Founded in 1889 as the first English gallery in a park, the Whitworth has been transformed by a £15 million development. This is a gallery whose visitor numbers have climbed spectacularly in the past five years, whose contemporary exhibitions programmes have given new life to international collections, and whose risk-taking curatorial team has gained global attention.
Part of the University of Manchester, the Whitworth is a gallery that is a place of research and academic collaboration, and whose education and learning teams have generated new approaches to working with non-traditional arts audiences.
Yet despite its ambition and change, the Whitworth is also a gallery that has retained a sense of the personal, the intimate and the playful. It is a place that its visitors love, and feel that they own. For them and for us, the Whitworth is simply the gallery in the park, one of the most remarkable galleries in the north of England.
Over the last year the Whitworth, part of the University of Manchester, turned our attention to addressing a traditionally under-represented audience within cultural activities, older men. This May was the focal point for this work as we launched publications, research, programmes and an exhibition, exploring older men’s participation in society and culture.
The presence of older men within activities at the Whitworth, or lack of, has been apparent for some time. Despite being in Manchester, a city known nationally and internationally for its Age Friendly credentials, older men still fall into a minority within such activities at the gallery. Through conversations with fellow programmers from other cultural organisations, big and small, it became clear this was not just a problem in Manchester.
The closure of the Whitworth for a major fifteen million pound redevelopment gave a unique opportunity to explore this is in further detail, in anticipation of engaging this audience in all of what the new Whitworth has to offer. To understand why older men were not getting involved in such activities, you first need understand what made those activities, that did appeal, so successful. The gallery also wanted to ensure that older men’s voices were at the heart of this research, speaking with those that participate and those that do not. To get their views on why they get involved and possibly more importantly, why they choose not to.
“It’s a lot harder to get through to men. I think men in general are hesitant about joining anything, and I think word of mouth is better from a member than someone who’s running it.” – Participant
The findings of this report, A Handbook for Cultural Engagement with Older Men, were all been gathered through conversations, with groups, artists, organisations and most importantly with older men. Whilst the Whitworth has been closed Ed Watts, Engagement Manager, took to the road, travelling the breadth of the United Kingdom from Glasgow to Bethnal Green, from Rhyl to Belfast and meeting some real characters along the way. These conversations highlighted the diversity of this group that is often too readily described as simply “older men”. These groups are made up of men of all shapes and sizes from a variety of cultural and social backgrounds. It’s clear that an over fifties group can often work “intergenerationally” without the need to involve any primary school. These discussions opened up an array of wider debates, from funding and the role of the NHS to opening the can of worms that is gender stereotypes. It was these notions of “being a man” that made the diversity of the selected case studies so important.
“I can hardly draw a breath, never mind put pen to paper!” – Participant
This handbook, funded by the Baring Foundation, features six case studies of existing best practice from across the UK. The case studies were selected to show the diversity of this work and included, Burrell for Blokes in Glasgow, a Men’s Shed in Rhyl, a Bengali men’s dance group in London, Out in the City, a LGBT group in Manchester, Equal Arts in Gateshead and the Live and the Learn project with National Museums Northern Ireland. The handbook outlines key findings, including recruitment and barriers, programming and participation, what kind of activities and models of participation older men would like cultural organisations to offer and impact, exploring the motivations and self-reported benefits for older men of engaging in cultural group activities.
At times these conversations were been side splittingly funny and spine tinglingly emotional in equal measure. It was moving to hear these men talk passionately about the impact these activities have had on the quality of their lives. Whether through improved health and wellbeing or simply making friends and developing new social networks, each story emphasised the importance of this work and the need to spread the word to the more isolated older men within our communities.
“That’s the one thing that’s kept me alive. I would not be here today. I’ve discovered all sorts of things. I mean my main objective is meeting people, that’s what it’s involved. I love all the groups- I’m part of it” – Participant
Alongside this research, a special exhibition was developed with a group of older men in our new Collections Centre, a public space where visitors can gain access to our collections more easily. This new space is where we can show, share and care for our important collections – opening them up for research and display in new ways. Danger! Men at Work, has been co-curated with a group of older male residents at Anchor Housing Trust’s Beechfield Lodge care home in Salford. The residents were visited by a artists, curators and conservators from the Whitworth and consulted about the new exhibition, which explores notions of masculinity, identity and ageing. The group, made up of a retired postal worker, a civil servant, teacher, crane engineer and bus driver, had full control to decide which exhibits and artefacts should feature in the exhibition, which has been funded by the Baring Foundation to tackle isolation and loneliness in older men. The exhibition has been open since May and has proven so popular with visitors it has been extended until October, five months longer than it had originally been programmed for.