Culture

Manchester Museum’s Partition Exhibit Gives Space to Neglected South Asian History

The impact of Partition has remained an untouched territory in the cultural landscape of Britain, which Memories of Partition is addressing by capturing the collective memory of people affected by it.

Memories of Partition exhibition. Credit: Manchester Museum

Memories of Partition exhibition. Credit: Manchester Museum

The Wire’s #PartitionAt70 series brings a number of stories, through text and multimedia content that will attempt to draw a comprehensive picture of those weeks and months when entire geographies and histories changed forever.


Manchester: A new exhibition chronicling stories of British South Asians who experienced the horrors of Partition makes a strong case for the need to discuss the historic event in Britain.

Memories of Partition at Manchester Museum combines oral history and narratives of Partition and childhoods lost with remembrances of times gone by.

On display at the exhibition is a copper beaker carried by a ten-year-old girl, one of the few possessions she kept with her while making the journey from one nation to another. A scrapbook full of magazine and newspaper clippings, pictures and illustrations of Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru have made their way into the exhibition. Old letters of recommendation and passports bearing stamps of various countries also crop up. Silver-plated cutlery used at tea parties thrown by civil servants have been preserved and are on display. Not spectacular in their origins or historical in their construction, each of these objects gets a new lease of life when one remembers the vast journeys these objects and those who hold them dear have made.

A copper beaker carried by a ten-year-old girl at the time of Partition on display at the museum. Credit: Manchester Museum

A copper beaker carried by a ten-year-old girl at the time of Partition on display at the museum. Credit: Manchester Museum

The impact of Partition has remained an untouched territory in the cultural landscape of Britain. Memories of Partition, a collaboration between Manchester Museum, Manchester BME Network, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre and Royal Exchange Theatre, is addressing this by capturing the collective memory of people affected by the Partition.

Visitors at the exhibit can choose the short videos they wish to watch on the screens that have been set up at the exhibition. In the videos, octogenarians narrate their tales of life in camps in 1947 and stories of being bundled away in trucks, while young people reveal how their parents and grandparents shy away from discussing their nation’s history.

Silver plated cutlery, Japanese ceramic bowls and a photograph owned by Muhammad Ismail, a senior civil servant in Lahore who would often host afternoon teas. The picture shows Muhammad at an event to mark Lahore Resolution on March 23, 1940. Credit: Manchester Museum

Silver plated cutlery, Japanese ceramic bowls and a photograph owned by Muhammad Ismail, a senior civil servant in Lahore who would often host afternoon teas. The picture shows Muhammad at an event to mark Lahore Resolution on March 23, 1940. Credit: Manchester Museum

There is an effort to establish an inter-generational dialogue with younger people responding to Partition. The launch of the exhibition saw teary-eyed octogenarians look over the contributions as their families, friends and grandchildren gathered about them in support.

Framed photograph of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, first governor-general of Pakistan, with government officials. Credit: Manchester Museum

Framed photograph of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, first governor-general of Pakistan, with government officials. Credit: Manchester Museum

Stephen Welsh, the curator of living cultures at Manchester Museum who worked on the exhibition, said, “I’m very passionate about the need for people in Britain to learn more about Britain’s imperial and colonial history. I do find it fascinating that in Britain not many people know about the Partition. When people talk about the British empire they want to think about it in very simplistic terms. The UK in terms of its colonial and imperial history played such a crucial role.”

The curator believes that until a few years ago, museums, libraries, galleries and archives were reluctant to engage with local history and migration history.

“It’s taken galleries, archives, libraries so long to change and understand that it is fundamentally important to engage with the local communities,” he said.

The British Asian community is now coming forward and is looking for a space to represent their experiences, believes the curator.

Harriet Morgan-Shami, the project coordinator of Memories of Partition, believes Partition and South Asian history has been neglected in the country.

“I think Britain needs to face its colonial history beyond the academic debates around it. It needs to happen at a mainstream level. We need to acknowledge that complicated past. People have made vast journeys. This is the last generation who is going to be able to share lived experiences of the Partition and there is a sense of emergency,” Morgan-Shami said.

The coordinator who did much of the field work for the project found that while some families had intense discussions about Partition, others stayed away from the topic.

Jason Singh, a composer and sound artist based in Manchester, contributed to the exhibition through a short documentary and a few artefacts.

Singh’s family found a briefcase from his grandfather which contained documents and letters relating to Partition from his great-grandfather. There were documents with itineraries, letters of recommendation and passports of his great-grandfather and great-grandmother. Singh has contributed several of these artefacts and documents to the exhibition.

“My great-grandfather was an astrologer and a palm reader and we found documents relating to his work. He had been coming to the UK since the 1930s and as a result of Partition my family came to the UK,” Singh said.

“We absolutely need more of a discussion on Partition and the legacy of colonialism in our education system. We didn’t talk about Partition. It was such a traumatic event. I remember asking my nani ji about Partition and she flatly refused to talk about it,” he added.

A scrapbook containing newspaper and magazine clippings relating to Partition created by Mumtaz Ali who served in the Pakistani army before moving to UK. Credit: Manchester Museum

A scrapbook containing newspaper and magazine clippings relating to Partition created by Mumtaz Ali who served in the Pakistani army before moving to UK. Credit: Manchester Museum

Atiha Chaudry of the Manchester BME Network worked on engaging the community for this project and also contributed to the documentaries. A fourth generation Indian, her story was inspired by her mother, Ramzana.

“My mother lived in Allowal in India during the Partition. In telling me her story my mother remembered many things she had blocked away in the past. She had walked from Jalandhar in India to Pakistan. Many families lost family members and my mother lost her mother within months after moving to Pakistan,” Chaudry said.

Abdul Ghafoor, who is the focus of one of the videos, was 15 when the country was partitioned.

“We stayed at the camp for four months till the Pakistani army came to get us,” said Ghafoor, who lived in Allowal at the time of the Partition.

He welcomed the exhibition, adding that such initiatives will help the younger generations know more about what happened in India and Pakistan.

“We don’t forget our home. I have not been to India after Partition as the events were not suitable. We need a visa and the government doesn’t take responsibility. None of our old friends are there,” he said.

His mother died when he was six years old and his father was working in Kenya while he lived with his grandfather. Ghafoor joined his father in Kenya in the aftermath of the Partition and came to the UK in 1975.

Discussions on South Asian history and migrant history may be at a fledgeling stage in Britain’s museums but trends are shifting. In 2020, Manchester Museum in collaboration with the British Museum is planning to open the South Asia Gallery, a permanent gallery dedicated to the culture and history of South Asia.

The South Asia Gallery is part of the Courtyard Project.

Memories of Partition launches on August 15 and will be open to the public until February 25, 2018.

Anam Rizvi is a UK-based independent journalist and editor who writes on culture, literature, health, education and women’s issues. She tweets @anam_rizvi.