Keep off the grass? Don’t think so…Cultural Park Keeper at the Whitworth

8 09 2014

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This week, a post from Esme Ward, our Head of Learning & Engagement…

One of the most frequently asked questions of my team over the last few months has been ‘What’ve you been doing with yourselves with no Gallery and no visitors during the closure?’ It’s a perfectly fair question. Have we had our feet up and taken time out as our colleagues decant collections, prepare exhibitions and get the building ready for reopening?

Far from it! The team has popped up far and wide with activities from art pubcrawls to events and exhibitions in Selfridges, Asda, local schools, nurseries and hospitals to name a few.  We’ve also valued the opportunity to step out of the everyday, with each member of the team developing new programmes by ‘living’ with another organisation or community partner for one day a week. These have included placements within the NHS, Student Union senior management team, volunteering in a local wood school, running the coffee morning at a local residential home and working in a Surestart nursery. We’ve tested ideas for programmes, co-developed resources, chatted and drunk a lot of tea and sometimes just got to know our neighbours better.

There has also been a little time to dream, think bigger and differently. We have long held the belief that the Gallery and park should be a unified experience for all our visitors. The expansion of the Gallery connects us to the park and unlocks the potential of our existing building. But, how might we take this one step further by working with people beyond our usual visitors, those who actively and regularly use the parks – dogwalkers, slackliners and families picnicking – and those who live and work nearby?  With so many new improvements made by the Friends of Whitworth Park working with the city council, the park is ready and waiting to be a place where great things happen.

Whitworth Weekending firework display

Whitworth Weekending firework display

When we closed for redevelopment in September 2013, we held Whitworth Weekending; a 3 day festival in Whitworth Park.  Over 23,000 people visited and nearly a third of visitors interviewed had never been to the Gallery before;

This weekend has been the best thing I have ever been to with my kids. I have a 10, 6 and 1 year old and all have loved it. We just live a few minutes away so we have been to all 3 days and both Friday and Saturday nights.. We’ve never been to the Whitworth Art Gallery before but we hope to come to more events in the future.

Weekending showed us there is great demand for this type of activity and more widely, there is a clear and growing demand for participatory events, volunteering and activities in our parks.  We started looking at who was using the park and for what purpose.

Whitworth Park was originally dedicated to ‘children and neighbours’ and we seek to rekindle this. In fact, looking to the past provided some clues and ideas for how we might shape the future of the park and its Gallery. In the 1890s, during the most prolific period of park building this country has ever known, the role of park keeper became firmly established. In its original form, the park keeper’s role was more focused on community engagement than keeping visitors off the grass. So, we wondered, how might a park keeper employed by a cultural organisation (rather than usual parks or leisure teams) engage children and their neighbours?

Victorian postcard - a park for children and our neighbours

Victorian postcard – a park for children and our neighbours

We are soon to find out. We are delighted to announce that the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation has awarded just over £250,000 to develop The Cultural Park Keeper, a three year post and programme dedicated to reaching new audiences by bringing nature, culture and people together.

We want to work across sectors (including health and education) and create new opportunities for people to get involved – the park keeper reimagined for 21st century Manchester.

To find out more and apply, visit

If you would like to be a part of our work in the park, you may also be interested in our Landscape & Sustainability Technician

Or if you would like to be a park volunteer, email or phone Fiona Cariss at: | 0161 275 8459