Defining Me

The Manchester District Music Archive organiser Abigail Ward tells Andy Murray why it’s the little things that matter

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Abigail Ward can remember the first record she ever bought in Manchester, on a trip across from her home town of Preston. “The first time I came over I went into a record shop called M1 Records on Oldham Street,” she recalls. “At the time I’d just read Jon Savage’s book England’s Dreaming and I was very interested in punk and post-punk. So I went and bought a Throbbing Gristle record there, 20 Jazz Funk Greats, which has one of the most amazing sleeves ever. Basically it’s Throbbing Gristle standing on a clifftop looking like The New Seekers but with a dead body at their feet.”

Ward has since become an active part of the Manchester music scene, whether DJing or working in assorted independent record shops. In 2003, she was one of a group of people who formed Manchester District Music Archive to document and celebrate that scene. “We all had a common interest in campaigning for a physical space dedicated to Greater Manchester music. We spent a couple of years trying to acquire funding for an actual building, but then we made a decision to create a user-led    online archive.”

Today the MDMArchive site has over 2,500 registered users and counting, and hosts nearly 9,000 artefacts. That’s to say, contributors scan their personal documents relating to Manchester music history – gig tickets, posters, photographs – and upload them to the site for others to see. Over the years, this online community has built up a remarkable collection. “We have one particular member, a guy who calls himself ‘Dubwise-er’ on the site. He lives in Australia now, and he spent 12 months in his garden shed scanning and uploading over a thousand artefacts, which is an incredible contribution,” she says.

Now the archive is taking on a new incarnation – a major exhibition at The Lowry, entitled Defining Me: Musical Adventures in Manchester. “This Lowry partnership is a celebration of the last ten years for us. We’ve been doing events and exhibitions on some scale pretty much once a year, but this is the biggest single exhibition that we’ve done under our banner.” Defining Me features all manner of audio visual media in what Ward describes as “a deliberate attempt to try and recreate our website in a physical space”.

In collaborating with The Lowry, the MDMArchive has brought in some of their regular contributors as co-curators, to share their memories and memorabilia. The selection process for what to include though was as much personal as definitive. She says: “Rather than having an exhaustive chronological exhibition dedicated to Greater Manchester music, which would be almost impossible, we’ve worked with our online community to create more of a scrapbook of things that have defined them. It’s tricky, but we’ve wanted to get that balance right between choosing the artefacts that most define the key moments in their lives, and selecting items that will be richly interesting to the people who’ll be attending the exhibition.”

It also seeks to illuminate some of the lesser-known corners of Manchester music history. “Understandably our archive is full of artefacts relating to Factory Records and Madchester, The Stone Roses, The Smiths and those sorts of bands. And that is as it should be, it’s a user-led archive,” she says. “But over the years we’ve felt increasingly that our role has become to celebrate the unsung stories of Manchester music. So this show will be looking at folk, touching on trad jazz, the 1960s beat scene and lots of other significant, but less celebrated stories.”

As one of the co-curators, Ward has created her own panel in the exhibition, highlighting her personal music history. That Throbbing Gristle album, then – does she still have it? “Oh yeah! It’s got Hot on the Heels of Love on it, which is one of their best tracks. It’s even still got the M1 Records sticker on it.” And has it made it into The Lowry as an exhibit? “As it happens I haven’t foisted that on the exhibition, which the other curators were pretty relieved about.”

Defining Me: Musical Adventures in Manchester, 28 September – 23 February 2014, The Lowry, Salford Quays

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Defining Me

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