Danger! Men at Work

Danger! Men at Work

The Whitworth, part of the University of Manchester, turned its attention to addressing a traditionally under-represented audience within cultural participation, older men. This work has seen the launch of publications, research, activities and an exhibition, exploring older men’s place in society and culture.

In 2009, Manchester became the UK’s first Age Friendly city, an approach led by the World Health Organisation. Manchester has one clear aspiration, to become one of the best places in the world to grow older. A real challenge as Manchester has the second lowest male life expectancy in England and significant BME populations, disproportionately high levels of pensioner poverty, ill health and disability. Despite being based in Manchester, older men still fall into a minority of those who are participating in activities at the Whitworth. Through conversations with other cultural organisations across the UK, it became clear this was not just a problem isolated to Manchester. The closure of the Whitworth, for the recent fifteen million pound redevelopment, gave a unique opportunity to explore this is in further detail, speaking with those men who do participate and those who do not, to form a better understanding of what cultural organisations can do to better connect with such groups.

Description of the arts activity

An exhibition was developed with a group of older men in our new Collections Centre. A space where visitors can gain access to our collections and give insights that reflect their lives or interests. This new space is where we can show, share and care for our important collections, opening them up for research and display in new ways. Danger! Men at Work, was co-curated with a group of older male residents at Anchor Housing Trust’s Beechfield Lodge care home in Salford.

Using the research and findings the Whitworth’s Handbook for Cultural Engagement with Older Men, we devised this project as a methodology for working with such groups. Over a series of visits into the care home, residents worked alongside a team of artists, the Whitworth curators and conservators from the Whitworth to create the exhibition, which explores notions of masculinity, identity and ageing. The group, made up of a retired postal worker, a civil servant, teacher, crane engineer and bus driver, had full control to decide which exhibits and artefacts should feature in the exhibition.

Initially, the majority of the group highlighted themselves as “not interested in art” or as art galleries as places “not for them.” Therefore, the project became a conversation on how they can work with the Whitworth to use this exhibition to help dispel such stereotypes for future work with older men’s groups. Something that the men took great pride in was the potential that their selection would enable like-minded people to engage with this display, to feel ownership of the gallery and it’s collections as relevant to them.

These workshops included working with the lead artist to discuss themes and areas of interest, it was from these conversations that the group made the decision to focus on the Whitworth’s collection of oil paintings. Once this decision had been made, curators and conservators took the group through a series of works that were available for selection, it was through these sessions that the men created all interpretation and curatorial choices, including the exhibitions title, “Danger! Men at Work. “
The project, which had been funded by the Baring Foundation and in partnership with Age Friendly Manchester, aimed to tackle isolation and loneliness in older men within care. Care staff at the home were fundamental to the projects success, engaging
throughout the whole process. As a direct result, the care team have since arranged exhibitions of residents’ artwork in the home itself as well as programming workshops and visits out to galleries. Although this particular project worked on a model of in depth engagement with a relatively small group of older men within one care home, the resulting exhibition was open to the public for six months at the Whitworth between which the gallery had over 168,000 visitors. It is also the impact that this type of targeted work, with diverse audiences, can have on the wider outcomes of the Whitworth that I find particularly exciting for future working. We are ambitious to continue to work with new audiences in bold and challenging ways.

Details of the project participants

The Danger! Men at Work project was delivered with a group of older men in an Anchor Trust care home in Salford. All participants were residents in the home and care staff within Anchor Housing Trust managed all recruitment. This enabled the team to highlight men that were not participating in existing activities to invite them to work with the gallery on this project.

Project management

This research was supported by a steering group made up of cultural organisations, health professionals, academics and most importantly, older men. This model, where the Whitworth catalyst events are held to bring together a wide range of stakeholders, advisors and innovators, is key to the development of future programmes at the Whitworth. The methodology and findings were structured and analysed by researcher, Antonio Benitez. Antonio’s PHD investigated engagement over 75’s had with cultural organisations and was also the research lead for the Age Friendly Museums Network. Antonio collated all transcriptions from conversations with the groups, searching for links and themes to inform the handbook.

Evaluation methods and findings

To form the basis of this research, Ed Watts, Engagement Manager at the Whitworth travelled across the UK exploring older men’s participation in cultural activity. These findings have been produced in a publication, designed to support other
organisations by providing a foundation for future programmes and methodologies when working with older men. This Handbook for Cultural Engagemnt with Older Men draws upon best practice from across the UK. The publication outlines key findings,
including a focus on what kind of activities and models of participation older men would like cultural organisations to offer and explores the motivations and self-reported benefits for older men of engaging in cultural activities.

The research and project feature as a case study in the Museums Etc publication, Museum Participation. Edited by Kayte McSweeney and Jen Kavanagh. April 2016


An online version of the Handbook for Cultural Engagement with Older Men is available
here – http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=24251

Danger! Men at Work also won the award for Outstanding Public Engagement Initiative at The University of Manchester Making a Difference Awards 2016.


Supported using public funding by the Arts Council England