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By Drew Forsyth on

Photographing behind the scenes at the museum

What does it take to create stunning images from behind the scenes at a museum?

Those of you who are avid followers of the museum’s social media channels will know that the end of July marked the re-opening of the Textiles Gallery. For six weeks or so, the gallery closed in order to undergo a facelift, and as part of the refresh it has been redesigned, and some new objects have been unveiled.

While the gallery was undergoing its makeover, the team very kindly invited me in to take portraits of the curatorial, archives and conservation team.

A woman wearing blue gloves sits at a desk in a basement conservation studio. She is concentrating on cleaning a small object in front of her. Her face is dramatically lit from above by a desk lamp.
Conservator Kathryn Kreczak cleans four penny and half-penny coins dated 1799 and 1806, found in the roof space of Murrays’ Mills in Ancoats, Manchester. This shot is lit by the desk lamp, and nothing else.

The brief for the job was simple. Tell the individual stories of six objects in a unique, compelling way.

Conceptually, I knew I wanted to make the images look dramatic and interesting, as well as being honest in the portrayals, and trying not make things look too staged.

Whilst sometimes I think you do have to stage manage things when taking shots like these, with these images I wanted to show what was really happening down in the basement – and there’s no reason why the images can’t also look beautiful and captivating too. For that reason, you’ll see the team performing actions that they really do have to do, and the images do have a bit of a documentary feel to them.

From chatting to the team, it was immediately clear that they were all incredibly dedicated and focused in their work, and I wanted that to shine through the images. For that reason, I chose more dramatic lighting (sometimes just using the lamps that were available to us in the room) as well as a very narrow depth of field in order to draw the eye to their actions.

An onate stamping block with a looping pattern is being lifted by a woman wearing a pair of blue gloves
Katie Belshaw, Curator of Industrial Heritage handles a Trademark printing block from around 1900, used by textile merchants Paterson Zochonis to mark cotton goods for export. It was really heavy.

Structurally, there were six objects that were being restored, and so as I photographed each object’s restoration, the camera moved closer to the object, culminating in a solo shot of it in all its glory.

A female curator looks intently at a small pair of leather clogs. She is seated at a large desk surrounded by shelves and trolleys.
Katie Belshaw holds child’s clogs from Charter Street Ragged School. Made around 1870, they were loaned to children without shoes of their own and stamped C.S.R.S loaned, not to be pawned.
A woman sprays setting spray onto another woman's hair, while in the background a photographer adjusts some lights.
A wider shot of what the camera sees: my assistant Conrad took this pre-light shot, which shows Hair and Makeup Artist Ruchi Ratna, as well as myself. I’m sure I’m doing something very important.
A male photographer shoots an image of a woman sitting at a desk in a busy museum environment.
Another behind the scenes shot by Conrad showing the lighting and technical setup. Bottom right you can see my laptop – I’m shooting tethered so I can see the images on the screen straight away, and also so the client and the talent can see how the images are coming out. The software is also editing them live, so the client can get a sense of what the final images will look like right away.

When you’re shooting a job like this, it’s important to remind yourself of everything that can go wrong, in order to take measures to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

A woman in a blue top leafs through a large album containing colourful images.
Museum Archivist Ceri Forster examines a collection of Shippers Tickets, used between around ~1880-1960. They were employed by textile merchants on cotton goods for export, and were designed to appeal to different customers around the world.

You’re shooting on location in the museum archive where you’ll be surrounded by fragile objects – if touched, those objects could be damaged beyond repair. You have to manage a Curator, an Archivist, and a Conservator who are a little anxious about firstly, having their portraits taken at all, and secondly, a photographer with all their gear in a confined space. Finally, you have three hours to do all this, and create visually breathtaking images that could be picked up by national and international media outlets.

A woman pulls a white covering sheet of a piece of black machinery with a wheel and ropes on one side.
Katie Belshaw unveils a Cotton Gin from around 1860. Made in Manchester, it was used to clean raw cotton by separating the fibres from its seeds. The gin made it easier to process cotton, which increased the demand for slave labour to plant and pick it.
A woman in a blue top looks through sheets of floral designs
Ceri Forster, Archivist, looks at wallpaper samples.
A woman wearing blue gloves handles a selection of pots, bottles and shells
Kathryn Kreczak restores a selection of archaeological material, from approximately 1860-1930, found during excavations of the foundations of workers’ housing in Manchester. Shot this handheld from above, and everyone was totally fine with me holding my camera above very delicate objects.

It was a wonderful privilege to be able to work alongside the Museum to create these portraits, and I’m really proud of the results! The gallery is open every day, 10am – 5pm, and you’ll be able to see the objects I photographed.

Also thanks to the amazing Ruchi Ratna who did Hair and Makeup, and Conrad Ohnuki who assisted me on the day.


To see more of Drew’s work, click here

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