South Asia Gallery

Manchester Museum (in partnership with the British Museum)

The South Asia Gallery at Manchester Museum, a British Museum partnership gallery, is the first permanent gallery in the UK to celebrate the lived experiences and contributions of the South Asian diaspora. The South Asia Gallery is part of Manchester Museum’s £15m redevelopment that opened to the public on 18 February 2023.

Studio C102 and Mobile Studio Architects won the commission to design the gallery in 2020. Manijeh Verghese was then appointed to lead on the interpretation in terms of how the stories of the collective would be told to shape the visitor’s experience of this gallery, with Sthuthi Ramesh developing the 2D design for how this will be experienced. The design team was completed by ADi Audiovisual, who designed the AV overlays and the immersive project space infrastructure and Arup who provided the lighting design.

This new 372-sqm space has been co-curated by the South Asia Gallery Collective, a group of thirty inspiring local experts – including community leaders, educators, artists, historians, journalists and musicians. Showcasing over 140 historic artefacts from the collections of the Manchester Museum, British Museum and their partner institutions, alongside new contemporary commissions and personal belongings loaned by the Collective, the gallery presents a range of personal stories that explore what it means to be South Asian. The gallery’s story-led design reflects multiple voices and perspectives on South Asia through six anthologies: Past & Present, Lived Environments, Science & Innovation, Sound Music & Dance, British Asian, and Movement & Empire.

Entrance (L-R): Window seat, co-curation film and introduction to the gallery, and the 17m long ’emotional map’ by The Singh Twins

The gallery orbits a central project space as a room for conversation, collaboration and reflection. It will host events programmed in collaboration with both local and international artists and become a place for people to come together and share their ideas and personal histories.

The gallery orbits a central Project Space, which will host events programmed in collaboration with both local and international artists

The gallery is designed to have a lifespan of fifteen years, during which time there will be a regular rotation of some of the most sensitive objects in the collection as well as redisplays of entire sections in collaboration with the South Asia Gallery Collective co-curators to update the contents and tell new stories. The design team have responded to this challenge by designing the custom display cases and the gallery signage system in a modular way that will allow for the required degree of adaptability in the years to come.

The palette of materials takes its inspiration from South Asian design, while being careful to avoid clichés and disrupt South Asian stereotypes. A new datum is created through the addition of hand-patinated brass panels that run the course of the exterior wall of the gallery and provide the requisite robustness while referencing a typical South Asian material present in many everyday and religious objects. These are left unsealed and will be a ‘live’ surface that continues to age over time. Above this is a rail from which the modular interpretation labels and panels will be reconfigured together with the displays that will change as the Collective grows and their stories evolve. The walls are painted a deep ochre, providing a distinctive yet muted backdrop to the cases lined in vibrant jewel-toned silks that showcase the objects and bring these South Asian stories to life.

The gallery’s graphic identity also references everyday South Asian design through a bespoke typeface that takes cues from signage and typography commonly found in the public realm across South Asian cities. Inspired by a modular typeface developed in the 1930’s by the Gujarati Type Foundry, it was developed for the gallery in collaboration with Bangalore and Reykjavik-based type foundry Universal Thirst.

Levels of interpretation (top L-R clockwise) – story panel, quote, and object labels

Working closely with the South Asia Gallery Collective, their plural understandings of South Asia are thematically organised into six Anthologies and described through large, colourful panels. Their stories are displayed on textured khadi paper alongside thoughtful object labels and inspiring quotes that foreground their voices throughout the space.

Throughout the process of creating the South Asia Gallery, the project has existed at the intersection of design and engagement. The design team have been open, accessible and inclusive in their approach, working closely with several stakeholder groups, including Manchester Museum, the British Museum, and the South Asia Gallery Collective to help design not just a gallery but a new form of co-curation where the plurality and diversity of what it means to be South Asian can be celebrated.

… co-curation on an epic scale…

Esme Ward, Director of Manchester Museum

Background (L-R): Anthology panel, screen, and display case. Foreground: Artist commissioned rickshaw which was designed through community engagement

Sound, Music and Dance anthology section with interactive displays

Reconfigurable modular story panels and object labels

Object label printed on textured khadi paper

Art Fund Museum of the Year 2024 – Shortlisted
Museum + Heritage Awards 2024 (Permanent Exhibition of the Year category) – Winner
Manchester Culture Awards 2023 by Manchester City Council (Best Exhibition category) – Winner
Association for Heritage Interpretation (AHI) 2023 (Community Engagement category) – Shortlisted

University of Manchester

Lead Designers
Studio C102 and Mobile Studio Architects

Interpretation Consultant
Manijeh Verghese

Graphic Designer
Sthuthi Ramesh

Universal Thirst

Sayeed Islam

ADi Audiovisual

Lighting Designer

Project Manager, Cost Consultant and CDM Advisor
Leslie Clark

Gareth Gardner

The Architects’ Journal, Financial Times, STIRworld, The Guardian, BBC, Design Week, DesignCurial, Vogue India, FX Magazine, CN Traveller, Recessed SpacePlatform Magazine, Heritage Fund UK, Architectural Digest, Reasons to be Cheerful, Country & Townhouse, Asia News, Speaker Newspaper, The Hindu, Asian Image, Lancashire Telegraph, New Indian Express, Meer, The Featurist, Apollo, Aaj News, The Times of India, Dhaka Tribunee-architect, Live ManchesterMuseum+Heritage Advisor, The Architecture InsightThe Bartlett, UCL, University of Manchester

Plan view of the South Asia Gallery, Manchester Museum

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