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  • Writer's pictureCultural Practices

Looking into the Past to Build a Better Future

By Laura Thompson and Beth Clark.

This post acts as a legacy for the 2023 Art Gallery and Museum Studies students’ pop-up exhibition “Living in a Material World” which explored materials used in medicine over time, as well as the film “Looking into the past to build a better future” created by two students for the exhibition. The film captures the students’ efforts to explore humanity’s relationship with material culture and how we can use knowledge of the past to build a sustainable future for us all. The film features professionals from the University and external presenters along with student reflections to present a variety of voices on the topic.

This film featured as part of the Art Gallery and Museum Studies student project “Living in a Material World”, a pop-up exhibition hosted at the Manchester Central Library in association with the Museum of Medicine and Health. This exhibition explored different kinds of materials used in medicine overtime, exploring the place these materials could and should have in modern day society. The exhibition also addressed issues of sustainability and the using (and abusing) relationship people have with materials nowadays in our materialistic and consumeristic society.

The film was created as part of the exhibition to explore the history of the Museum of Medicine and Health and its place in contemporary discussions surrounding sustainability. By looking into past relationships between people and material culture, we can see alternative ways of treating the world around us. We used this opportunity to highlight the merit in understanding and learning from the ways of our ancestors.

In this film, the voices of individuals convey the message that change is needed and we can fuel this change by looking into the past. Stephanie Seville, curator of the Museum of Medicine and Health, shares how we can use historical artefacts to better understand how people interacted with material culture in the Modern Period of history. Dr Nicholas Overton, researcher in Archaeology at University of Manchester, looks even further into the past addressing the material culture of the prehistoric and how the relationships people formed with the world around so long along can still be relevant today. Ethar Alali, CEO of AutoMedi, shows how companies such as his which produce 3D printed objects from entirely recycled plastic can transform how we treat modern materials and begin the necessary journey to change how society view waste. Finally, the voices of students tell how their experience on the course has opened their eyes to their own relationships with material culture and the possibility that how we treat materials in today’s age does not have to be the way of the future.

The Creators: Who are we?

Beth Clark

I'm a student on the Art Gallery and Museum Studies masters course, with an undergraduate degree in BA (Hons) Photography from the University of Salford. I am particularly interested in documentary photography, whether that be using the medium of old-fashioned film photography or digital photography. I love creating visual narratives through photography, as well as capturing the mundane in surreal ways, especially using film photography and the various processes that can be manipulated within that. Presently, I am starting to lean more towards the digital camera realm and cinematography.

Laura Thompson

I’m a student on the Art Gallery and Museums Studies course at University of Manchester (UoM). I did my undergraduate in Archaeology and Ancient History also at UoM, which is where I began my interest in human relationships with material culture. I find we often get lost in looking forward to the future, discovering and creating new materials as well as new relationships with them, forgetting there are benefits to looking into the past and trying to understand how people before us treated the material world around them. I recently developed an interest in film making and editing so this project was an excellent chance for me to begin this journey into media production along with Beth.

Poster of the Exhibition entitled "Living in a Material World"

Our experience


A big part of helping to curate ‘Looking into the past to build a better future’ was learning the art of filmmaking rather than picture-making. Instead of capturing a singular moment in time, the process opened me up to a new world of cinematography, and how to position and compile a shot to capture multiple moments and frames over a series of seconds or minutes. The process of recording and obtaining footage for the video, allowed me to enhance my decision- making skills when it came to what to focus on and include in the shot, where to position my tripod and camera in the room, and, in other cases, what movement to focus on and follow in the shot to engage the viewer. This decisive process allowed me to think deeper about the art of visually storytelling, and creating a series of visual symbols and cues that, overall, will help the viewer gain a deeper understanding of the material-based themes and questions posed in the running narration and interviews that overlap the footage. Being a part of the filming process, and hearing first-hand the different accounts from professionals regarding the topic of materials and their relation to humans, also gave me a deeper understanding of why the Living in a Material World exhibition was so significant, as well as where it sits in the wider context of our current world’s toxic relationship with materials.


Creating this film was an entirely organic process. We had no real script going into it, only some themes we wanted to explore. We knew that "sustainability and necessary change" were the core messages of this project, and we wanted to show a connection between people and materials, in the past and the future. This gave our participants an open platform to share what they thought was important and present an honest voice for themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed creating a narrative for this piece during the editing phase and finding hidden connection between what the professionals and students were saying. To me, this project has shown how much overlap there is between disciplines that have yet to be fully exploited: by hearing voices from museology, archaeology, production and manufacturing connections between disciplines that would not so obviously coincide began to emerge. They made me stop and think about my own relationship with material culture, forcing me to address my own bad habits and how I got into this role as ‘user’ of materials rather than a ‘collaborator’ or ‘carer’ for the world around me. The students' voices were also incredible powerful. I feel they will form the next generation of professionals tasked with creating the necessary changes to build a better, more sustainable world for us to thrive in.

We want to leave you with this short message:

Don’t wait for change to happen around you.

You may feel as if you are just one person,

but your impact can be so much greater than you think.

Thank you for reading and we hope you enjoyed this little insight into our work.

Laura and Beth


Sustainability - Material culture - Museology - Film- Photography - Museum of Medicine and Health



Beth Clark

MA Student in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. Instute for Cultural Practices. University of Manchester:

Laura Thompson

MA Student in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. Institute for Cultural Practices. University of Manchester:

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