Taking Stock

Manchester Art Gallery Collection Review 

What is a Collection Review? 

Reviewing collections is an important activity for any gallery.  

A review tells us what we have and what condition it is in. It gives us the opportunity to consider its purpose. for example:  

  • The collection is owned by the people of Manchester, does its content reflect their needs and interests?  
  • Are all artists and subjects represented?  
  • In what ways can an object or artwork be used for a learning or engagement need?  

Our curatorial, learning and collections teams have used their knowledge to come up with a criterion to help us answer these questions.  We will use this to look at every item either individually, or in a group of related objects.    

It will take a long time to carry out the review. There are over 50,000 items in Manchester Art Gallery’s collection.  We are starting with the parts of the collection that have historically been given less attention. The artworks we know far less about than some of our most traditionally loved and well-known artworks.   

A collection review isn’t just about what we have now though. It helps us understand how we collected in the past to shape what we might collect in the future. The review process will tell us what is missing. For example: 

  • the things we didn’t collect historically but should do now 
  • what no longer reflects the ideas, interests, or primary concerns of the gallery, 
  • what items were acquired historically without proper attention to whether they were in line with our needs or the wider collection.  

It will also uncover insights and interesting ways of thinking about and discussing collections that have never been thought of before. This is because we are looking at an historic collection through a contemporary lens. We will learn new things about the collections we care for, and this will inform our displays and public programmes going forward.    

This is a long-term programme of work that will outlive the Taking Stock project, but the collections we review now, within Taking Stock will inform and refine our process and improve it going forward.   


Who is involved in a collections Review?  

As an organisation, Manchester Art Gallery often works with different people outside the gallery to make sure that our work reflects a wide range of concerns, opinions and experiences. Involving outside voices in the collections review is a new area of collaboration and something that has traditionally been led and undertaken by staff.     

As part of the Taking Stock project, we are exploring how we can make our processes for the collection review, disposal and acquisition more transparent and understandable to outside stakeholders such as visitors, community groups, students and even our colleagues across Manchester City Council. One way to do this is to find new ways of including outside voices in internal processes.    

The collections reviews that are part of the Taking Stock programme will be the first phase of testing this approach. You can find out more about how we plan to do this within the individual review projects and the full Collections Review Framework.  


What might be the outcome of this review?  

As a society, we are led to believe that once an object comes into the collection, it can never leave. This idea of collecting forever is misleading and doesn’t reflect the way a gallery looks after its collection, or the needs of its many stakeholders.  

The process of reviewing collections to know them better might lead to us saying ‘we are no longer the right place for this artwork or object to live, we should find it a better home.’ Historically, many organisations have been unwilling to be honest about whether an object should really be in their collection or not. This has led to most galleries and museums Manchester Art Gallery included having many objects in store that will never be displayed or used, but which take up valuable space, require extensive care and conservation resources and stop us acquiring new things that would be relevant and useful.  

Part of our responsibility to be a sustainable organisation which uses public funding for public benefit, is to be responsible for our collections-based decision making and recognise when we are no longer the best place to care for a collection item. In the heritage sector (galleries, libraries, archives and museums), this process is usually called ‘disposal’ but that doesn’t usually mean that object is thrown away, rather than it will move on to a different organisation or use.  

You can find out more about the different outcomes of a collection review (whether an object or artwork is retained in the gallery, rehoused somewhere else, or repurposed) in our Collections Review Framework.  


How have we developed this review?  

The criteria for review and the Collections Review Framework that is guiding this work was produced by a steering group of staff from across the curatorial, learning and collections management teams, who worked on the project between October 2023-February 2024. The group were supported by freelance consultant Jenny Durrant, who specialises in cultural heritage collections reviews. The documentation will be reviewed on a yearly basis.   


Want to know more?  

The Collections Review Framework is available for you to read.  

Read here