Exhibitions with intention
Exhibitions can be powerful media for connecting people with and in debates and contemporary issues. I have always tried to make exhibitions meaningful in that what is important is not necessarily what people do in museums, but what they do as a result of having been to museums.
My approach to exhibitions has three main strands. Firstly, that exhibitions should not be restricted to being 3D books where people read labels about accompanying objects. Secondly, that exhibitions should unpackage concepts and contexts to provide rich understanding of the topics. Thirdly, many of the exhibitions I have worked on have dealt with complex topics; my approach has been to provide or structure exhibitions around relevant models and concepts that help people make sense of those topics in their own lives and experience, providing a critical framework to interrogate the information they are presented with.
‘Heritage Futures’, Manchester Museum, 2018–21
This exhibition drew on a major interdisciplinary research project, led by Prof. Rodney Harrison (UCL). The exhibition explored how we can design, resource and build the future with heritage, both in museums and our everyday lives, through an interrogation of the Museum’s collection.
The exhibition is featured as a case study on AHRC website
Content and project management lead, working with an international team of researchers
Designer: Hartland Design
‘Climate Control’, Manchester Museum, 2016–17
Climate Control was Manchester Museum’s contribution to Manchester’s time as European City of Science. The exhibition and accompanying programme were developed in partnership with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and Manchester Climate Change Agency, and coincided with the development of Manchester’s climate change strategy. The exhibition focussed on interactivity and creativity to explore climate change and personalised climate change action.
This exhibition was presented at the United Nations Action for Climate Empowerment Dialogue (2017) as an example of a city and museum working together to promote civic action around climate change.
Winner of a Leading Culture Destinations Award, the Climate Smart Award.
Content and project management lead, developing a wide range of partnerships
Designer: MET Studio
Maude the Tigon, Manchester Museum, 2015–present
(not accessible due to gallery redevelopment)
Maude the Tigon was the most famous animal at Bellevue Zoo (Manchester) in the late 1930s and 1940s. After she died, in 1949, her skin was given to Manchester Museum to be mounted by a taxidermist. For whatever reason, that never happened. I commissioned a leading taxidermist, Phil Leggett, to prepare a mount of Maude, with the 65-year-old skin and working from archive photographs. Maude was presented in 2015 as ‘the most fabulous cat Manchester has ever seen’ and widely reported in the mass media. Maude immediately became a source of public fascination. She was included in ‘A history of Lancashire in 70 objects’ in 2017 through a public vote, after the skin had been carefully stored away for many decades.
‘From the War of Nature’, Manchester Museum, 2014
From the War of Nature was Manchester Museum’s contribution to the national programme commemorating the centenary of the First World War. This project challenged the notion of a ‘war in nature’ and a ‘struggle for survival’, drawing on ideas from 19th century and contemporary philosophers and biologists, to demonstrate that warfare is not a ‘natural’ state.
Content and project management lead
Designer: Redman Design
‘Nature’s Library’, Manchester Museum, 2013–present
Developed to complement Living Worlds, this gallery capitalised on the Museum’s gothic revival architecture to create a mysterious ‘library of nature’, and explored both the scope and importance of stored natural history collections in museums, and their present use to answer a wide range of scientific and environmental research questions.
Content and development co-lead
Designer: Nissen Richards Studio
‘Alan Turing and Life’s Enigma’, Manchester Museum, 2012
This exhibition connected Turing’s work on morphogenesis undertaken next door to the Museum with his trial and ‘treatment’ for homosexuality with hormone tablets. The exhibition included some of Turing’s personal papers relating to his work on the early computers, and natural history specimens to explore morphogenesis.
Content and development co-lead
Designer: Hartland Design
‘Living Worlds’, Manchester Museum, 2011–present
Living Worlds was a major redevelopment of the previous Mammal Gallery to explore the relationships between people and nature. The concept drew on academic work on attitudes to nature by the late Stephen Kellert of Yale University, the 5 Ways to Wellbeing, and environmental messages that promote a connection to nature and public action. The gallery was accompanied by a bespoke app for smartphones and ipads. This gallery was designed by villa eugénie, a Brussels-based events design firm as their first museum gallery project. Since 2015, the gallery has been the location of Manchester’s civic commemoration of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombing, in collaboration with the Mayors for Peace network.
Content and development lead (vision, intellectual concepts, arrangement, collections, visitor experience, digital elements), working with Jeff Horsley and Pete Brown
Designer: villa eugénie
Darwin Festival, Manchester Museum, 2009–10
The Darwin Festival was a series of exhibitions developed to commemorate the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth, developed in partnership with academics. ‘Charles Darwin: origins of a scientist’ used a graphic novel-inspired approach to bring Darwin’s biography ‘to life’ visually, and to disrupt the prevalent image of Darwin as a bearded older man.
Designer: Manchester Museum design team and Chrissie Morgan
Selected publications about exhibitions and interpretation
McGhie, HA (2019). Museum Polar Bears and Climate Change. In O. Nevin, I. Convery, P. Davis and J. Kirchin (eds.), The Bear: A Cultural History of Bears. ‘Heritage Matters’ series, International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies, University of Newcastle, Newcastle.
McGhie, HA (2018). Promoting people’s connection with nature through natural history displays. In A. Sheersoi and S. D. Tunnicliffe (eds.), ‘Natural History Dioramas – traditional exhibits for current and actual educational themes’, Springer.
McGhie, HA (2018). Climate change: a different narrative. Pp. 13–29 in Leal Filho, W., B. Lackner and H. McGhie (Eds.) (2018). Addressing the Challenges in Communicating Climate Change Across Various Audiences. Springer, Gland.
McGhie, H. A., S. Mander and R. Underhill (2017). Engaging people with climate change through museums. Pp. 329–48 in Leal Filho, W., Manolas, E., Azul, A.M., Azeiteiro, U.M., McGhie, H. (Eds.), ‘Handbook of Climate Change Communication’, Springer.
McGhie, HA (2012). Living Worlds at Manchester Museum. Pp. 222-253 in SS Jandl and MS Gold, A Handbook for Academic Museums. Museums Etc.
McGhie HA, Brown, PB and J Horsley (2010). Dealing with Darwin at The Manchester Museum. in Filippoupoliti, A (ed.) Science Exhibitions: Communication and Evaluation. Museums Etc.