“We’re never not learning.”

So says Lenm Sissay in his first speech as Chancellor of the University of Manchester. I’m inclined to agree with him. We’re always picking up knowledge and skills as we move through life, sometimes without even noticing.
Sissay was talking at the opening of the new, permanent gallery space at Manchester Museum – The Study.

Instead of thinking of learning as something that happens at school, with teachers and textbooks and blackboards, Sissay claims that, in reality, most learning takes place outside of the classroom. “Learning was here before the classroom and it will be here after.”

And so this new gallery celebrates learning. But not in the way you might think. Manchester Museum suggests that The Study is for ‘research, imagining, exploring and thinking’ in all its forms.

At the launch of the new project, The Study’s project manager says this is “a place embrace your inner geek”. Given that we now have free reign to learn anywhere I suppose one can embrace the inner geek wherever one likes. But The Study is as good a place as any to start. And there’s plenty to choose from.

It offers visitors a range of options. A fairly traditional gallery presents new and old art work to the public, with rotating themes. It opens with a photography exhibition and will change its displays periodically.

The Study Manchester Museum BKD make tableA free-flowing museum-style space encourages people to wander through a selection of objects, drawn from a collection of more than 4 million items. It’s as if the curators have gone through everything and brought out bits of fun things for us to look at (yeah, yeah okay, and to learn from). But it’s not presented as a boring display – they’ve kept the interpretation light and are inviting us to look at objects and ask questions.

And there’s a study space where you can plug in your laptop and get on with your own work. This new space is riding high on current learning theory.

Education has come a long way in recent years and so has the idea of ‘learning’ in a cultural setting. Instead of measuring simply what new facts people take away from a museum visit, we now look beyond that, investigating not only what they know after a visit, but more importantly what they understand, appreciate, feel or are inspired to do next.

To try and maximise this, museums try to engage with us, the visitors, in as many ways as possible, hoping to snare each of us in with a hook that’s relevant to our own lives. And that’s where I think the real strength of The Study lies.

Manchester Museum has recognised that we all like to ‘learn’ in different ways.

In this gallery we can look at objects and read (labels, books, text on the wall). We can even touch replica objects, immerse ourselves in hands-on stations, and peer into microscopes. But beyond sensory stimulation we can sit in intriguing furniture installations, talk with volunteers and interact with a range of exhibits, all of which invite us to play with learning – drawing, responding, taking selfies…

The StudyWe can watch plants growing in an aquaponics installation (Google it). And with a space for students – as well as others – to work, we can learn in ways in which the Museum probably never even intended. All of these build up to a concept of learning that is much more than a teacher at the front of the classroom or even a museum object in a traditional glass box. It feels like someone is trying to break down the barriers to learning.

By its own admission, Manchester Museum says the space is ‘tricky to describe’. It’s a good way of putting it, perhaps because it’s not a traditional museum space. The Study isn’t a gallery. And it’s not a classroom. It’s not really a study either. I’m finding it hard to sum up what this space might mean to visitors and who might use it. Perhaps part of its charm is that it hasn’t prescribed how learning has to take place.

One of the main issues facing The Study is its location, right at the top of the Museum’s Grade II*listed building. It’s open and airy up there and has superb views over the university campus. It feels a million miles away from the busy galleries below. But maybe this space might work better as an introduction to the Museum, inspiring visitors to head off into other galleries to find out more, rather than as a culmination at the top of the building. Perhaps the best way to experience the Museum now is to start at the top and work down?

The strapline for The Study is ‘for the curious, the makers, the searchers and the sharers’. It’s a nice way of saying that ‘we don’t mind how you use this space’. I’ll be fascinating to see how people do use it. Once people start to stamp their mark and identity on The Study, it might have a stronger sense of what it is.

By Steve Slack

Photos by Nathan Chandler