Sharing our research: Global Threads in the museum

By Sibia Akhtar and Megan Bridgeland

Sibia and Megan in the Conversation Space.

Having completed our research and published our case studies on the Global Threads website, the next step for our project was to deliver a series of public engagement workshops in the Science and Industry Museum’s Conversation Space, which is part of its Textiles Gallery. The aims of the workshops were to give us the chance to share and discuss our research with a wide range of people, learn more about museum visitors’ opinions and reflections on the stories we had uncovered, and signpost people to our find out more on the Global Threads site

Along with Global Threads researcher Tiger Ritchie, we got together at the museum over April and May to plan the activities we would run at the workshops in June. We had to decide what research we wanted to share, what activities would work well for museum audiences, and how we would share our research in an engaging, family friendly way.

Together, we developed a set of hands-on activities which enabled us to share our research with museum visitors in fun and engaging ways;

Mapping our Global Threads

When we were brainstorming our activities, we decided to use maps as a key visual medium for public engagement. We thought that maps would be a clear and interesting way to illustrate some of the locations we explored in our research, and how Manchester was connected to these places through its textiles industry.

On one map, we pinned images of significant people and objects like textiles, connecting them to the location they related to, to demonstrate the numerous global threads established by the historic cotton industry. The map acted as a talking point, enabling us to have some great discussions with visitors about the stories we had explored within our case studies.

Global Threads map created for the activity days.

As well as the map illustrating the historic locations from our research, we also created a second map which we populated with contributions from museum visitors. We asked them to look at a label on one of their items of clothing and pin a thread between Manchester and the place where the item was manufactured. From this map we were able to build up a picture of the global connections we all have today through the clothes that we wear. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that most clothes were made in Bangladesh, India and China. However, there were also a few interesting links to North Africa, South America and Eastern Europe, particularly from visitors who had come to Manchester on holiday.

Map created by visitors based on the locations the clothes they were wearing were made.

Over three workshops, more than 100 visitors mapped out their clothes. We also had some really great conversations, particularly around how clothes are made today and the current ethics of the industry. This was a really engaging task which visitors as young as three enjoyed participating in. With older participants, it was interesting to discuss how our case studies relate to contemporary, and sometimes exploitative textiles practices, in different parts of the world.

Collaborative patchwork quilt

When planning the activity days, we were particularly excited by the opportunity to use hands-on and creative methods to engage visitors with our research. As well as giving visitors the chance to try out machine knitting with talented Manchester-based electro-knitter Green Jay Crafts, we also developed an activity which invited visitors to contribute to a collaborative patchwork quilt.

We laid out patterned fabrics for inspiration and asked people to draw an image, pattern or unique design that meant something to them.

Patchwork squares designed by visitors handing on a pegboard in the Conversation Space.

We chose a patchwork quilt activity in part so that people of all ages could join in to create a unique piece of art. This medium was also chosen to engage visitors with our research on cotton, textiles and slavery. Quilting is an ancient folk-craft that has huge significance to many cultures around the world. On plantations in the southern United States, enslaved women saved up small scraps of fabric and thread in order to create intricately designed quilts. These helped families survive harsh winters, but they also carried huge cultural, religious and individual significance. Additionally, quilting parties, where the pieces were made, offered a rare opportunity for enslaved women to bond and socialise.

We shared pictures of Harriet Powers’ Pictorial Quilt with visitors to provide inspiration for the collaborative patchwork activity. Harriet Powers was an African American woman born into slavery. After she was freed, Powers made beautiful patchwork quilts, exhibiting her work at local fairs. The vivid designs in this quilt depict biblical stories, as well as local and astronomical events. Harriet Powers’ use of textiles for storytelling, as well as her appliqué sewing techniques, are very similar to those used in traditional West African fabrics. This shows us how enslaved African Americans held onto and passed down aspects of their heritage and culture, despite incredibly harsh conditions.

You can read more about Harriet Powers in the Global Threads case study Creativity, craft and community by Megan Bridgeland.

Harriet Powers’ Pictorial Quilt, Wikimedia Commons.

After the workshops, we digitised all of the patchwork squares created by museum visitors and digitally ‘sewed’ them together to create an amazing visitor-led piece of artwork.

The Global Threads digital patchwork created using museum visitors’ designs.

We hope that our public engagement activities inspired some visitors to think about the global threads of the cotton industry. We definitely had some great, in-depth discussions with visitors who were intrigued by our project as well as the history of cotton. Judging by how large our patchwork quilt grew, we also inspired lots of creativity and imagination among visitors of all ages.

One of the activity days in full swing in the Conversation Space at the Science and Industry Museum.

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