On 22 May 2017, a homemade bomb was detonated in the foyer of Manchester Arena as people were leaving the Ariana Grande concert. Twenty-three people (including the bomber) were killed and over 800 were injured. Within hours of the attack, people of Manchester began to leave flowers, candles, soft toys, balloons, written notes and other items in St Ann’s Square and other locations around the city. In June 2017, the Manchester City Council tasked Manchester Art Gallery to oversee the removal and collection of material objects from St Ann’s Square. Manchester Art Gallery ultimately stored more than 10,000 objects to form what is now known as the ‘Manchester Together Archive’ of the public response to the Manchester Arena attack. An associated research project, co-designed by the author with Manchester Art Gallery staff, aimed to document creatively the evolving thinking, interactions with different stakeholders and decision-making about the archive, as well as the impact of those decisions on institutional life, policy and practice.
After reviewing the literature on museum practices around spontaneous memorials, this paper goes on to critically reflect on how cultural professionals in Manchester addressed the gap in their experience with spontaneous memorials by adapting or diverting from standard collecting processes. It aims to demonstrate that this was a creative process of negotiating the interaction between their professional ethics and a strong sense of civic and social responsibility, which led to a new museum practice altogether. The paper argues that this museum practice was also the result of accepting and inviting the migration of the memorial’s characteristics (as a public, spontaneous and mass participation heritage performance) into the resulting Manchester Together Archive and the collecting process itself. This meant that the archive was not a ‘collection’ of the spontaneous memorial, but another form and manifestation of the memorial itself, which offered a perspective of cultural remembrance that is driven by a focus on process, rather than permanence. The paper concludes with some brief thoughts on how this new museum practice around the Manchester Together Archive is impacting already on Manchester Art Gallery’s broader policy and practice and its process of rethinking its spaces, activity and engagement with its publics.