Sunday, 2 May 2010

Resources: The People's History Museum

From LSHG Newsletter, 38 (April 2010)

People’s History Museum
Left Bank, Spinningfields,
Manchester M3 3ER
Tel / Fax: 0161 838 9190

The People’s History Museum in Manchester has just re-opened after a lengthy revamp and rebuild. On the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Society for the Study of Labour History the new museum may attract a few critical comments [and perhaps tweets as it’s on Twitter] from those of us who are used to researching the history of working people in difficult, cramped and often fairly miserable conditions.
Indeed, just for those who remember the old Museum the new one on the same site is a revelation. The first thing to be said is that it is light, airy, spacious and welcoming. Spread over four floors and a number of rooms and spaces, it is also free. On the ground floor alongside a cafe, shop and a building-high wall chart showing the history of labour and the left in the UK, is a temporary exhibition space. When I was there just before Easter this housed a photographic record covering people arrested on demos from the Suffragettes to the miners in 1984-5 and beyond. Again there is space to wander round and step back from the photos to take a look, for those familiar with such things being housed in the equivalent of phone boxes.
On the first floor is labour history up to 1945, that is from Chartism to the SDF and the ILP and then the CPGB. There is a lot to get in, and it can seem a bit crowded. However the design and layout are excellent as are the recorded extracts from speeches, screens and things you can push and open. Some might say this is not serious labour history, but the point is there is enough to interest a veteran like myself but presented in such a way as to engage those less well versed in the history of this great movement of ours and indeed enough to keep kids happily occupied as well. The whole thing is also colour-coded to indicate the separate strands in our history from revolution to reform.
The gallery on the second floor looks at post-1945 struggles from the 1945 Election victory to the NHS, CND, Wapping and so on. Here may be seen the more modern influences of the Morning Star and Socialist Worker familiar to those active on the left now. Again though, wider interest is not forgotten — for example in the section devoted to the history of the Professional Footballers’ Association.
One can, of course, criticise. I thought it was a bit harsh, as well as being wrong, to state that the revolutionary Marxist ideas of the SDF were rejected by the British labour movement. Rather they were a strand albeit a minority one. Further there is not enough sense of the arguments, debates and disagreements that we all know about on the left. They can be maddening and time-wasting, but they are also a sign of a movement that is alive, passionate and, because so, also sometimes argumentative.
The Museum also has the largest store of banners in the world, only a few of which can be on show. Behind the scenes the work of restoring banners goes on. There are facilities for meetings and research. The Museum holds both Labour and Communist Party archives and much else besides including the actual donkey jacket [from Harrods] that Michael Foot wore on that famous occasion at the Cenotaph.
The Museum is a must visit for anyone in Manchester and with the holiday period coming along well worth a special trip as well.
Keith Flett

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