The Manchester Art Museum Online
Lead researcher: Professor Helen Rees Leahy, University of Manchester.
Collaborating institutions: 42nd Street, Manchester; Manchester Art Gallery.
The project aim is to create an online exhibition of the Manchester Art Museum, which was located in Ancoats Hall, Manchester, from 1886-1953.
Today the Manchester Art Museum is recognized as a highly innovative museological project, dedicated to promoting a love of art among the inhabitants of Ancoats, notorious as one of the poorest areas of the city. The Museum’s founder, Thomas Horsfall, was convinced not only of the social and individual benefits of access to art, but of its ‘necessity’ for personal and social development, particularly in an industrial city where many people had little contact with nature or daily experience of visual beauty. The Museum was a practical manifestation of the artistic philosophies of John Ruskin and William Morris, both of whom Horsfall greatly admired.
Following Ruskin’s lead, Horsfall primarily selected works of art for their illustrative and didactic content, as well as for their capacity for personal and spiritual enrichment. Subject matter and accessibility were more important than attribution and authenticity: both Ruskin and Horsfall believed that copies and prints were just as efficacious for their educational potential as original works of art.
In 1918, the management of the Manchester Art Museum was taken over by the city council and in 1953, when it finally closed, the collection was incorporated into the holdings of the (then) Manchester City Art Gallery. For many years, the history and collection of the Manchester Art Museum were largely neglected. However, recent scholarship on museum history, combined with the recognition of the ‘relevance’ of the connection made by Horsfall between art and wellbeing, has revived interest in his experimental museum.
The Manchester Art Museum survives through its archival traces and extant collections, comprising: works of art, photographs, oral reminiscence, administrative records, plans and descriptions, letters and diaries. This material is mainly dispersed across collections in Manchester and beyond. Rees Leahy is working with each of these institutions to collate and digitize selected materials from their respective holdings, including images of artworks, spaces and displays, with the aim of curating and interpreting these fragmentary objects in an online museum space.
The Manchester Art Museum Online will also provide an educational and creative resource for users of a new project space, The Horsfall, currently being developed by 42nd Street, a mental health charity for young people based in Ancoats.
In 2014, Rees Leahy and Belle Vue Productions made a film at Manchester Art Gallery about the legacies of Thomas Horsfall and the Manchester Art Museum in contemporary gallery practice.