Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The People's History Museum

by Sheila Corr

Manchester flourished through textiles, progressing from cottage industry to manufacture on a grand scale, in dark satanic mills where workers eked out a pretty miserable existence. As the first industrial city, it was at the forefront of radical thought and reform - a centre for Trades Unionism, the Labour and Suffragette movements, and the Co-operative Society (in nearby Rochdale), so it is a fitting location for charting the dramatic struggle for British democracy and workers’ rights. The People’s History Museum has just re-opened after an extensive re-development made possible with grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and others, boasting a four-storey extension to the original Pump House which once supplied power to some of the mills and wound the clock on that civic centrepiece of all Victorian cities, the Town Hall.

The collections of the Trades Union Congress, Labour Party and the Co-op have been augmented by a number of others, including the Communist Party of Great Britain. Material from these sources and some personal political papers can be studied in the Labour History Archive, stored in a controlled environment in the basement of the new building, where on the second floor there is an impressive conservation studio to look after the museum’s textiles - 440 banners for a start.

We were shown around by the Director, Dr Nick Mansfield, who, together with a small but committed staff brings excitement, enthusiasm and a huge amount of knowledge to the museum. The first floor, which begins with Manchester’s own tragedy of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, feels hopeful , sometimes even celebratory, as full enfranchisement is fought for and won; Revolution, Reformers, Workers and Voters are the central themes. Here is the desk on which Thomas Paine wrote Rights of Man, a carved chair leg used as a truncheon at a Chartist demonstration, a ballot box.

The second half (from 1945) feels different, perhaps because I remember much of this period, and is on a completely different scale as small prints and artefacts give way to huge banners and posters (interestingly the slogans on these demonstrate how political parties shifted from the idealism of ‘Labour leads the way’ to the Tory attack of ‘Labour isn’t working’) while large screens show moving footage of protests. The fight for democracy becomes a fight for equality, justice and even peace: but rights painfully won are lost again as unions are crushed, and jobs, then whole industries, disappear. Under the vivid colours of the TUC banners, I was rather poignantly reminded of The Full Monty where the brass band plays on after the steelworks has closed.

As a disengaged population face a general election in which a large portion of the electorate is unlikely to bother voting at all, it is salutary to remember how hard others have fought, and even died, for our right to do so.

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