I was honoured to be asked to write something for the Mainly Museums website recently, and decided very quickly that it would be good to champion Manchester’s Peoples History Museum, (PHM), on the site. My choice was influenced by the fact PHM tells its story through the graphic accoutrements of political activity; from trade union banners to posters, from badges to membership cards, from propaganda leaflets to magazine covers. This visual telling brings the story alive of the fight for social justice, not just in the North of England, but across the UK and internationally. I would urge anyone to visit should they be in the area.
The article itself is an expanded rewrite of a Field Readings’ post I wrote about the People’s History Museum after I visited many years ago. The new version was first published on Mainly Museums website in July 2019.
The People’s History Museum, (PHM), Manchester, England
Housed in a specially converted pump-house on the edge of Salford in Manchester, the People’s History Museum hosts an amazing display of artefacts relating to British political and social justice history. In some galleries there is an obvious weighting to artefacts telling the social history of the host city, given that such political turning points as the Peterloo Massacre happened there, and that the Cooperative Society was born in Greater Manchester. However, overall the exhibits stretch far beyond the immediate contexts of the museum’s location.
Identifying itself as the National Museum of Democracy, the People’s History Museum’s exhibits are displayed over three floors of galleries, reflecting activist, parliamentary, social, and domestic histories. Alongside this is a display of trade union banners which changes annually. These are drawn from the PHM’s own archive which are preserved on-site with dedicated temperatures and light controlled conservation areas.
In considering what is important to the museum, their website states: “We are the People’s Museum; we welcome everyone, and we connect people. We believe in the importance of conversation, discussion and debate. Our museum is full of passion and emotion—triggering memories, reminding people of ideas worth fighting for today, provoking change in people’s thinking and doing.”
The People’s History Museum initially grew from a collection of labour movement material drawn together by a group of like-minded people in the UK in the 1960s when, according to PHM’s website: “the museum world was largely uninterested”. For 15 years this growing collection was housed in London until the 1980s when, threatened with funding cuts, Manchester City Council rescued it. It was appropriately displayed there in the 1990s; fitting as it was the building where the Trades Union Congress first met in 1926. It was then moved to the Pump House, which was refurbished in 2010. The history and industrial aesthetic of this former Edwardian hydraulic pumping station fittingly provides references the exhibition content it houses and the workers who would have toiled there. With the spacious bare brick interior of some of the rooms, and the weathered steel façade that wraps the exterior, there is a natural homage to the workplace within the very fabric of the structure.
The museum could equally be called the Graphic People’s History Museum, as the story of political struggle, protest and social justice is seen through the lens of the images that gave visual form to ideologies and movements. Graphic design’s purpose in this is not purely as a tool of organisation or persuasion; in walking around the museum you see how it also gave a sense of identity and collectivism to those coming together to fight for a better and more just society. This emotive and ideological connecting of people under a common cause is evidenced throughout in the display of broadsheets, pamphlets, leaflets, posters, membership cards, badges and T-shirts.
As the museum covers a vast time period, it is not surprising that the visuals employed to ‘agitate, educate and organise’ change throughout the three floors, reflect the technological advances in image making, typography and the visual fashions of the day. From original iconic pre-World War 1 posters encouraging people to vote for a specific party, to highly-styled 1980s anti-racist GLC posters that reference style magazines such as The Face. More recent agitprop themed photomontages co-opted by marketing-savvy mainstream political parties are also on display.
If there are any criticisms I can make of the collection, it is that the narrative presented has an almost singularly left-wing bias which is presented as the ‘official’ story. As a result, it sidelines other important historical reference points. While it is understandable that the Labour Party and key trade unions are focussed on a large measure, having as they did the biggest impact on British politics, some more factional left-wing parties and organisations are given exposure at the expense of others. For example, there is a sympathetic nod to the Anti-Nazi League, the Socialist Workers Party and Militant Tendency, while there is a complete lack of anything relating to anarchist history. There is no Class War or anarcho-punk mentioned anywhere, both of which were very visual in their output and both politically and culturally important throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s in the north of England and elsewhere. Despite this minor gripe, there is a broad coverage of other important causes, such as gay & lesbian rights and the Anti-Apartheid Movement. One of the most touching displays for me was a collection of personal belongings of those that volunteered from the UK to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War of 1936, including a typed and signed letter from George Orwell.
What makes the PHM vibrant and relevant to today though, outside of the important historical records it houses, is the rolling programme of exhibitions featured alongside the general collection. On my first visit several years ago, there was a specialist celebration of the Cooperative Society, a retail enterprise that was born in Manchester and continues to this day to have membership led ethical and community policies running through all of its decision making. At the time of writing in 2019, the PHM is hosting a 200 year commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre, with contemporary graphic designers and artists making new work on the theme of ‘the past, present and future of protest’; and an envelope-art based response called From________ To________, “highlighting a range of examples where force has been used to control citizens and suppress dissent.”
The People’s History Museum is a truly important archive, and a visually rich one at that. In these times it can be easy to take what rights and freedoms we have for granted, but this collection helps to keep alive the struggles that won us those rights and freedoms in the first place.
People’s History Museum
Open daily 10am–5pm, (except 24–26 Dec and 1 Jan).
Radical Lates sessions: every second Thursday of the month until 8pm