Expanding imagination: Purcell’s Manchester Museum refurb
Following a £15m refurbishment & extension, led by Purcell architects, Manchester Museum has reopened to the public. With new displays and accessibility seeking to encourage diverse communities & conversations, Laura Yuile visited for recessed.space to see the new architecture & collections within.

Manchester Museum has an ambition to become “the UK’s most imaginative, inclusive, and caring museum.” This was the goal driving its recent £15 million transformation that has provided a two-storey extension and the reorganisation of many existing spaces and walkways. Purcell was commissioned as architect and has worked thoughtfully to enhance the museum’s accessibility and visibility. Their extension has created a permanent South Asian gallery alongside a Special Exhibition Gallery for travelling exhibitions.

A striking new entrance to Oxford Road has been designed using green terracotta tiles – a nod towards Manchester’s Victorian and Edwardian architectural heritage. Through the extension, the museum has doubled its capacity, while a long overdue entrance ramp and accessible visitor facilities have been addressed and now acts as a statement for other cultural institutions to follow.


Throughout the museum, carefully considered illuminated signage, lighting, and materials have been selected to facilitate the museum’s ambitions of becoming more age-, disability-, and dementia-friendly. Displays of taxidermy and artefacts from the natural world are topped with neon signs proclaiming words such as “Disasters” and “Climate.” Atop an empty vitrine sits a sign that reads “Life” – presented as a work-in-progress, viewers are invited to consider what stories they would like to tell about life. How might this space tell a story of the future world we want to see? We are invited not just to observe, but to question.

One of the most exciting new additions is the South Asia Gallery, part of the museum’s wider strategy to attract diverse communities. It sits alongside the new Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery and Belonging Gallery to provide a platform for exploring ideas of cultural exchange and celebrating the cultural diversity of Manchester and surrounding areas. The South Asia Gallery is a partnership with the British Museum, its interior design team comprising Studio C102 and Mobile Studio Architects, working with Manijeh Verghese, Head of Public Programmes at the Architectural Association.

At the entrance to the gallery is The Rangoonwala Terrace – a shaded terrace visible through floor-to-ceiling windows that creates space for a South Asian Garden complete with primroses, geraniums, and pheasant berries from the Himalayan mountains. These plants – which grow in mountainous regions of South Asia but are also common across British gardens – serve as a reminder of the everyday beauty shared across geographical borders. The walkway provides a space to sit, reflect, and observe a mural by The Singh Twins adorning a wall facing the garden.

The Singh Twins’ colourful mural reflects upon the gallery’s displays and weaves together three periods of South Asian history: pre-colonial India, the exploitation of the South Asian region under British imperial rule, and the contribution of the post-colonial Asian diaspora to British life and culture. A highly ornate and detailed mural, it draws the viewer in to explore its intricacies – a complex mesh of imagery and symbols that draw upon both Eastern and Western artistic traditions. Fittingly titled Riches to Rag, Rags to Riches, it tells the complicated story of how we gain, lose, and regain knowledge, materials, and traditions over time. It is an appropriate introduction to the gallery, setting the tone for a journey that is contemplative and critical, yet brimming with celebratory energy.


Inside the gallery, inspiration has been taken from the forms and materials of South Asian design. The result is subtle, elegant, and successfully manages to avoid falling into the trap of the cliché or stereotype. Hand-painted brass panels adorn the exterior walls of the gallery and have been left unsealed in order that they evolve over time as they age. This live surface frames the gallery’s objects as part of an ever-changing ecosystem of historical relations, and personal and collective narratives. Deep ochre walls and colourful jewel-toned silk backdrops frame stories in myriad forms: objects, text, sound, and video, exploring the lived experience of the South Asian diaspora. Gentle lighting and insightful labels create a calm and considerate visitor experience that encourages lingering.

Most importantly, the displays here have been curated through a collaborative process with the South Asia Gallery Collective, made up of thirty local experts brought together to ensure multiple voices and perspectives were respected and shared. Experts here means not professional curators, but rather a group that includes educators, historians, artists, musicians, journalists, and community leaders. This collaborative model of curating has led to a fresh and dynamic display that is rich with inspiration and emotion. More than this, it serves as a blueprint for how museums could – and perhaps should – be curated.


Manijeh Verghese was tasked with considering how the collective’s stories would be shared to inform the visitor’s experience, whilst Sthuthi Ramesh worked on the 2D design. The result is a celebration and exploration of the contributions of the South Asian diaspora that sees pots and bangles from 2500BC coexist alongside Nepalese commercial leaf plates made in 2022. The leaf plates, made from the leaves of the Sal tree, are a completely biodegradable alternative to single-use plastic. Another DIY innovation accompanies these plates: paper bags made in Delhi, India, out of unsold newspapers supplied by newspaper companies, to provide a cheap and sustainable way to carry items. The curation and signage shape a non-hierarchical journey through time and place that raises as many questions as it provides answers.

Histories of trauma are tackled head-on, and the ongoing impact of the British Empire on the region is not shied away from. One text on the wall acknowledges that many of the objects from the British Museum’s collection have arrived there due to the violence of the British Empire and communicates the decision to omit objects that were “violently plundered or taken as part of treaties forced on conquered rulers.” Visitors are then prompted to consider how histories of collecting have informed the way that South Asia is represented in museums. Through such signage, the gallery declares its mission to rethink the very way that histories are presented, and communities represented, in British museums.

Alongside historical artefacts, many of the objects on show are the personal belongings of the Collective, and they serve to generate a future-forward view that celebrates innovation and encourages us to consider design and imagination as tools for political and social change. Through its design and collaborative curation, the gallery presents a multitude of perspectives and voices in a manner that does not seem forced or false. The current display is intended to have a lifespan of fifteen years. Following this, the plan is to rotate the displays and reconsider sections in collaboration with the Collective, to elevate new stories and voices. At the centre of the gallery is a project space that will be an adaptable platform for conversation, collaboration, and reflection, through the programming of events. This balance of permanence and flexibility feels vital to the aims of the museum.


Altogether, the transformation of Manchester Museum has served to address a lack of accessibility, provide additional space for new stories to be told, and inject life into its existing displays. It is a timely and necessary re-modelling that other museums have a lot to learn from. Architecturally, Purcell has contributed dynamic and contemporary designs that work together with the fabric of the existing neo-Gothic building. A visit feels smooth and seamless in the right places - the design does not overshadow what is on display, rather it provides a functional backdrop for a rich and reflective experience.

Whilst only time will tell whether the museum has achieved its ambitions in accessibility and diversity, it has succeeded in giving voice to stories that have been too long neglected or misheard. The South Asia Gallery is a long overdue resource and celebration. Its importance is echoed loudly by the recent and ongoing wave of migration from Hong Kong to the UK that has resulted from Hong Kong’s current socio-political climate: a story that will hopefully be told in the gallery in years to come.

Laura Yuile is an artist, writer, and educator from Glasgow and is currently based in Manchester. Her multidisciplinary practice explores the entanglements between domestic and urban space through issues of community, sustainability, obsolescence, and the effects of globalisation and technological development. She recently completed a PhD at Northumbria University titled Ungating Community: Opening the enclosures of financialised housing. Recent exhibitions include the Chengdu Museum of Contemporary Art (for Chengdu Biennale 2021-22); Out_Sight (Seoul); Kunstraum Kreuzberg (for Transmediale 2021, Berlin); Science Gallery (London); nGbK (Berlin); and TACO! (London). Alongside gallery-based exhibitions and events, she organises projects that filter into everyday, commercial spaces. These have included Comfort Zones- a series of symposia on the subject of comfort zones held in the showrooms of various IKEA stores through the UK and China (2013-14), and ASSET ARREST- an ongoing project and podcast series that addresses issues of real estate and its impact upon communities; ways of living and urban space. Each episode of the podcast revolves around viewing a different residential property with a different invited guest each time.


Manchester Museum has now reopened to the public. Find out more about exhibitions, displays, and opening hours at:


fig.i Manchester Museum on Oxford Road before transformation. Photograph courtesy of Manchester Museum.
fig.ii New Courtyard Extension from Coupland Street. Photograph courtesy of Manchester Museum.
fig.iii The new South Asia Gallery. Photograph courtesy of Manchester Museum.
fig.iv The Singh Twins Mural. Photograph courtesy of Manchester Museum.
fig.v South Asia Gallery Collective, photo © Maryam Wahid.
fig.vi South Asia Gallery. Photograph © Gareth Gardner.
fig.vii The new Exhibition Hall. Photograph courtesy of Manchester Museum.
fig.viii The Living Worlds Gallery. Photograph courtesy of Manchester Museum.

publication date
18 April 2023

Accessibility, British Empire, China, Community, Display, Gallery, Heritage, Manchester Museum, Museum, Mobile Studio ArchitectsPurcell, Sthuthi Ramesh, The Singh Twins, South Asia, Studio C102Tiles, Manijeh Verghese, Laura Yuile