The Manchester Human Bower
Working with social anthropologist Jennie Morgan on the ‘Profusion’ theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Heritage Futures we’ve been asking people questions about what they keep for the future.
After a year of collaborations and conversations, we arrived at three key and seemingly simple questions that we felt important to ask in our age of profusion. These formed the basis for a creative community installation called the ‘Human Bower’.
- What would you like the future to look like?
- What can we hold onto to make that happen?
- Is there anything we need to let go of to make that happen?
Based on the marvellous Satin Bower bird’s courtship creation (an avenue of sticks with a carefully decorated entrance) participants were invited to bind one hazel branch whilst reflecting on these questions. The resulting bower structure in Manchester Museum now contains the keywords from these conversations, bound over with brightly coloured wool.
Visiting Manchester Museum was something of a revelation. A lead organisation of the Happy Museum where well-being is a central tenet, staff were getting free massages on the day I visited. Light pours in through large stone windows, pristine exhibits are held in stunning cases reflecting the gothic past but with neon text that plays with us to create a sense of timelessness around the taxidermy animals. Past, present, and hints at potential futures all come alive in the best museums, and Manchester is no exception.
In a strikingly lucky outcome, the museum has a pair of taxidermy Satin Bower Birds (there are many different bower birds). The male bird only matures after 7 years, and once mature, he doesn’t only like to decorate his bower entrance with found objects, but sometimes paints the inside walls with a feather or leaf using earth, spit and berries. What does this extraordinary bird have to teach us in our (Western) ‘hyper-stuff’ society? Through creating this installation with 30 people, some from Manchester and some from Torquay, it seems that this bird with his bower helps us to think about the big questions around what to keep, what we need to care for in order to have a healthy good future, and ultimately what we as humans most value.
Leading this Manchester event, the outcome of the Human Bower reinforces my sense that despite being surrounded by material wealth here in the West, we yearn for deeper connections with each other and nature and value, above all else, non-material qualities. Whilst many of us are fortunate enough to have a huge variety of choice in what we chose to buy, keep, put on display, we also seem painfully aware that things aren’t ‘well’ or quite ‘right’. There is a sense that despite the material wealth, our wellbeing isn’t as it should be, our communities are not working as well as they might, our young people face increasing mental health issues, and our choices are having ever increasingly clear negative impacts on other lives and ecosystems. The cheapness of material goods is a ‘fake cheapness’, with massively extractive and relentlessly expensive repercussions elsewhere. For many people involved in this project, it seems that any potential sense of gain is underpinned by mostly unexplored and painful feelings about loss – of biodiversity, environment, social equality. The Human Bower is a small creative attempt at opening up conversations and a space where we can ask important questions about what we truly care about; what we want to keep for the next generation(s); what we treasure now and think will help the imagined future become a reality. At Encounters Arts these themes constantly inspire us to co-create projects with participants, because we believe that our times demand vital, imaginative and creative leaps to allow us to thrive through change.
Around the bound stick bower are the things people think we need to hold onto to make this future more likely. They are strikingly similar to those answers that came out of our investigation in Torquay. They are hearty, meaningful, potent and utterly human ideas about what is important to keep, to nurture, to treasure. And most tellingly, they are never about ‘stuff’. The Human Bower is on display on the 3rd floor of Manchester Museum and is part of the Heritage Futures project funded by AHRC in partnership with Encounters Arts.