How do we make sense of war? A Museum-Whitworth Study Day

On Monday 24th November Manchester Museum hosted our first MuseumWhitworth collaborative study day – ‘Conflict: Making Sense of War‘. The aim of the day was to encourage students to discuss conflict in both the past and present, provide students with an understanding of conflict and stimulate a personal reaction to situations related to collections and artists responses.

The study day was prefaced by a short talk by our Curator of Living Cultures, Stephen Welsh, on the origins of our anthropological collection and some of the links these have to conflict. You can watch that video here.

IMG_0891On the day itself we were lucky to have a selection of students from three different colleges, studying Art, Fashion, History or Politics. After an introductory lecture by Professor Peter Gatrell, from University of Manchester’s School of Arts, Languages and Cultures students were encouraged to interact in various activities designed to get them thinking about how we respond to conflict – looking at art work, museum displays and text – and discuss their own reactions to various scenarios that represented conflict.

The talk by Peter Gatrell was well received, with students asking intelligent and thought-provoking questions. You can watch the entire talk, followed by the Q&A section below, or directly here. It provided students with a glimpse into how artists can interpret the facets of war and the discussions these pieces can produce – inclusive of the building of war memorials and the message they convey.

The afternoon session was shared by an external partner – In Place of War; an initiative that supports artists and creative communities living in sites of war, revolution and conflict to express themselves. Inés Soria-Donlan, Digital Manager for In Place of War, presented the idea of cultural activism through the arts as a way of responding to conflict. It was our colleagues from In Place of War that introduced us to our creative artist that led the final activity – Jun Tzu.

Jun Tzu – aka Jonathan Hamilton – is a Belfast born poet who has lived in Manchester since he was a teenager and writes material that deals directly with his experiences, many of which are linked with the history of conflict in Northern Ireland. He often uses his poetry to create rap and hip-hop songs, and recently brought out his debut album in 2014.

During the study day he was able to share his – and his family’s – experiences with the students and they engaged readily with his knowledge and position, benefiting from the direct and open approach Jun has. As an activity Jun asked each of the students to write a poem, supporting them with an approach he often uses as a starting point for his work. The students then performed these, demonstrating the mature and often complex responses to conflict that the day had stimulated. A few of which are shared below.

At the end of the day some of the comments we received about the day were really positive, see below.

[It was]…”Extremely beneficial – I learnt different views on certain aspects of conflict”

“Helpful – as [my view] was changed by listening to other people’s”

“Deeper discussions and questions – felt like we were only ever scratching the surface”

Students believed their analytical, critical thinking and writing skills all developed during the day and it prompted a number of questions that the students took away with them to continue discussions on the topic of conflict.

Does war create more beautiful art than peace?
Why is art so persistent in remaining through war?
Which information do we need to have to know what is really happening during a [conflict] event?
Can conflict ever be justified?
Is war really worth it?
Is propaganda the result of war?

All in all, it was a very successful day that we believe achieved all the aims we set out and encouraged those involved to express – and develop – their views about conflict given the significance of the centenary of World War War I this year. As a result, we hope to host another similar day in the Summer Term 2015.

If you would like to be informed of this date once it is set, please email to be put on our Post-16 mailing list.

RCUK-funded opportunities for researchers at the University’s cultural institutions


‘Research speed-dating’

We are excited to announce that we’ve just recruited a new cohort of PhD demonstrators to deliver education sessions for secondary and post-16 students.

The recruitment and training programme for our new demonstrators is a flagship project within the University’s larger Research Councils UK (RCUK)-funded School-University Partnership Initiative (SUPI). This scheme aims to help University researchers to directly engage and inspire young people. Our flagship project couples researchers from across the University with the collections at our cultural institutions and libraries to bring current research to life in a powerful and unique manner.

Therefore, this time it’s not just the Museum’s science programme which will benefit, as we have taken this very successful way of working with PhD researchers and are embedding it at Whitworth Art Gallery, John Rylands Library and within Manchester Museum’s humanities programme. This means there will be some exciting new sessions to look out for in the spring term!


Mystery object task

Each PhD demonstrator has been chosen specifically to use their current research knowledge and skills to enhance education sessions; meaning that school and college pupils will benefit from having their very own expert in the room.

To prepare the researchers for this new challenge we invited them to take part in a day long training programme. This included an introduction to cultural learning with a mystery object activity using specimens from the Museum’s collection. After lunch the demonstrators had a chance to explore the Museum’s galleries to identify ways of facilitating groups in unique out-of-the-classroom spaces.


Rewording research summaries

We ended the day by doing a spot of ‘research speed-dating’ to give the researchers practice of communicating their complex current research. They had 90 seconds to explain their research to a partner using clear understandable language. After a little feedback, they moved on to a second ‘date’ with only 60 seconds to spare this time. Before perfecting their explanations in a lightning-fast 30 seconds final ‘date’.

Armed with a refined idea of how to explain their research the researchers revisited and reworded their own short tweet-style summaries of their specific area of research. Throughout the day these 140-character ‘research tweets’ were displayed as a physical twitter wall.


Research summaries twitter wall

With new sessions in the pipeline we hope that you and your students have the chance to meet our new demonstrators very soon!

Below are our demonstrator’s tweet-style research summaries:



Sam – Life for ordinary #Romans growing old.  What did they do?  How did they cope?  Also, with 2000 yrs between then and now, #howdoweknow?

Twitter_logo_blueKarlina – I am interested in the effect of climate change on fish physiology so I study the effect of temperature and oxygen on fish swimming

Twitter_logo_blueNaomi – My #research: What did artist #WilliamBlake say about #JesusChrist in his artworks; what influenced Blake & how new & unique were his ideas?

Twitter_logo_blueKonstantina – I’m looking at archaeological skeletons and analysing their DNA to discover if they are related

 Twitter_logo_blueEmma – Were changes in climate, sea level or temperature responsible for fossil jawless vertebrate evolution and demise? Or are fossilization filters warping what we see?

Twitter_logo_blueStephen – Farewell Fossil Fuels! Processes that limit biofuel production are now understood. We are closer to making biofuels from plants feasible.

Twitter_logo_blueEvgeny – Did you know that teeth can help to improve your vision? Now you know. #stemcells from teeth may be used to enhance regeneration of injured eye.

Twitter_logo_blueMary – How have words meaning ‘mad’ changed over time? Can linguistic metaphor demonstrate whether cognitive concepts for madness remain stable?

CTwitter_logo_blueelina – By observing structural colour in nature, my research aims to produce colour in textiles without using colourants

Twitter_logo_blueCatherine – Could mixing and matching of modern-day viruses unlock secrets of the distant past?

Twitter_logo_blueJennifer – To save and show old sunken wood in water… in a museum

Exciting opportunity for University of Manchester PhD students at our cultural venues

Manchester Museum, Whitworth Art Gallery and John Rylands Library are looking to recruit first or second year PhD students to deliver educational sessions for their respective secondary and post-16 programmes. The aim is to utilise PhD student’s expert knowledge to enrich the student experience for our formal school and college visitors.

This will be a paid position for the delivery of education sessions (which includes set-up and clear-away time where applicable). Delivery of sessions will be on a casual basis depending on demand. Demonstrators will receive full training in communication, facilitation and session specific skills before being requested to deliver any sessions. Further details of roles, responsibilities and payment will be given on enquiry.

Interested applicants at all venues should:

  • Be able to speak enthusiastically about their subject
  • Be able to communicate complex concepts in an approachable and engaging manner
  • Be interested in inspiring pupils to explore further study
  • Have excellent communication skills, preferably with experience of presenting to secondary or college students
  • Be organised, self-motivated, reliable and keen to work with groups of up to 30 secondary or A-level students
  • Be flexible and able to commit to dates up to one month in advance
  • Have some teaching experience (not essential)

Interested applicants for the Manchester Museum Science Programme should:

  • Be studying a Science subject at PhD level
  • Have a strong subject and practical knowledge in either genetics, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, biodiversity, climate change, geology, earth sciences, photon physics or a similar subject area (only one needed)
  • Have a passion for museum collections or be excited to work with them

Interested applicants for the Whitworth Art Gallery Programme should:

  • Be studying a Science subject at PhD level (ideally zoology or similar)
  • Have an interest and knowledge of animal anatomy and behaviour
  • Be excited to work with an art demonstrator in an art gallery/museum setting


  • Be studying an Art subject at PhD level
  • Have experience in leading observational drawing
  • Be excited to work with a science demonstrator in an art gallery/museum setting

Interested applicants for the Manchester Museum Humanities Programme should:

  • Be studying Classics and Ancient History at PhD level
  • Have an interest and knowledge of Ancient Civilisations, particularly Greek and/or Roman
  • Have a passion for museum collections or be excited to work with them

Interested applicants for the John Rylands Library Programme should:

  • Be studying an English subject at PhD level (ideally English Language)
  • Ideally have an interest and knowledge of English language change from manuscripts, through printing and ‘modern’ changes, (opportunities to develop this further)
  • Have a passion for library collections, be already using the John Rylands collection for research (not essential) or be excited to work with them

Please apply by CV and cover letter (stating which venue’s programme you wish to be considered for and why), and send to Emily Robinson ( by Tuesday 26th November 2013. If you are unsure whether you are eligible for one of the above roles please contact Emily Robinson by phone on 0161 306 1764.

Park life…


Can you dig it?

Who’d have thought it? Whitworth Park, the park situated down the road next to the Whitworth Art Gallery, turns out to be a fascinating relic from a bygone era! I am ashamed to say that I have only really glanced at the park in passing. That is, however, until last week.

If you happened to visit the park between 1st and 12th July, you may have noticed that there was something afoot! Amongst the resident sun-bathers, joggers and dog walkers, you may have spotted quite a few cheerful-looking individuals wearing high-vis jackets, wondering around the park with tools, sitting under trees (apparently doing some washing up?), or digging holes in the ground: these are The Archaeologists!

Mel Giles and Ruth Colton on site

As part of the Whitworth Park Community Archaeology and History project (for a reminder of our previous involvement, check out this post about the 2011 season), a team  of archaeologists from the University of Manchester have been carrying out a study of Whitworth Park. On the 8th and 9th July, I had the pleasure of spending a (sweltering) day in the park when two local schools came to visit the site, and in what follows, I will endeavor to pass on some of what I learned.

You may ask what a group of archaeologists was doing digging around in the park when there are surely much more exciting, exotic places to be working. Well, not only has the unusually summery weather given things a rather tropical feel, but it also turns out that beneath the surface, the park holds many clues about its own history, both physical – the various structures and features of the park – and social – the individuals and groups who visited the park.

While the park’s boundaries and acreage (18 acres!) have remained largely unchanged since it opened in 1890, the structure and features of the space have. So if, like me, you have little knowledge about the park’s history, you may be surprised to learn that it had its own lake! In 1927, the lake was turned into a children’s paddling pool, which was itself subsequently filled in and levelled. If you visit the park today, you will find absolutely no evidence to suggest that there was ever a lake in the park. So how do we know that it was really there?

Postcards and maps provide useful clues about the park’s history, revealing that not only was there a lake in the park (with a gigantic fountain!), but there was also an observatory and a bandstand, amongst other things. Although we can learn a certain amount about the park’s history from such evidence, it is only by examining what was ‘ground level’ over 100 years ago, that such features and the intricacies of park life can actually be studied directly.

How to bail out a lake!

How to bail out a lake!

Enter the archaeologists!

Here we see ‘archaeology in action’ as a member of the team watches the site manager, Nick Overton, bail out what used to be part of the lake!

However, a close-up of this image reveals that in the dark silty (and rather smelly) goo that was once the bed of the park’s lake is actually littered with bottles; it would seem that the tradition of hurling empty bottles into lakes (or streams, the sea or any body of water) goes way back.

Bottles in silt

Bottles in silt

Rather than repeat what has already been written, for those of you who want to find out more about how the dig progressed, I recommend the Whitworth Parklife blog posts and storify pages. For a quick summary, Byran’s Ancient Worlds post is also informative. To find out how the day went when year 4 pupils from Medlock Primary school came to visit the site, check out ‘Digging at the Whitworth’ (guest post, written by the Museum’s four work experience students). Likewise, a post about Manchester Academy’s day on site has been written by one of the archaeologists, Ruth, and can be found here.

So what did they find?

Amongst other things, finds from the excavation include discarded bottles, part of a shoe, buttons, broken pipes, bits of pottery, a lead soldier (unfortunately misheard by one of the students as ‘a dead soldier’!), a pencil, a whistle, and part of a dolls eye! For the archaeologists, the items that were discarded as rubbish are just as valuable as those that found their way into the archaeological record by accident since they all provide clues about the park and its users.


Filling in the trenches on Friday

When I visited the site on Friday, the team were packing up all of their kit and filling in the trenches that they had been working on over the previous fortnight (thankfully with the help of a JCB).

If you visit the park now, you will find little evidence to suggest that anything out of the ordinary had been taking place. However, that is not to suggest that the project is over. A short distance down the road, in the (slightly cooler) department laboratories, the archaeologists are still hard at work. By studying the artefacts and the layers of earth in which they were discovered, the archaeologists will be able to shed more light on the park’s history.

Both the finds and the findings from the archaeological excavations in the Whitworth Park will form the basis of an exhibition at the Manchester Museum, opening in May 2014. I will keep you posted with updates as the project progresses, so watch this space but if, in the meantime, you fancy your hand at archaeology or simply want to find out more, you may be interested in the events taking place at the museum as part of the Festival of Archaeology.

Celebrating Manchester’s History

We were very excited to work with our colleagues from Widening Participating, and one of our Partnership institutions, Whitworth Art Gallery, on creating two, one day workshops  for Secondary students concentrating on Manchester’s History.

This followed on from our successful model last year, as part of the Manchester Histories Festival, where various schools brought students to participate in workshops at the Whitworth and the Museum. They were also treated to an introductory lecture on Manchester’s history – this year – by Professor John Pickstone.

Histories objects

Objects used during Collecting the World workshop at Manchester Museum

As part of the Museum’s workshop, called Collecting the World, students were asked to investigate the collection and determine how, and why, it ended up in Manchester. They identified objects of interest on the Manchester Gallery and their links to the city. Then they were allocated objects from the collection not on display and asked to research them using online resources to find their link to Manchester. They were encouraged to consider sources of their information and the relevance any connected individuals had to their home city.

All in all it was really wonderful to be able to focus on Manchester’s history and how the Museum’s collection links to the city and illustrious indviduals  – such as William Boyd Dawkins, Jesse Haworth, Joseph Whitworth and Lydia Becker – not to mention highlight historical Manchester events such as the Exhibition of Art Treasures, the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal and the Peterloo Massacre.

ship canal medal

Manchester Ship Canal Medal

Questioned at the end of the session on which object they felt best represented Manchester’s History, the majority of students chose the Ship Canal Medal due to it’s links with trade and economy that helped make Manchester the hub of industry in the North and contributed to it becoming known as ‘Cottonopolis’!

Many thanks to all those invovled on the day: Stockport School, Parrs Wood HS, Manchester Health Academy, Manchester Enterprise Academy, Alder Community School, Cardinal Langley RC HS, Loreto High School.

We’ll  be repeating these fantastic local history focused days next year during the Manchester Histories Festival celebrations.

Archaeology in the Park

Recently, pupils from Manchester Academy, Aquinas College, Medlock Primary School and Heald Place Primary School were invovled with the archaeological investigations that took place at Whitworth Park as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund supported excavations by the University of Manchester. The project involves partners from the  University of Manchester Department of Archaeology, The Manchester Museum, the Whitworth Art Gallery, Friends of Whitworth Park and the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relation Resource Centre.

 During their time on-site in the Park students were able to learn more about its past features, such as the lake and bandstand,  and were provided with an introduction to archaeological field techniques and recording methods. They were encouraged to part in the process of recording, processing and cataloguing finds, and then use these to explore aspects of past activities and the material culture of Edwardian life.

All students appeared to relish the opportunity to be involved and take part in the actual process of archaeological digging, learning new techniques and gaining hands-on experience in this practical subject. You can see photographs and comments from Manchester Academy’s visit here.

To find out more about the project, visit their blog:

Blogs ‘R’ Us!

Recently, you may have noticed a couple of small changes. In order to make the most of the diverse activities and learning offers across two of the Cultural Assests of the University of Manchester we have split the blog according to venue. 

So, you can stick with us here to find out about everything at The Manchester Museum, and you can follow our colleagues at The Whitworth Art Gallery on their own blog!

Needless to say, we still appreciate all your comments and input and whatever your needs we’d be happy to help!

Happy New Year!

So the festivities are over and after a quiet spell on the Learning Blog we are all back at the Museum and Art Gallery ready to enthuse students and make learning outside the classroom a fun and engaging activity for all.

Image, heads down - planning how to display things in the museum

We will be blogging about our new projects and workshops soon, but in the meantime why not check out the Learning Pages for The Manchester Museum and The Whitworth Art Gallery to see what we have to offer. If you don’t find what you are looking for, get in touch and we will be happy to help if we can!

To explore strange new worlds…

Image, The Whitworth Art Gallery

Our Space project reached a very satisfying end recently when, after creating their alien beings (and adding to their designs back in school), the group of children from Old Hall Drive primary school arrived at the Whitworth Art Gallery (our ‘sister’ university gallery and, coincidentally, my other place of work).

We had a fun-packed day and I was delighted to see how engaged the children were throughout.

We started with a recap, using drama, of how you might move on an alien planet with different gravity or atmosphere or landscape to our own, before creating statues of our alien creatures which then came to life!

The first job we had was to gather clues about what a habitat needs to include – we began by discovering birds and animals hiding within the textiles collection. This led into a discussion of some the key elements we would need in a habitat. We decided on:

  • shelter
  • availability of food and drink
  • feeling safe
  • camouflage potential

The class then explored what it would be like to live and move in imaginary environments within some of the Gallery’s artworks, before taking a trip outside.

Our main idea was to really study the shape of trees in detail (to adapt them to suit our alien environment), but we were very quickly distracted by a very playful pair of squirrels enjoying games in and around the trees near to the Gallery. Getting back to the job in hand, we took the opportunity to investigate how trees feel to the touch and how they’re not just ‘green blobs on a stick’.

The best bit of the morning was yet to come: back inside, we slowly used every member of the class to build up a ‘working model’ of a tree, starting with the heartwood and roots, and then adding on the sapwood, cambium and bark. Each part of the tree ended up lying on the floor in different positions to represent their part in building the tree – and yes, each part of the tree had a phrase or sound connected with their role:

  • heartwood – “tall and strong”
  • roots – great slurping noises as they sucked up water
  • sapwood – ‘whee’ noises as they carried the water up into the tree
  • cambium – “we grow outwards”
  • bark – “we protect”

You can imagine that the gallery was far from quiet as the ‘tree’ came to life – proving how much fun can be had doing science in a gallery. This activity also gave us chance to investigate how harmful it is to a tree to have its barked stripped off, as well as giving us food for thought about how a tree might develop differently in high or low gravity.

(The activity was adapted from this – thanks to Michael Carpenter of the Groundwork Trust / Trafford Ecology Park for bringing this activity to my attention)

Image, The parts of a tree

Image, The parts of a tree

After a well-earned lunch, the children were very imaginative in selecting individual elements from artworks which inspired them to create features for their alien habitat. The final job of the day was to use all the clues and ideas they had gathered to create ideas of what their habitat might look like – on enormous strips of paper. The freedom to spread out over the paper and the engagement and imagination the children had shown throughout the day meant that the resulting masterpieces were a fantastic record at the end of their project – and certainly some great spaces for their alien creatures to live in.

Thank you to Asha Khalique at Cedar Mount High School for approaching us and instigating this project and thank you to the children, staff and parents at Old Hall Drive school for getting so involved. I know both Hannah and I really enjoyed this project – and we’re hoping that elements of the project will find their way into our schools’ programme next year.