Dr Becky Shaw in university and gallery partnership to receive UK’s first AHRC Exhibition Fund award for ‘Things of the Least’.

image copyright Manchester Art Gallery/Ben Blackall

Fine Art Reader Dr Becky Shaw is lead artist researcher in a team that has secured the only 2023 UK Exhibition Fund grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Things of the Least will be an experiment in ‘exhibition-making’, exploring how very young children engage with the material world. It builds on Becky’s previous collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) Prof Rachel Holmes, and Manchester Art Gallery (MAG).
The project involves
five artists commissions and a PhD scholarship to work with Becky and the team. Activities will focus on the Gallery’s Mary Greg collection of domestic and childhood objects. The project aims to ignite new experimental exhibition practices and develop inclusive ways to use limited space, inside and outside the gallery.


In winter 2022 Dr Becky Shaw (Reader in Fine Art and Postgraduate Research Tutor for the Art, Design & Media Research Centre) worked with long term MMU collaborator Prof Rachel Holmes and Manchester Art Gallery, to apply for the UK’s first pilot Exhibition fund. This new Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) fund recognises the significance of exhibitions as a mode of production and inquiry in research- placing exhibition production at the centre of research, instead of simply as dissemination. The partnership emerged out of prior collaborations: Odd: Feeling Different in the World of Education – an AHRC-funded MMU and Sheffield Hallam Uni project that used art, education research and visual anthropology to explore children’s experiences of a Manchester primary school, and MMU’s longstanding collaboration with Manchester Art Gallery seen, for example, in the production of the Lion’s Den family space in the Gallery.

Related work >> Dr Becky Shaw: The Odd Project researcher blog

About ‘Things of the Least’

The project ‘Things of the Least’ brings together the practices of artists, curators and education researchers to generate a series of gallery and live public experiences to energise the relationship between artefacts and daily life. To do this the project seeks to understand the ways that very young children engage with the material world and uses their encounters, gestures, movements, noises and story-living to re-imagine ways to encounter a collection. By developing exhibitions in this way it is intended that children’s priorities are used to unsettle powerful assumptions about what is deemed valuable, and by who, and how artefacts can be encountered afresh and enlivened for, and with audiences.

The Mary Greg Collection

The focus of all activities is the Mary Greg collection. Greg donated her collection of over 4,000 objects of domestic life and childhood, mainly from the 1700s-1900s, to MAG in 1922. The collection’s focus is on the intimate, meaningful practices of everyday life, “treasuring things of the least” (Ruskin, cited in Mitchell, 2017:6) that might seem insignificant and humble, yet anchor us deeply in a sense of belonging. From cutlery to clothing, books and drinking cups, the collection is full of the home-made and home-used, embodying the principle of everyday creativity. Every artefact would have been manipulated by hand, hence our desire to put the collection ‘back in touch’.

The Mary Greg collection is currently (mainly) housed at Platt Hall, an 18th century textile merchant’s house in Platt Fields Park, two miles south of Manchester city centre. It is Manchester Art Gallery’s last surviving ‘branch gallery’, one of six sites in residential neighbourhoods that once formed a citywide network of community museums and galleries. It is currently the subject of community-led redevelopment as a centre for the exploration of everyday creativity and collections for social health and wellbeing.

Exhibition-making: making a physical encounter

The project focuses on the activity of ‘exhibition-making’ instead of ‘curating’ to recognise the complex, collaborative, material and social processes that go into making a physical encounter- and the possibilities for doing this differently. ‘Exhibition-making’ considers people, artefacts and all sites of encounter, including the restrictions and atmospheres of place, and the wider communication of ‘exhibition’ in print and online. ‘Exhibition-making’ also generates contexts for museum curation, gallery education, research and contemporary art practice to work together to unsettle divisions between forms of knowledge and production. This is inspired, in part by 1960s intermedia arts and the 1960/70s Tropicalia movement, which emphasised senses, body and movement, and the inseparability of objects, space and people.

image copyright Manchester Art Gallery/Ben Blackall

image copyright Manchester Art Gallery/Ben Blackall

An artist, craftspeople and community collaboration

The project will recruit five artists (plus Becky) and invite them to develop aspects of the collection for exploration by very young children. This will involve working with families in Platt Hall, and two community sites, one which provides a home for asylum seekers, and the other that provides wardened homes for young parents. Through the emergence of a collaborative team of artists, craftspeople and communities, we will develop shared visual and spatial forms of encounter that merge aspects of the Greg collection with children’s modes of encounter. These experimental forms will be produced for Platt Hall/and or Manchester Art Gallery, as a pageant for the park, for community sites and also as multiples for use in schools or home.

Project team

Dr Becky Shaw is the Lead Artist researcher and co-investigator in a team which is led at Manchester Metropolitan University by Prof Rachel Holmes, Prof of Cultural Studies of Childhood (Principal investigator) and at Manchester Art Gallery by Katy McCall (co-investigator).

The five artists commissions (including two with experience working with children) are currently been advertised here: https://medium.com/@beckyshaw_62415/things-of-the-least-b84a7ff4920f

We are also currently shortlisting for a PhD student to work with Manchester Art Gallery on a connected project called Animating Exhibition-Making, funded through Sheffield Hallam’s Transforming Lives partnership fund.

Through our partnerships we hope to ignite new experimental exhibition practices, grow the exhibition-makers, artists and researchers of the future and to develop ways to use limited space, inside and outside the gallery, to deepen inclusion.

To find out more about this project, contact Dr Becky Shaw. or view the full details at https://medium.com/@beckyshaw_62415/things-of-the-least-b84a7ff4920f