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In its heyday wallpaper saw inside it all…

Open House

25 November 2021 – 26 February 2022

Location: the Whitworth, Oxford Road, Manchester, M15 6ER

Open House is a project that connects life lived in front of the wallpaper with the 10,000 wall coverings looked after at the Whitworth.

Wallpapers began arriving at the Whitworth in 1967 and today we 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.

Image courtesy the Whitworth, The University of Manchester. Surface-printed wallpaper designed by Catherine Beevers for Howarths Ltd, Manchester 1966 (W.1972.58)

Until now we 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.

Image courtesy of Eugene Sobers. Contribution from a member of the public.

Open House begins with an exhibition bringing wallpapers from the Whitworth’s collection together with photographs by artists and photojournalists documenting domestic life. Framed by living memory, this display evokes a time from World War II through to the gradual removal of wallpaper from homes in the 1990s. Two local photography series, June Street, Salford (1973) by Daniel Meadows and Martin Parr and Hulme Crescents (1993) by Anthony Haughey show housing that has been demolished entirely.

Image: Michael Pollard

Above: Daniel Meadows and Martin Parr, June Street, Salford (1973)

Also on view are family portraits by Neil Kenlock showing Brixton interiors in the 1970s, domestic scenes in the North East captured by Sirkka-Liisa Kontinnen, Karen Knorr’s view into upper class lifestyles in Belgravia, images from David Moore’s Pictures from the Real World (1988) and documentation of punk subculture at home by Iain McKell. Whether we were around in this time or not, they are foundational scenes of gendered, racialised, class, and culture-driven experiences in the United Kingdom.

Image courtesy the Whitworth, The University of Manchester

Installation view of Open House showing photographs by Sirkka-Liisa Kontinnen displayed next to wallpapers from the Whitworth’s collection. In the case are wallpaper sample books, two rolls of woodchip wallpaper, carpet samples and furnishing fabrics from the Whitworth’s collection.

Alongside the exhibition a rich events programme is playing out, including celebration events, critical dialogue, collection show and tells, family album drop-ins, and a book club. Through this social programme the Open House team is gathering wallpaper-related anecdotes and family photographs capturing the designs that adorned the walls of almost every home and connecting these stories of everyday life to the Whitworth’s wallpaper collection.

Image: David Oates

Above: Collection show and tell session

The exhibition display is being expanded with contributions shared by the Whitworth’s publics. As we bring together these traces of lives lived in front of wallpaper, we are asking: who and what is missing?

Image courtesy of Robert Parkinson

Contribution from a member of the public.

Behind the scenes, a volunteer team are busy photographing 5,000 items from the wallpaper collection and improving documentation levels to enable richer online browsing and vastly expand the collection’s research potential. Photos and memories about wallpaper shared through the project will be attached to collection records to enrich interpretation and tap into social relevance.

Image courtesy the Whitworth, The University of Manchester

‘Festival’ machine-printed embossed wallpaper filling. David Melbourne for Shand Kydd Limited, 1963.


Still to come are events including a day-long symposium on Feb 2 2023 discussing the project and its themes, a reflective film, and a book bringing together public contributions into an Open House ‘family album’.

Check the website for more information and get involved!

Image: Michael Pollard

Above: Open House, the Whitworth

Do you have photos and memories of life lived against the backdrop of wallpaper?

Come to a drop-in session to explore designs from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s in the Whitworth’s wallpaper collection, and share your photographs and stories with the Open House team. Selected contributions will go on display in the exhibition, on the project microsite, and in the Open House 'family album' book.

Next session:

Friday 9 December, 2-4pm

No need to sign up, just drop in.

Can’t come in person?

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Words: Dominique Heyse-Moore and Olivia Heron

Open House was conceived and developed by Dominique Heyse-Moore, previously Head of Collections and Exhibitions and Senior Curator of Textiles and Wallpaper. The project is being delivered by Olivia Heron, Curator.


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