Open House at The Whitworth

Open House
The Whitworth
26th November 2021 – 10th December 2022

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Patterned wallpaper at The Whitworth, part of the open house exhibition
Image: Surface printed wallpaper, 1966, designed by Catherine Beevers for Howarths Limited, Manchester. Courtesy the Whitworth, The University of Manchester

Wallpapers began arriving at the Whitworth in 1967 and today the gallery house a collection of around 10,000 examples. Some of these are luxurious, beautiful, old and hand printed, but most are the cheap and cheerful output of factories that gave remnants to museums after ceasing production.

Until now the Whitworth haven’t recorded the stories provoked by these patterns. In its heyday wallpaper saw inside it all:

Law courts, pubs, manor houses, council flats, shopping, fights, meals, politics, parties, loneliness, housework, laughter, desire, bath-time, DIY, play, music, addiction, television, pets, rest, illness, fear, hunger, mess, grief, excess, prayer, death, boredom and joy all muddied our views of the wallpaper. If we continue to clear these chaotic lives and losses out of the way, as museum practice is inclined to do, we lose the chance to tap into the democratic potential of a decorative surface that was in every type of interior.

Framed by living memory, the Open House exhibition evokes a time from World War II through to the gradual removal of wallpaper from homes in the 1990s. The two local photography series (June Street in Salford and Hulme Crescents) show housing that has been demolished entirely. Whether we were around in this time or not, they are foundational scenes of gendered, racialised, class and culture-driven experience in the United Kingdom.

Open House is expanding into the room next door through 2022, including drop-ins, a reading group, volunteer opportunities and celebrations. The wallpapers, photographs and artworks in the exhibition will be added to by photographs, conversations, mementos or anecdotes you would like to share.

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