Artivist investigated creative approaches to making archives & collections more accessible within the context of the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. 

The Peterloo Massacre is a significant event in the history of public protest, democracy, universal suffrage and representation for all.

The challenge

How can archives and collections be opened up to engage more people and facilitate new ways of telling stories about the past? 

Manchester Histories set out to explore the role of creative practice in archives, working with artists, archivists and collections. Their subject matter was Peterloo and its legacy for Greater Manchester. 

Ten artists from across disciplines were commissioned through an open call to work across Greater Manchester Libraries & Archives. Ten archivists from the ten GM districts identified artifacts which told stories of Protest, Democracy and Freedom of Speech. This provided the artists with invaluable and unique access to documents and objects and often unexpected insights into past events, people and places.

Working with the artifacts and with community groups, artists made new work aimed at engaging the public using workshops, film making, performances, textiles, music and exhibitions.

‘The perception of archives is changing…when you think about libraries now, like Central Library, they are meeting places, and people can talk, they don’t have to whisper. And they are much more open and public than ever before. I think archives are slowly following, if you think of National Archives, they are much more open than ever before. … There is movement, but it is very slow, and it is about the next generation of archivists coming in now, who have a completely different view on what archives should be, and they should be public-facing, and they are everybody’s histories, everyone’s heritage, so people should have access to that.’


Our approach

The project was designed to enable a dynamic relationship between each artist and archivist, to explore the importance of a creative archival process and to develop a deeper understanding of how archives can be opened up to public engagement in new ways.

Initial research and development process between Manchester Histories, Great Place and Greater Manchester Libraries & Archives involved:

  • A creative session with Tom Bowtell from KIT Theatre to open up dialogue and imagination
  • Understanding varied experiences and perceptions of archives and collections, including showcasing other inspirational work such as Manchester Hill Remembered
  • Identifying shared values
  • Identifying desired goals and outcomes, such as exhibitions or interpretations
  • Identifying valued stories, artefacts and histories related to the Peterloo Massacre.

‘I was keen to create something that had a life beyond the project and inspire people to visit the archive, its empowering to see how archives can come to life through artistic practice, I would like to continue this process in similar projects in the future.’


This was followed by further development sessions to share ideas and good practice and to bring artists and archivists together for the first time. 

Artists spent eight to twelve weeks in their allocated archives to make and facilitate new work. At the end of the project a final ‘show and tell’ session took place providing opportunities for reflection and evaluation.

An ethos of co-production informed the development of each artist’s work enabling archivists, artists and the public to contribute to the process of the work and the final outcome. This methodology was chosen as it has equality of input and expertise at the heart of its philosophy, it recognises differences of culture and it can generate exciting and innovative material for the now and the future.

What we achieved

The project took place across all ten boroughs of Greater Manchester and produced ten pieces of new original artwork, one for each of the ten local authorities.

A number of the final artworks were presented as part of the three-month Peterloo 2019 commemoration programme, which reached audiences of over one million people.

Artists created work that remain in the archives for future generations to enjoy and learn from.

A number of artists went on to do further work with collections and promote their practice based on their experience of being involved in the Artivist project. For example, Aziz Ibrahim talked about his work at the British Textile Biennial Talks 2019: Sew What? which explored textiles as a vehicle for protest and cultural identity. 

The project also inspired further research on how artists and the public can better understand archives and creative processes through co-production. Manchester Histories worked with a team of researchers from the Universities of Manchester and Lancaster with expertise in the fields of anthropology, sociology, archaeology, and design to produce a new tool kit that provides guidance for all parties involved in co-production, with the aim of improving the process and outcomes for creative heritage projects. You can find out more at

Artists & archives involved in the project

  • Aziz Ibrahim. Archives+ Manchester Central Library
  • Sally Gilford. Heritage & Archives Stockport Libraries
  • Oliver Bishop. Touchstone Rochdale
  • Powder Keg Theatre. Trafford Local Studies, Sale, Altrincham and Stretford Libraries
  • Al & Al. Wigan Borough Council
  • Abigail Ward. Working Class Movement Library Salford
  • Claire Barber. Bolton Library & Museum Services
  • Michael Lacey. Tameside Local Studies & Archive
  • Gang of Five. Bury Archives & Local History
  • Anne Louise Kershaw. Local Studies and Archives Oldham Council.

What we learned

A longer development period would have benefited both artists and archivists, so that there was more time for matching based on personal and professional interest. 

The project demonstrated how artistic practice is an effective way to support archivists to connect with emotive stories in their archives, deepening their understanding of the resources at their fingertips.

It was essential that archivists felt the trust and confidence to give over control to artists in a fluid process that was unfamiliar to them.

Project management of ten new partnerships and ongoing relationships took much more resource than anticipated but was essential to the project’s success. 

Archives are important witnesses to the past. They provide evidence, explanation and justification both for past actions and current decisions.

‘Made me think more broadly about the use of our archives. Attendance figures are dropping – so to have potential new audiences opened my eyes a bit to see how we could engage more with the public.’


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Image credits: Manchester Histories. GOF Peterloo LOGO. Michael Lacy. Sally Gifford. Claire Barber and Michael Lacy.