Curating Culture: A Student’s Perspective

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‘Curating Culture’ is a module available to undergraduates at the University of Manchester via the University College of Interdisciplinary Learning (UCIL).  It is taught by the University of Manchester Library’s Special Collections in conjunction with the Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester Museum.  Besides offering an insight into the type of work done by curators, archivists, librarians, conservators and other professionals, it enhances student employability by teaching transferable skills. One of our students, Rebecca Selby, writes:

Before studying on the Curating Culture programme, I was a self-conscious mature student trying my best to blend into the background. I wanted to share with you how the course helped me to break free of my own anxieties and begin to embrace what I had to offer.

For the first assessment on the course, we were tasked with curating an exhibition case that told the story of an individual through 4 objects.  Mine was called: ‘Juggling, balancing acts and other associated circus skills required for modern day multi-tasking!’. The four objects in my display case were: ‘A book of coincidence’,Feed, Pump, Work, Repeat’, ‘The education enabler, the future facilitator, the humble laptop’ and ‘The metaphorical spoon’. The objects were chosen to represent the roles that I fulfil in my life. As wife: a book about my wedding venue; as a mother: breast pump; as a student: a laptop; and a metaphorical spoon which is symbolic of my life as a ‘spoonie’ or a sufferer of chronic illness.

We wrote introductory panels for our exhibitions as well as labels for the individual objects. Condensing your thoughts into such a small word limit is more difficult than you may think!

My exhibition case:

Exhibition caption

Panel 1

Panel 2

Although the exhibition project was only a theoretical one, it still provided me with the opportunity to explore themes and surprising connections between objects. I enjoyed experimenting with ideas and the accompanying reflective essay gave me the opportunity to analyse my thought process – something I had not done previously. The Curating Culture unit provides a fabulous opportunity which should not be passed up! Studying at university is about more than merely attending lectures and taking notes. Curating Culture offers a fully immersive experience including presentations from experts, opportunities to explore some of the most beautiful buildings in the city and to get a real insight into the career opportunities in the arts and heritage sector.

Most of the sessions take place at the John Rylands Library which is an impressive building.  What better classroom could you possibly ask for? The opportunity to spend any amount of time in the building was enough for me –  with the behind the scenes tours and learning from members of the curatorial team the icing on the cake – just brilliant. We also got to explore a range of materials from special collections. One of my favourite groups of objects was a selection of books relating to the history of midwifery, ranging from an Elizabethan text, if I recall correctly, through to a text from the nineteenth century which was written by a ‘man-midwife’. These books document the medicalisation of childbirth through history, which is an area of personal interest to me and something which I hope to explore further in the future. The stories told through the objects of the collections at the John Rylands library are mind-blowing, and the passion and enthusiasm demonstrated by the curators, archivists and conservators are genuinely inspiring.

Another memorable sessions was an introduction to handling the books where we were told about things that never would have occurred to me before.  How we should be looking after and handling our books, how we should (and should not!) remove books from a shelf.  We were even fortunate enough to visit the conservation studio to learn about restoration techniques.

The course pushes you out of your comfort zone with assessments involving blog posts and curatorial projects. It is an entirely different experience to the more conventional units that I have taken at university, and all the better for it! As a student on the Biology with Science and Society programme, I take both science and history units.  Curating Culture complemented both aspects, and I believe that students on either of these pathways can benefit from the course.  The course is delivered within a genuinely supportive environment. Donna  Sherman and Janette Martin are the course leaders, and both are equally passionate about their area of expertise and sharing it with the students and the public.

For more information on the Curating Culture course, watch this YouTube video: https://youtu.be/I90FpNFrx_s.

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