Global threads: Revealing Manchester's cotton connections
Senior Curator Katie Belshaw explains more about Global Threads, a collaboration between the museum and UCL exploring Manchester's global cotton connections.
On this page, you can find out about the ongoing research and partnership work happening at the Science and Industry Museum to explore the connections between Manchester, cotton and slavery, including our Global Threads and Cotton Connections projects. You can also discover where to find relevant displays in the museum, and where to access our digital content about these objects and stories.
Manchester is a city shaped by cotton. From the late 18th century, the manufacturing of textiles in new, machine-filled cotton mills transformed the town into a booming industrial centre. But innovation and profits went hand in hand with exploitation, on a local and a global scale. Manchester's transformation was heavily reliant on the transatlantic slave trade, and on the exploitation of millions of enslaved African people who were forced to grow the cotton which supplied Manchester's mills.
Global Threads is a public history collaboration between the museum, UCL's Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery, and a team of young researchers. Exploring people, places, archives and museum objects, the project draws out new and previously under-represented stories related to Manchester's cotton industry, particularly those connected to colonialism, enslavement and global movements of people and goods.
The Global Threads team have researched and written a series of ten case studies and delivered a programme of activities for visitors in the museum's Textiles Gallery. They have also presented their work at the Science Museum Group's research conference. Their research has contributed to the creation of new displays about Manchester and slavery in the museum's Textiles Gallery. Some of the team have also collaborated with the British Textile Biennial 2023 on The Penistone Cloth, an exhibition about the global connections of Lancashire's textile industry.
Cotton Connections is a two-year community project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund which explores the museum's textiles industry collection with people from Manchester's Black African, African Caribbean and South Asian communities. Together, we are investigating the connections between the collections and colonialism and enslavement. We are also working together to think about the opportunities and challenges around using and developing our collections to tell more inclusive stories about our shared history in the museum.
We have been working with textile students from The Manchester College to reimagine our much-loved cotton machinery demonstrations. Taking the Global Threads research as a starting point, we've been thinking creatively about how to take our audiences on a journey beyond the mills and warehouses of the North West.
Our new demonstrations will draw out more inclusive and representative stories of how the textile industry impacted people around the world and in doing so, provide audiences with an opportunity to revisit their understanding of our shared history and the threads that connect us all.
Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student Alexander Appleton is researching 19th century Manchester textile merchants Langworthy Brothers, whose business archive is held in the museum's collection.
His research involves an exploration of how Langworthy Brothers, like thousands of other Manchester textile merchants and manufacturers, were connected to slavery through their business activities. Alexander's research will help to shape future museum displays about Manchester, cotton and slavery.
Read more about Alexander's research on the Science and Industry Museum blog.
You can find displays about Manchester, cotton and slavery in the museum's Textiles Gallery. The displays explore how the labour of millions of enslaved people forced to work on cotton plantations in the Americas met industrial Manchester's demand for raw cotton.
Key objects include a model of a cotton gin, like the type used by enslaved people on plantations, and a copy of African American anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass's autobiography. You can also listen to a recording of an anti-slavery speech given by Douglass in Manchester in 1847, and hear the first-hand account of Mary Reynolds, an African-American woman who was enslaved on a cotton plantation in Louisiana. The displays also consider the legacies of these histories today.
Explore our Objects and Stories page to discover more about how our collections reveal the connections between Manchester, cotton and slavery.