Museums, art galleries and libraries across the North are now off limits to the public, their displays and collections sitting behind locked doors. But institutions are responding creatively to closure and continuing to engage with their visitors digitally. The Portico Library in Manchester was one of those to shut last week.

Librarian Thom Keep explains: “We didn’t take this decision lightly, but the library needs to do its part to help us all avoid all non-essential contact. Our team is now working from home, trying to keep the organisation going.”

One of the library’s current tasks is to share highlights from its beautiful book collection with the public and to encourage a moment of reflection in a world that feels uncertain. Keep says: “We will continue to draw on The Portico’s collection for inspiration and to champion literacy and learning.” Help+the+Normals+(Dolly+Sen)

To that end, it has created an online version of the current exhibition. And it’s on a theme we’re all considering carefully at the moment – our mental health.

Talking Sense: the changing vocabulary of mind and brain presents historic books from the library’s collection alongside contemporary works from 50 artists all responding to the theme of how we talk about the mind and the brain. Mad? Manic? Crazy? Many of us will have felt like this recently. But are these the right words to use?

James Moss, exhibitions and programmes curator at the library, says: “During this difficult time in which many of us are kept away from the people and places we love, it’s important to talk about how we can take care of each other’s mental health and to find new ways to engage with art, literature, history and culture.”

Several of The Portico’s members in the early 1800s worked at the nearby Manchester Lunatic Hospital, the first institution in England set up (in its own words) to provide “humane treatment of mental disease”. In the online version of the exhibition, the library displays books that introduce historical ideas about the mind and brain, alongside artworks by artists working today who have encountered mental health systems or explored psychological themes in their work.

While the library is closed, the team made the exhibition from their temporary desks at home.

Harriet Martineau“My first though after temporarily closing was that we have a responsibility to share the works of the 50 artists we’ve made agreements with, and all the books, interpretation etc that our brilliant volunteers and partners have helped put together,” says Moss. “Our exhibitions are always a labour of love too so we really just wanted to share the discoveries and creative responses we’d gathered, all in one place, and to keep the interesting conversations that had been initiated by the exhibition going.”

Virtual visitors can browse details from the books and see responses in paint, drawing, sculpture and print, and also in audio and video which lend themselves to online viewing.

Can+draw+a+dog+Norman+AndersonOn the one hand, this little exhibition will fill some time in the seemingly endless days ahead. But it might also help us to reflect on how we’re using language to talk about our mental health and that of those around us.

Moss says: “It’s great to see so many positive responses from the artists and visitors, and we’ve been encouraged to create more online exhibitions and articles which will be coming soon.” Stay tuned for more.

By Steve Slack

Main image: Untitled, Chan Yang Kim


For more information about Talking Sense, click here. Please note that this exhibition includes examples of past and present ideas about the mind and the brain and contains vocabulary that some people might find upsetting.