Manchester: The People’s History Museum

Manchester wasn’t only at the forefront of the movement for women’s suffrage; it was also a hotbed for labour movements due to its position as “Cottonopolis,” home to the milling industry, and thus one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution, along with all the abuses of workers’ rights that went along with it. Manchester still seems like a pretty progressive place (a bee is the symbol of the city because it represents industriousness and working towards the collective good,) and it is home to the People’s History Museum, which is about “Britain’s struggle for democracy over two centuries.”

  

The museum is located inside a former pump house that was fully restored in 2010, complete with a modern four story addition that looks out over the river Irwell. The permanent galleries are located on the first and second floors, and there’s a gallery for temporary displays on the ground floor. Even though it was only a ten minute walk away from our hotel, by the time we reached the museum, I was so grateful to get out of the sleet and wind (flagpoles were actually bending) that I probably would have paid whatever they were asking, but happily, admission is free, though donations are encouraged.

  

We began our journey through the museum by punching into an old-fashioned time clock, just like mill workers would have done (and me, for most of my working life, having only had salaried jobs in the past year or so), and entered the gallery on people’s history from the late 1700s until 1945. The opening section was all about the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, where 15 people were killed and hundreds injured when cavalry charged the crowd during a protest for voting reform. It then segued into famous Georgian supporters of reform, like Thomas Paine (they had his desk, and a lock of his hair!) and John Wilkes, who was apparently notoriously ugly (he was cross-eyed in the portrait they had of him).

  

There were actually a fair few interactive elements, like doors and bundles you could open that sometimes produced sound effects, and some opportunities for dressing-up (as you’ll see), which I was grateful for, because I have to admit that I have never been the biggest fan of labour history. I mean, sure, I appreciate the fact that people fought and died for the rights we enjoy today, but whenever I had to study it in school, it just seemed like an endless list of names, dates, and worst of all, obscure acronyms, which is exactly the kind of history I hate. As a former punk, I actually feel kind of guilty about this, but I’m primarily interested in how people lived (and died! Especially how they died, if I’m being honest), and I don’t want to just memorise lists or numbers (for someone with two history degrees, I’m actually pretty bad with dates). So I was glad the museum tried to dress up labour history a bit, but there were still sure a lot of names and dates and strikes that I’d never heard of.

  

But it wasn’t all labour history at the museum, fortunately. There was also information about political and social movements (though I’m admittedly not overly interested in those either), like the suffragettes; the socialist movement, the communist movement, and the effect WWI had on society. There was also a small section on British fascism, and I was struck by how stupid their leader, Oswald Mosley looked. The guy wore black turtlenecks and waist belts, like he was trying to look like he came from the future or something. Even without the appalling beliefs, how could anyone follow an idiot like that?  Now I really see what P.G. Wodehouse was getting at with Roderick Spode and his “Black Shorts”.

  

And there were some fantastic posters and political cartoons in here (and even more cartoons in the temporary display, as you’ll see later).  I don’t think Churchill would have particularly agreed with being “comrades in arms” with Stalin though…

  

I especially enjoyed the section relating to the formation of the Labour Party, mainly because it contained this amusing cartoon of a young flapper being wooed by the hip Ramsay MacDonald (with his superb moustache) who was apparently down with the kids, while David Lloyd George and Stanley Baldwin lurk awkwardly in the background, looking like old fuddy-duddies (or the Monopoly man). There was also, rather randomly, Clement Attlee’s pipe on its own special wall, which I thought was kind of hilarious.

  

The gallery upstairs covered the years from 1945-the present(ish, it seemed to stop around the 1980s or ’90s), and contained a lot of splendid stuff too, though I do find late 20th century labour history even more boring than early 20th century labour history (I guess because the changes were less dramatic?). I liked the puppets, and you could actually move around Thatcher and whoever the guy next to her was meant to be (Marcus thinks it’s Neil Kinnock, but I have no idea), but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to open and close their mouths, much to my dismay (it’s hard to put on a puppet show if you can’t make the puppets talk).

  

This gallery also contained some of the museum’s collection of political banners, which they restore on site (you could peer in on the conservators hard at work in their glass-walled office, which made me feel really bad for them. It’s bad enough my office is on the way to the public toilets and I have to keep my door open, so I often have museum visitors gawping at me or sometimes randomly stopping to chat with me even though I try to give the impression of being hard at work, but I couldn’t deal with people staring at me all day every day). At the end, there was a re-creation of an early Co-op supermarket, and a room with a free-play jukebox so you could listen to protest songs (and a few greatest hits) from the last few decades.

   

And then there was the temporary exhibit, which was my absolute favourite part of the museum. It was called “Savage Ink,” which I initially hoped was about tattoos, until I found out it was actually about political cartoons, which was probably even better. I love political cartoons, when done well, and there were some real gems in here. I actually tend to prefer British cartoonists (Peter Brookes is my favourite); I think they capture the absurdity of Trump better than many American cartoonists, and this was no exception – the two delightful pieces featured below are both by British artists.

  

The “shart” in the one on the left makes me lose it every time. There were also older cartoons, including pieces by Gillray, Hogarth, the Cruikshanks (Isaac and George), et al, and cartoons from throughout the 20th century, though I have to admit that I was more familiar with the figures depicted in Georgian cartoons than I was with ones in British political cartoons from the 1980s (which is why I didn’t know who the other puppet was meant to be).

  

They also offered visitors to chance to contribute to a collaborative comic strip, and though I declined to take part due to my total lack of drawing ability, I did enjoy looking at the efforts of previous visitors.

  

The final section of the museum, located in what I imagined was a restored part of the pump house, due to the large industrial looking space with impressively high ceilings, contained photographs of ordinary people in Manchester in the 1950s, some of their identities presumably unknown, since there was a request to get in touch with the museum if you recognised any of the people in the photos.

 

I was kind of excited for the shop, hoping it would be rather like the one at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, with lots of political t-shirts and badges and things (since I’d noticed a Tolpuddle Martyrs tea towel on the way in), but it was a little disappointing. I didn’t see a single t-shirt, and the only badges were ones with the name of the museum on them (which you can make yourself on the badge-making machine in the upstairs gallery, for a £1 fee). We did manage to get a couple of good postcards, and I noticed some nice greetings cards too, but it wasn’t quite what I’d been hoping for. Still, I found the museum enjoyable for the most part, particularly “Savage Ink,” but I have to admit that some of the material inside the permanent galleries was a little boring for my tastes, mainly because some of the displays seemed to assume a level of knowledge that I didn’t possess, due to not being particularly interested in this facet of British history (and not growing up in this country, when I would presumably have been forced to cover some of this material at school). I did appreciate their attempts to make the museum fun and interactive (the inclusion of so many cartoons meant that I learned something just from looking at those, even when I skipped the museum’s signage) – the artefacts on display were generally excellent – and it’s not their fault that my eyes glaze over when I try to read about labour movements. 3.5/5 for the museum.

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13 comments

  1. Nice review. The People’s History Museum is an interesting place, a good insight into political history, albeit from a very particular perspective for which allowances have to be made. Manchester is probably the best place for the museum in the UK, probably even better than Glasgow would be. The cartoon exhibition looks great.

  2. We went here a few years ago, which I think I told you already, largely to see the banners which were amazing. But I enjoyed the rest too, and having studied history via the English education system I know all the things you have gaps about, so it made sense. I mean, OF COURSE, that is Neil Kinnock! We went to an exhibition of political cartoons in Amsterdam which largely starred DT, with a poor second place for Brexit – coming up on the blog soon(ish). Going by the couple you have posted I think they were better than these ones.

    1. I guess Neil Kinnock is another one of those gaps in my knowledge. I’m no great fan of mid-late 20th century American history either, but I know more about it thanks to cultural exposure, plus school of course. I’m looking forward to reading about the cartoon exhibition you saw!

  3. I love this museum – I find a lot of museums (like most of recorded human history, to be honest) is about the ruling elite, so it’s nice to find a place more focussed on the struggles of the working men and women. The Savage Ink exhibit sounds like a good enough reason to revisit the museum.

    1. I agree, but just for my own personal taste, I would have preferred if it had spent a little more time discussing the hardships themselves rather than just the ways people tried to change things. Both are important – I just like learning about how people lived more than politics!

  4. Ooh, I really like that Tom Paine bit – it’s really neat to see his desk and death mask here. (I often find that death masks make the person look more restful than dead – but, nope, Paine’s looks like actual death.) I also enjoyed the signboard with the tale of his lost body. I like the idea that his bones might’ve been left in a pub. (Only because it’d have been such a weird thing to do – not because I think remains should be treated that way, of course.) And that portrait of John Wilkes cracked me up. I know it’s wrong, but the crossed-eye thing always has that effect on me.
    I totally hear you about labour history being generally boring. I have a deep interest in it, but it’s so often painted with a dull, heavy brush that it can be hard to stir up any real feeling for it. It’s far better when the individuals and their stories can be fleshed out.
    Those Trump comics are wonderful! If I could stand looking at the man for any length of time, I probably wouldn’t mind a copy.

    1. I swear there was a plaque or something about Thomas Paine’s body when I went to Lewes a few years back, since he lived there for a while and wrote his first political piece there (they have a pub named after him, and Harvey’s Brewery, which is based there, does a Tom Paine ale). I’ve definitely heard the missing body story somewhere else anyway. John Wilkes makes me laugh too. I mean, it is a caricature, so I think it’s supposed to. I’m sure a portrait he commissioned would be a little more flattering!
      My freezer is actually covered in Peter Brookes’ cartoons of Trump that I cut out of the paper (like this one: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DQCn1oyW4AAv5PG.jpg:large ). They’re so hilariously unflattering that I can bear to look at them!

  5. Fair report! I did buy a votes for women apron in the gift shop… but I know what you mean.
    I enjoyed my first visit but was distracted by finding Andy Burnham was speaking so sat through it and therefore didn’t make it as afar as the twentieth century floor. I went there next with my sister who is Conservative, made her meet me there one day for lunch 😉
    I loved the banners and what they said, and despite having a British upbringing had heard next to nothing about Peterloo which inspired me to go on a guided walk on the anniversary in Manchester. My American/British (now) husband was shocked it wasn’t in the book you get to swot up for the citizenship test. I recommend the walk if you are ever around in August. Sorry to put in another link but just in case it interests you here is my write up: https://memoirsofahusk.com/2015/08/21/peterloo-manchester-1819-fildes-infant-rode-over-by-the-cavalry/
    Thanks again, I enjoyed seeing this from your point of view.
    Good thing you like hats, sounds like it was a good day for one! 😉

    1. I did see the votes for women aprons, but they also had them at the Pankhurst Centre, and having declined to buy one there, I wasn’t going to get one at People’s History either. I’m still holding out for a sash!
      That citizenship test was a joke! Surely knowing key moments in labour history is more important than knowing the flower and saints day of each constituent country.
      The walk sounds interesting! And I would hope visiting Manchester in August would mean better weather, but you never know…

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