections is that many have come from other regional collections. But the infrastructure, expertise, storage – none of that will be there unless we sustain investment. Sector-wide we may take 20 years to recover.

So how do we use this moment to reset and really understand our priorities moving forwards; inclusion, ecological thinking and action. I dislike the phrase ‘build back better’ but there is some truth in it. We are an amazing sector, the level of support and collaboration at the moment is about us wanting to find a way to survive, but also to really be more than we were, we need to ask the right questions of ourselves.

7 –What does the future of museums look like?

As a sector what do we choose to take forward, what really matters? – my background is in museum education, I have been watching what has been happening in the States (USA) and it has broken my heart. You have 30 years plus work of embedding education programmes, and those jobs were the first to go, the heart has been ripped out of institutions. We must not follow that path. We are going to have to get creative. The challenge is we can’t get usefully creative unless we really understand the need and I am not sure we do, I am not sure anyone does yet.

Covid19 has just highlighted so many inequalities, as a sector we have to address them. That does mean we are going to look different on the other side of this, it might be that that difference isn’t apparent immediately, but we have to learn from this. It feels all too precarious at the moment. In a way, part of my job is to slow things down. I feel I need to do it for myself as well as for the organisation. I don’t think we yet know the best way forward. One of the best things Manchester Museum is doing at this precise moment is working with colleagues in public health and across the sector to gather together 22,000 creative care packs to be distributed to older people in their homes, we are getting them printed and distributing them.

Overall, I am fundamentally optimistic, there has been a huge growth in creative activity during lockdown, not for everyone, but for many, and there has been a sense of people really valuing culture. I believe we will be needed more than ever but we have to be open to change and have the right conversations at the right time. It is about not using the moment for our own ends but for societal good instead.

This interview was collected on 8th June 2020.

You can read more Lockdown Interviews here


You can find out more about Manchester Museum here –

You can find out more about the ‘hello future’ capital project here –

You can find out more about ‘Manchester Museum in Quarantine’ microsite here –


MOMA and New Museum among many institutions cutting jobs to curb deficits, Art Forum, 3 April 2020 [accessed 13th July 2020]

One comment

  1. […] As Manchester Museum gets ready to reopen to the public on 16 September, it seems like the right time to reflect on how the various teams across the museum have had to respond to the unexpected closure of the Museum back in March, and how they are adjusting to a ‘new normal’. To kick start this series, the first blog comes from Esme Ward, Director of Manchester Museum, drawing from an interview back in June for Tincture of Museum as part of their Lockdown Interviews blog series. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s