Why posters are better than jukeboxes

NMLH 1995.35.8Today is a post from Chris Burgess, our Collections Access Officer and resident posterphile

Regular readers of PHM’s blog will be aware that visitors to the museum voted the jukebox their favourite object. I kind of understand why. The shiny lights, the opportunity to listen to a few tunes after a trip round the museum where you’ve be bombarded by words and objects; it’s enough to lull anyone into voting for it.

Third in the vote came posters, this is where my vote went. If you close your eyes and think about elections, what do you see: men in grey suits, rosettes, maybe a battle bus, but what’s on the wall of that vision? Posters I’d warrant. Watch any fictional depiction of an election and posters appear in the background. If sound bites push politics through the ear, then posters provide the focus for the eye.

At this stage a confession is needed. I love posters. I’m currently in the process of trying to finish a PhD on them; posters haunt my dreams and occupy my waking moments. Yet it remains an affliction to which more people should be affected.

The billboard is the political battle for the street. The mass outside rally may be over, the political meeting dead. Politics has slowly retreated from something we consume publically to something we consume in our home, on the radio, the television and increasingly online. But – in marginal constituencies at least – posters remind us that politics is ultimately and should be a public concern.

Electioneering and politics can be a brutal game, yet posters provide elections with moments of artistry. Who cannot be moved of Gerald Spencer Pryse’s haunting, spiritual image of a mother in a bleak industrial landscape, or simply wonder at the advertising brilliance of Saatchi and Saatchi’s iconic Labour Isn’t Working?

Admittedly posters aren’t as sexy as protest music, I get that. But by studying the history of the billboard we can learn better about how politicians speak to us and why. Posters let us know what politicians think about each other and what they think about us. If we understand posters we understand so much about our democratic past and democratic present; you may be able to say a lot about Bono, but I’m not sure whether you can say that.


Experiment #1: The votes are in!

29 July (2)For the next stage on our ongoing quest to find our visitors’ most loved PHM object, we turned to a more traditional form of polling – the ballot box.  To mix it up we used some transparent ballot boxes, so visitors could see which object was ‘winning’ (yes we blatantly nicked this idea from Waitrose!).  Visitors could vote for their favourite object out of the current ‘top three’ – the jukebox, our poster collection and the hats.  We also left out some trusty post it notes for visitors to add other objects if they disagreed with the ones selected.

Out of 201 votes cast, the winner was….

The jukebox!!!

The votes agreed with the previous stages of the experiment.  Clearly our visitors love a boogie!

Final results Other votes

Whilst we produced some official looking ‘ballot papers’, when these ran out, visitors used their ingenuity and voted with post its and even clocking in cards!

What do you think our next question should be?  What would you cast your vote for?

What’s the story…?

We get lots of weird and wonderful enquiries at the PHM and our small team do our best to get back to them all.  In the first of an occasional series of blogs, we’d like to share with you one of our Registrar’s informative replies…

Q. What is the story behind this fellow? IMG_2519

A. To answer your question, the wooden top-hatted ‘Capitalist’ figure/cartoon was a promotional prop-up, part of the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC) touring exhibition and campaigning in the latter 1930s. The figure is referring, virtually pointing,  to that very exhibition and was placed  in front of the NCLC stalls, on which were posters, pamphlets, and NCLC courses information. NCLC was Marxist and taught Marxist history. It is perhaps reasonable to assume that the ‘Capitalist’ figure might have said the same about these specific displays relating to the 1930s, Unemployment and the Hunger marches, so we were (originally, in 1994) kind of toying with  the idea, I suppose;  but it’s not to be taken too seriously:  ie, it’s more about the NCLC and the era.

British Communist Party caricatures on the stock ‘Capitalist’ figure in the 1930s could sometimes be quite extreme: we have an oil painting from the late 1920s (not on display) depicting ‘him’ with spatted shoes which morph skilfully into cloven hooves (ie devil-like), and he has pointed ears! All very damning, and it’s certainly a bleak painting. Rarely are these caricatures anti-Semitic in 1930s Britain (I’m not sure if true of the British Union of Fascists); though in Nazi Germany in the 1930s such far-right caricatures often were, though I am not sure if that was true of German Communist anti-capitalist caricatures and stereotyping.

Pride in Progress?

What do you do when you’ve advertised a 45 minute long tour and then realise you’ve only got enough material on display to talk for 10 minutes? 

a)    Panic

b)    Cancel the tour

c)    Lie and pretend that some other stuff is relevant

d)    Recruit a team of enthusiastic volunteers, collect their objects and stories and create a new display

Way back in March, when planning our summer events programme, I thought it would be a great idea to programme a LGBT history tour, to coincide with Manchester Pride at the August bank holiday weekend.  We have a great section on equality in Main Gallery Two, with some prominent gay rights material.  Fast forward a few months and I thought I’d better do some research.  Then came the realisation that we didn’t actually have enough on display to create a 45 minute tour – eek!  We have lots of really interesting material in the Labour History Archive & Study Centre, including Peter Tatchell’s papers and the archive of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners so I started having a delve to see if I could use any of it in my tour.  A lot of the information I found genuinely shocked me.  I knew that there had been a struggle, however I didn’t realise the lengths that campaigners had gone through to gain rights for something as simple and natural as kissing in public, let alone the repeal of Section 28 and equal marriage.  I quickly came to realise that as a 27 year old straight woman who was lucky enough to be brought up in a relatively liberal time and place, I was not the best person to be telling this story.

One of the aims of Play Your Part is to ‘engage our audiences in co-curation, responding to our collections, creating their own content and sharing and debating ideas with each other’. With this in mind, I decided to enlist the help of Manchester’s LGBT community to create a display in our foyer that would reflect their lives.  I contacted Kate Hardy at The Lesbian and Gay Foundation (LGF) at the beginning of July, who wasn’t phased by the ridiculously tight deadline of recruiting volunteers, running workshops and curating an exhibition in about 6 weeks!  Kate put her feelers out and invited us along to one of their Carousel Group meetings to make badges and chat to the group about the project and how they could get involved.  We also set up two workshop dates that were open to all to come along, bring their objects, look at our stuff and curate an exhibition (all that in two afternoons – yes, I think I was probably slightly bonkers, but I blame the heatwave!).

At the Carousel Group meeting on Tuesday 6 August we took along a selection of badges from our collection.  There’s a lot to be said for badges – they’re a bit like sweets, they’re small, colourful and draw people in (to be honest I haven’t licked any of the badges in our collection so the comparison ends there!).  When Harriet laid out the badges we were taking on her desk, everyone in the office gravitated towards them and they sparked off discussion – this only ever happens when cake is on offer!  The same thing happened at the Carousel meeting, we found that the group were eager to look at the badges and they proved a great starting point for discussion about other badges they had worn and other objects and memorabilia they had saved.  One woman told a fantastic story about taking a flag from a pub on her first Pride, not realising that it was attached to all the other flags and they came away like a string of magician’s handkerchiefs.  We were also honoured to film a very emotional coming out story.

IMG_2278We were delighted to welcome 13 participants to the first workshop at the PHM the following afternoon.  A large group came from LGF and others came from Out in the City and BiPhoria.  Nicky Crewe from Manchester Archives brought over some of their LGBT material to add to the mix. After a whistle stop tour of the museum we settled down in the archive to delve into the material.   What followed was an informal and fascinating series of discussions, sparked off by the material.  As one participant commented, their favourite part of the workshop was ‘People sharing their stories in a group of about 10 of us opened up seemingly more memories & ideas than the boxed items!’  At the end of the workshop the group were inspired to bring along their own objects next week, and we brainstormed possible themes to include.

LGBT Display workshop 2 @ People's History Museum, 14 August 2013 (5)At the second workshop the following Wednesday we got down to work.  We welcomed back 10 participants, who had brought along their objects, photographs, t-shirts, flags and a giant paper mache rainbow!  The group selected the objects that they felt must be included in the display and we drew out themes from the selection.  Choosing the title for the display proved to be the trickiest part of the process, but we eventually agreed on Pride in Progress? as we wanted to highlight the historical struggle for equality, yet question how far there still is to go. The participants then wrote labels on post it notes for their objects, we wrote an introductory panel and collaborated on a timeline.  The group then arranged the objects in the display cases.  Not bad for three hours work!LGBT Display workshop 2 @ People's History Museum, 14 August 2013 (14) LGBT Display workshop 2 @ People's History Museum, 14 August 2013 (16)

Harriet and I spent the rest of the week typing up the labels and finishing off the display.  The display will be up for at least the rest of August, and you can come along to our free tour on Friday 23 August at 1.15pm.

Pride in Progress @ People's History Museum - August 2013 (2)As an experiment as part of Play Your Part, the project was definitely a success and will inform how we work with community groups in the future.  We were blessed with a group who were lively, enthusiastic and not afraid to get stuck in!  The participants offered to donate a wide range of material to the museum that will kick off our contemporary collecting activities.  The majority of the group felt that via the project they had had greater access to our collections and that they had had their voices represented in the museum.

Massive thank you to all the participants for making the project informative, interesting, and most of all fun!Pride in Progress @ People's History Museum - August 2013 (14)

PHM Podcast Workshop

This week, the PHM hosted D2 Digital and DigiEnable in our Coal Store for a workshop introducing podcasting to fellow arts and culture bods from Manchester and the surrounding areas. I’m not a tech genius by nature, but I am really interested in how new technologies can be used by museums to engage visitors with our story, and point them in the way of our collections. Podcasting isn’t a particularly ‘new technology’ in relation to how fast the digital world moves today, but as a digital phenomenon, podcasting isn’t as widely used by museums as other social media outlets. Therefore, I came to the session eager to be convinced why podcasting would be a great way to engage new and existing audiences with the PHM, for example; what sort of content do people want from a podcast? How long is too long when it comes to podcasting? And most importantly, how do you make a podcast?!Podcast workshop (2)

After introducing ourselves and the obligatory and very welcome morning cookies, we began the workshop with a presentation looking at the stages involved in making a podcast, the ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ when making a recording, and tips when interviewing people for features. With this information fresh in our minds, we were dispatched in groups to go and make our own 3 minute podcast, in half an hour. We had to decide on a theme for discussion, interview questions, and full yet to the point answers. At first, we were quite hesitant and more than once our recordings were interrupted or had to be abandoned due to extended ‘ummm’s’ or ‘errr’s’ and ‘deer caught in headlights’ style silences. However, once we got over the fact that a microphone was going to be pushed towards you and the requirement of having to come up with some intelligent yet witty remarks, conversation flowed and we record over five minutes of data easily!

Podcast workshop (1)As a group, we decided to base our podcast around digital technology, and whether the use of such things as podcasts, QR codes, social media and smart devices in museums and galleries was inclusive or exclusive to our visitors. It is my personal opinion that such technologies can be extremely inclusive in the right context, and will act in bringing about a wider resonance and therefore response from our audiences. The use of technology is going to happen both inside and outside of the museum whether we like it or not, and therefore I believe it makes sense for museums to point these people towards our collections by utilising these technologies as an accompaniment to our traditional roles, but not ahead of them so as to be exclusive. One group member from the Museum of Wigan Life pointed out that these technologies can be exclusive in that people who have no access to these devices are left out, which served as creating a debate on which to frame our recording.

Once the raw data had been collected, we gathered around a laptop and used the programme Audacity to cut and edit our recordings into a 3 minute piece. The programme was really easy to use and in no time we had a podcast which was ready to go! We then got the chance to listen to each other’s podcasts which provided much entertainment (no one likes the sound of their own voice, do they?) One group chose to talk about their Manchester heroes, while the other used their time to talk about their roles in the cultural sector.

Overall, I found the course extremely useful; it offered practical information, hints and tips on how to produce a podcast. While this was great and very much needed, I was still left to wonder; why should museums and galleries produce podcasts?  When asked, the group leader stated that podcasts are a great way to engage a new audience in a completely new way, and can be linked to our existing website easily. I have to agree, the workshop certainly proved to me that podcasts have a place in our museum, especially our Play Your Part project. They will be a great addition to our gallery tours, and give us the chance to broadcast many of the interesting people who visit the museum in both a professional and personal capacity. So, watch this space- the first PHM podcast, coming soon!

Playing my part: reflections on being a participant in art works

Cleaning Conditions at Manchester Art Gallery – copyright Manchester City Galleries

The other week I did a spot of moonlighting at Manchester Art Gallery (MAG) and swept their floors. Fortunately this wasn’t some sort of museum exchange programme brought on by the cuts (although I probably shouldn’t be putting ideas into people’s heads!), but a foray into MAG’s do it 2013, an evolving exhibition created from a series of instructions written by artists. Initiated by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist with artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier 20 years ago, do it has been enacted in 50 different places, making it the widest-reaching and longest running ‘exhibition in progress’ ever to occur.

I had volunteered to participate in Suzanne Lacy’s Cleaning Conditions, a response to Allan Kaprow’s 1995 instruction:

Sweeping the dust from the floor of a room,

spreading the dust in another room

so it won’t be noticed.

Continuing daily

As described by MAG: ‘Cleaning Conditions – takes cleaners and the act of sweeping as its starting point. Lacy is interpreting Kaprow’s instruction through the lenses of gender and activism, provocatively framing the instruction in terms of the social and political climate in Manchester. Conversations on immigration, class and the struggle for global equity will be framed within a context of current issues in women’s role in the care and service industries and the corporatisation of such labour.’

At the pre-performance briefing around 15 volunteers, all female (although this wasn’t deliberate, and there were some male volunteers at other performances of the piece), from a number of backgrounds were introduced to the concept of the piece and how we would execute it on the day.  We were there for different reasons: some had been invited by MAG to take part in order to highlight particular issues (at the performance I participated in there were women representing migrant communities from China, Poland and Somalia, in other performances invitees included representatives from the cleaners’ strike in London and campaigners for a living wage); others already volunteered at MAG; some were artists; and I was there to research how participatory approaches could highlight some of the issues we cover at the PHM.

We were told that we would file into the gallery and be taught how to sweep by two of the museum’s cleaning staff (there actually is a ‘correct’ way to sweep, which I’d been getting wrong!).  Then we would sweep each gallery in turn.  In the archways between the galleries we would stop and two of us would use a dustpan and brush to clear away the dirt.  They would then go back and distribute ‘literature’ in the gallery we’d just cleaned.  These were small folded information cards, highlighting organisations and campaigns such as Migrant Workers North West, Living Wage 4 Manchester and the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission.  This would continue throughout the galleries until we’d got back to the first gallery.  We would then sit down and have a discussion next to a painting.  We were instructed not to talk to any of the museum visitors, but we could talk amongst ourselves.  As it was the press launch the start of the performance was delayed as the train from London was late!

When we started sweeping it was very unnerving having a bank of press photographers snapping away, however once I got into a rhythm something very strange happened – I became invisible.  About halfway through I suddenly became very conscious of the fact that I had had my head down the whole time, staring at the floor.  I don’t think I’ve ever spent that long staring at the floor of an art gallery!  I was oblivious to the wonderful and inspiring artworks on the walls, all that mattered was the floor and the sweeping of the brush.

When the sweeping was complete we all sat down next to Work by Ford Madox Brown. Meg Parnell, the Lifelong Learning Manager at  MAG who had worked with Lacy to organise the performance, explained some of the history of the painting and how the artist had depicted different forms of work – from the navvies to the thinkers.  With this as a backdrop, Parnell then facilitated a discussion between the participants.  We discussed how we felt when sweeping, feelings of invisibility, gender, experiences of women migrant workers, and wider social issues. This at times felt like a private discussion in public, as we were so engrossed in the conversation.  I was not aware of any gallery visitors listening to the conversation as it felt like such a bubble until someone interrupted and offered her opinion.  This highlighted to me the importance of having these conversations in public, to tell stories about issues that are often hidden away, at places where people will listen.  Whilst an artist had constructed the situation, the conversation itself felt natural and real – it did not feel like I was ‘art’, it felt like I was human.

In 2010 I participated in Spencer Tunick’s commission for The Lowry, Everyday People.  Tunick is famous for producing large scale, site-specific photographic works featuring mass gatherings of nude participants posed in artistic formations within major urban landscapes.  Everyday People was intended to be Tunick’s first visual response to the work of another artist for the entirety of a project – the work of LS Lowry.  As The Lowry’s press release stated: ‘Tunick will focus on the concept of ‘everyday people’ for the Salford and Manchester installation as a reference to the compositional style of LS Lowry, whose figurative works depict a mass of bodies going about their daily life. In contrast to his usual, static compositional style, Tunick will break new ground in his approach by capturing the movement of everyday people within each photograph.’

My experience of participating in both artworks was very different.  Whilst participating in Tunick’s work was very liberating (and very, very cold!!), I very much felt a small part of a whole.  The participants were not seen as individuals, more as drops of pigment to be arranged on the artist’s canvas.  At each shoot we were instructed (through a megaphone): ‘Don’t look at the camera! Don’t smile! Don’t move!’ However this did help overcome any reservations I may have had about getting naked, in public, on the streets of Salford and Manchester.  I was an anonymous part of the bigger picture, and as a result didn’t feel exposed.

In contrast, by participating in Lacy’s work I felt very valued as an individual.  The artist met all the participants beforehand and introduced herself personally to each of us in the pre-performance briefing.  In fairness, the scale was a lot smaller than in the Spencer Tunick piece.  Whilst the first part of the performance, during the sweeping, the participants were definitely seen as a group – all dressed in identical red tshirts, sweeping together – in the second half of the performance we became individuals again, contributing our opinions.

What I would find more interesting, however, is the long term reach of Lacy’s project.  How will it affect the participants, observers and gallery in the long term?  Is it an important way to highlight social conditions, or superficially ‘parachuting’ in an artist to exploit an issue?

My experiences as a participant in artworks will inform how I approach any participatory activities I develop as part of our Play Your Part project. As a representative of an institution I need to be aware of how we work with groups and individual participants, how we value their input, and the importance of creating a dialogue, not exploiting people’s experiences and memories.  This is all basic ethics, and what I would have thought about already, but experiencing something sharpens my understanding of the relationship between the institution and the individual and how this can be developed into something that is mutually beneficial, informative and inspiring.

Community Campaigns Notice Board & Protests on our Doorstep

An element of our Play Your Part project is to ‘inspire direct action’.  We realise that visitors might get fired up from finding out about the story we tell and want to play their part in campaigns they feel passionate about.  Which is why we’re going to set up a ‘Community Campaigns’ notice board at the museum for you to shout about your causes.  Are you organising a demo or publicising a petition?  Do you have an idea worth fighting for?  Send in your flyers for upcoming events, either in the post, at our info desk or email them to catherine.odonnell@phm.org.uk.  It goes without saying that we won’t display anything that may be offensive to some people (e.g. anything we deem to be racist or sexist etc.).

To inspire you we’re starting a series of occasional blogs about ‘Protests on our Doorstep’.  As the home of ideas worth fighting for we are conveniently placed in the historically radical city of Manchester (come see our displays on the Peterloo Massacre and the Suffragettes to name just two examples).  Manchester in 2013 lives up to its radical roots and there are many protests taking place across the city on practically a daily basis (well if you include us moaning about the weather!).  Neighbouring the courts we can see a lot of them out of our window!

In recent weeks we’ve witnessed the following protests:

A protest against blacklisting, 12 July 2013

Blacklist demo, 12 July 2013, Manchester (4)

No Bedroom Tax, 27 July 2013


Bedroom Tax demo, 27 July 2013, Bridge St, Manchester (8)

64 years of Legal Aid a celebration and a protest, 30 July 2013


Legal Aid Rally 30 July 2013, Crown Court Square, Manchester (2)