‘A community united will never be broken’: Spontaneous memorialisation as an act of community resilience and social solidarity

Exploring how community resilience and solidarity stand as instrumental components for community recovery post-trauma.

Partner overview 

Manchester Art Gallery is the original useful museum, initiated in 1823 by artists, as an educational institution to ensure that the city and all its people grow with creativity, imagination, health and productivity. The gallery is free and open to all people as a place of civic thinking and public imagination, it promotes art as a means to achieve social change.

It has been at the centre of city life for nearly 200 years, created as the Royal Manchester Institution for the Promotion of Literature, Science and the Arts and has been proudly part of Manchester City Council since 1882. The gallery is for and of the people of Manchester. Through its collections, displays and public programmes it works with all our constituents to ensure creativity, care and consideration infect all aspects of the way we live.

Project Background

Memorial tributes for the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing

Following the Manchester Arena attack in May 2017, over 10,000 objects were left by the public in spontaneous memorials that formed in St. Ann’s Square and other sites across the city. From this, a collaboration of organisations was formed with a view to conserve, preserve and document these objects. These organisations include Manchester Art Gallery, University of Manchester and Archives+.

As part of this collaboration, this research utilises the archive space in Manchester Art Gallery to engage in hands-on, object-based research to explore the social relevance and meanings that are created, conveyed and communicated through the process of public memorialisation. This research is necessary because there is a growing need for institutions to question their role in how they handle, frame and interpret the social memory of such memorials and the meanings ascribed to them. Such questions include:

  • How can a deeper understanding of the construction and materiality of these unprompted, public memorials help archives maintain responsible decision-making in the early stages of collection and preservation?
  • How can handling and investigating these meaning-making artefacts in an archival setting frame the legacy for future public engagement?
  • How do archives future-proof collections so that they can continue to narrativise the memories and meanings of public performative commemoration, whilst maintaining social relevance and value?

Research Team 

  • Lead Researcher: Robert Simpson, Museology, University of Manchester, School of Arts and Languages and Cultures, Faculty of Humanities.
  • Academic Supervisor: Dr Kostas Arvanitis, Institute for Cultural Practices, School of Arts, Languages and Cultures, University of Manchester. Kostas is Senior Lecturer in Museology and Director of the Institute for Cultural Practices at the University of Manchester.
  • Industry Supervisor: Amanda Wallace, Senior Operational Lead at Manchester Art Gallery, part of the Libraries, Galleries and Archive Service of Manchester City Council.

Research approach

This research draws on the format, design, length, content and language of the written notes, objects and messages left at the spontaneous memorial, and uses a mixed-methods approach of object-based analysis, alongside theories from Social Semiotics to explore the multiple layers of meanings communicated through these objects.

The thesis is that the social processes of meaning-making at spontaneous memorials are not exclusively limited to the language expressed in writing, but that almost every element in the construction of these temporary memorials (from the design, formation, layout and arrangement of mourning objects; to the images, colours, signs and symbols that often accompany the written messages) are intended to articulate a range of ‘different social and cultural meanings’; that these semiotic resources operate multimodally to communicate public feeling and facilitate collective healing post-trauma.

Expected outcomes 

This project will allow the Manchester Art Gallery to better understand the continued relevance of the archive itself and the potential for future engagement both on an academic and public level. In the long term, this project will also contribute understanding and insight to a growing body of research about spontaneous memorials world-wide. This project in fact offers unique opportunities to collaborate with researchers and organisations world-wide and to become part of a network of research.

From an academic point of view, the project contrinutes to our understanding of the cultural heritage of trauma and related issues of memorialisation, collective memory, identity construction, resilience and legacy. This research also informs conceptual and professional practice towards the documentation of spontaneous memorials, both in Manchester and elsewhere, which in turn can add to academic and cultural professionals’ debates on changes required in heritagisation policies and practices to accommodate the needs that spontaneous memorials present locally, nationally and internationally.

This CDA project (2019-22) is funded by the Arts and Hyumanities Research Council (AHRC) via the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership (NWCDTP).