Exploring Music in the Manchester Together Archive

The public response to the attack at Manchester Arena on 22 May 2017 resulted in over 10,000 objects being left by members of the public at different spontaneous memorials in Manchester city centre. These objects, now known as the Manchester Together Archive, provide a window into understanding how people worked through the trauma and pain of the attack. The objects themselves hold an emotional biography as they each tell the story of a person who wanted to show or process their grief in a material form.[1] They express both personal and collective grief and also voice social unity and survival.

I undertook a placement at the Manchester Together Archive while studying for a Masters in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at the University of Manchester. As a student in Manchester at the time of the bombing, and someone who visited St. Ann’s Square in the aftermath, I was struck by how united Manchester became and the overwhelming messages of love and community that were all over the city. So when the opportunity came to work directly with the collection I was very passionate about learning more about the stories behind these objects and exploring the reflection of the Manchester community within these objects.

My work with the archive consisted of cataloguing, photographing and researching these objects. Through this interaction, I could see that a significant number of people had used music-related objects to express their grief, either through lyrics written on a card, images of bands or by leaving musical instruments at the memorials. The large number of such objects indicates that music was a significant part of the grieving process for many people. The location of the attack at Manchester Arena at the end of an Ariana Grande concert made music even more of a powerful tool to show defiance against terror, to express emotion, and for some to reflect their Mancunian identity.

Card with handwritten message and lyrics
Card with handwritten message and The Smiths lyrics, Manchester Together Archive

Song lyrics: Processing emotions and making connections

Music has been credited with helping people to heal and manage their grief as they can make a connection between their own emotions and the emotional lyrics of a song, helping them accept those emotions and begin to move on.[2] The combined action of leaving a commemorative object and writing musical lyrics, can help materialise internal emotions in the physical form of an object, and the lyrics can put into words a person’s grief and the need for remembrance.[3] Many of the objects in the Manchester Together Archive include song lyrics. The inclusion of lyrics on cards and other items helped people express their personal emotions through poetic verse that might be familiar to many of us, with the attack bringing deeper meaning to the words. The abundance of musical lyrics written on cards and other objects suggests music was a key outlet for people to try to understand what had happened in the aftermath of the attack and work through their emotions. The card above includes The Smiths quote ‘There is a Light That Never Goes Out’. The Smiths lyrics tap into the feelings of loss and grief that many people were experiencing, but also, through the imagery of the lit candle, spoke to a widely-held and widely-expressed conviction that the people who died should never be forgotten.

Handwritten lyrics and bunny ears
Handwritten Ariana Grande lyrics and bunny ears, Manchester Together Archive

Song lyrics might also be used to help form a connection between the living and the dead.[4] The note above includes a drawing of Ariana Grande bunny ears with the lyrics to ‘One Last Time’ written around it. The act of writing the lyrics by hand, ‘one last time, I need to be the one who takes you home’, is a form of communication between the writer and the person who died.[5] As the lyrics are from an Ariana Grande song, there is extra meaning attached, and the words reflect an even deeper sense of loss. These lyrics perhaps helped form a bond between the writer and the people who died, allowing the writer to try and process their grief.

Decorative heart with Oasis lyrics
Decorative heart with Oasis lyrics, Manchester Together Archive

Another interesting feature of the musical lyrics on objects is that they often reject violence and express love. The wooden heart with the Oasis lyrics, ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, rejects the aim of terrorism to turn people against one another, and instead emphasises the need to bond and unite. These lyrics express perfectly how following a tragic event, people often rely on remembrance, love and solidarity as a way to heal.[6] The placement of these popular lyrics on everyday objects, in response to the attack, gives both object and lyrics new meaning.

Having been left at a commemorative site, they take on a sacred nature – no longer just objects and words, but a physical representation of people’s grief.[7] Through analysing just a few of these objects, the power musical lyrics have in helping people understand their emotions in the aftermath of such a tragedy is revealed. Lyrics can comfort people when they are in a state of shock and grief as they help voice feelings they are otherwise unable to express.

Music as an expression of community identity

Music is very much at the heart of Manchester culture. The city has a rich musical heritage, and has been described as the musical hub of the UK since the indie rock era in the 1970s.[8] Manchester bands such as The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Joy Division/New Order and Happy Mondays all helped to make Manchester a cultural hotspot, and their music remains very popular. The city continued to produce new bands with Oasis in the 1990s and today with two-time Mercury Prize nominees, Everything Everything. The city is also well known for its clubbing scene, including the gay district along Canal Street holding renowned gay clubs such as ON bar, making it widely known as the centre of Manchester’s LGBTQ+ community.   

Guitar with message
Guitar with message, Manchester Together Archive

This strong musical culture meant that when the attack targeted a concert and music lovers, it was perceived by many as an attack on Manchester’s identity. This led to people leaving music-related objects such as the guitar shown above. Written on the guitar is the statement ‘Manchester always was, always has been, always will be, about the people and the music.’ As a collective symbol of Mancunian identity, music can be used to bring the community together in a time of tragedy. Kai Erikson defines ‘community trauma’ as ‘a blow to the tissues of social life that damages the bonds linking people together and impairs the prevailing sense of community.’[9]

Music was a powerful tool in repairing these bonds because it reminded the public of their collective Mancunian identity, which helped to foster unity and togetherness in a time of instability.[10] The postcard that pictures Manchester bands, shown below, further shows the importance of community in the grieving process, and the place music had in reminding people of this. This postcard illustrates the importance of social support in times of grief, and the role music played in helping to bring people together by reminding the public they are not alone and they have a strong community by their side.

Postcard with photographs of musicians
Postcard with photographs of musicians by Lawrence Watson, Manchester Together Archive

The power of music to unite people is demonstrated by the One Love concert band shown below. 50,000 people attended and the event was viewed by a further 14.5 million people, resulting in over £2 million being donated to the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund, a charity set up after the Manchester attack to support those affected. The concert showed how music can unite people in times of sorrow. The concert band represents ‘a night of unity, healing and joy’ as artists and fans joined together to voice loss, remembrance and togetherness through music.[11] The musical objects in the Manchester Together Archive suggests that music was key in voicing this message of unity, which played an important role in giving people social support in their grief and helping them begin to heal.

One Love concert wristband
Wristband from the One Love Manchester concert held on Sunday 4th June, Manchester Together Archive

The many objects referencing music that were left in commemoration at the spontaneous memorials, and the analysis of just a few of them here, gives an insight into how music can help people with their grieving process. Music can connect people powerfully with their emotions, as illustrated by the writing of lyrics on objects. This act helps people express their feelings and provides comfort in a time of instability. The Manchester Together Archive also reveals how music can be used as a tool to bring the community together through referencing and emphasising a shared culture of rich musical heritage, helping to remind people they are not alone and that terror does not define the city.

Reflecting on my time at the Manchester Together Archive, I feel incredibly proud and privileged to have worked with such an emotional and intimate collection that will become part of Manchester’s heritage. The array of objects that were left from all ages, backgrounds, and even countries really highlighted to me that objects are not just static reflections of time but are almost animate in that they are filled with individual stories, emotions and histories. Working with a spontaneous public memorial collection has shown me the importance of collecting and preserving these objects as it means they can continue to be sites of remembrance; be that in an archive or online for the public to see.

Kara McLoughlin

[1] Sloan, Katie, Jennifer Vanderfluit, and Jennifer Douglas, ‘“Not ‘Just My Problem to Handle”: Emerging Themes on Secondary Trauma and Archivists’, Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies, 6 (2019), 1-24 (4); Morin, Sara, A Museum’s Reference Guide to Collecting Spontaneous Memorials (New England: Museum Association, 2015), p. 6.

[2] Cox, Gerry, ‘Using Music and Poetry to Manage Grief’, Illness, Crisis and Loss 18:4 (2010), 355-371 (355).

[3] Arvanitis, Kostas, ‘The Manchester Together Archive: Researching and Developing Museum Practice of Spontaneous Memorials’, Museum and Society 17:3 (2019), 510-532 (513).

[4] Santino, Jack, ‘Performative Commemoratives: Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death’, in Jack Santino, ed., Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), pp. 5-16 (p. 12).

[5] Doss, Erika, The Emotional Life of Contemporary Public Memorials: Towards a Theory of Temporary Memorials (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2008), p. 15.

[6] Doss, Erika, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), pp. 122-123.

[7] Milošević, Ana, ‘Historicizing the Present: Brussels Attacks and Heritagization of Spontaneous Memorials’, International Journal of Heritage Studies 24:1 (2018), 53-65 (60); Cvektovich, Ann, An Archive of Feelings (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 1.

[8] Skandalis Alexandros, Banister Emma, Byrom John. Musical Taste and the Creation of Place-Dependent Capital: Manchester and the Indie Music Field. Sociology 54:1 (2020), 124-141 (127).

[9] Erikson, Kai, A New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience of Modern Disasters (London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994), p. 233.

[10] Milošević, Ana, ‘Remembering the Present: Dealing with the Memories of Terrorism in Europe’, Journal of Terrorism Research 8:2 (2017), 44-61 (51).

[11] Youngs, Ian, ‘One Love Manchester: Joy Shines Through Pain at Benefit Concert’, BBC News, 5 June 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-40153433 [accessed 17/11/20].