Thomas Dukes reports on his project Archives at Play based at the Castlefield Gallery

by | Oct 2, 2023 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

Thomas Dukes Email: Thesis Title Castlefield Gallery and the Curatorial Project: Archives at Play Manchester Metropolitan University

I’m Thomas, a curator working with Castlefield Gallery in Manchester. Alongside the gallery team, a network of artists, visitors and peers have been part of this research activity, exploring the archive as a part of the gallery. The project looks at how Castlefield Gallery carry its history of almost 40 years of exhibitions, commissions, events, and conversations – and how that archive might be used to reflect on who the gallery is today and where they’re headed.
There are as many styles of curatorial practice as curators, but I approach the exhibition as the central vehicle for explorations. As the root from which unusual questions or unforeseen directions might sprout. During exhibition making, an artist may ask for something difficult in the process of a new commission. There will be compromise, balancing imagination with practical constraints. Perhaps a peer will suggest a workshop with an artist who uses the exhibition in ways previously unimagined. Some students might respond to the exhibition with a brilliant new take, or a visitor might ask a question so piercingly clear that it changes everything. All these things happened in Archives at Play 2 – besides the process of thinking, searching, making, sharing and experiencing that keep me passionate about curatorial practice.
Archives at Play 2 is (unsurprisingly) a sequel to a 2022 exhibition of the same name. The focus of this sequel exhibition – on the materials of the Castlefield Gallery archive – is the result of one of those stiletto-like questions from a visitor to the 2022 exhibition. Back then, I had been so focused on an abstract notion of ‘archives’ as dynamics of the status quo that I had neglected the strange and unruly materials of the Castlefield Gallery archive. This time, I embraced them: the handwritten, undecipherable, forgotten, hopeful, coincidental and chaotic connections, bringing materials to the fore.
A duo of artists, George Gibson and Grace Collins (with their own histories and attachments to Castlefield Gallery), gathered relics from the archive, re-presented in playful archive boxes, with prayer-like poetry. In this space, visitors could leave wishes for the future of gallery spaces written on special notes. It was somewhere to reflect on the pressures that shape a gallery and uncover what the future of Castlefield Gallery might be.
Through Archives at Play 2, Castlefield Gallery and I shared new ways to look at the stories and events that have shaped a space that has been instrumental in the artistic development of Manchester. Anna FC Smith imagined a history of the gallery as held amongst communities through visual languages of guilds and folklore. We explored how histories made to flatten complexity and carry partiality could be opened to new readings through the work of Gherdai Hassell and Alistair Woods.
The support of the NWCDTP has meant that I can spend time honing the curatorial craft I love, support the artists so essential to my work, and can try to share the results as widely as possible – through digital captures of the exhibition, professional videography and publications. If you missed the exhibition and want to know more about it, you can find video interviews, text, and a virtual walkthrough of the exhibition at: