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?
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.
We 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.
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!
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.
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.