Ask a Curator: Why is the suffragette section so small?

A guest post from our new Curator, Chris Burgess

09 October 2013 (9)In a recent experiment to gather people’s thoughts and questions on PHM’s galleries, one visitor asked two questions. The first was Why is the suffragette section so small?  And the second Where is the info on the women who campaigned for the vote for all women, not just ‘educated’ women from the start? Here is my response.

Dear anonymous visitor,

I’m going to attempt to answer your query. But I should warn you that PHM is a museum of politics and debate. In this spirit I should state that don’t entirely agree with the premise of your question. Relative to the rest of the gallery I don’t agree that the suffrage display is that small. In terms of floor area its one of the largest, although I’ll admit it would be better if it were bigger (but I’d say that about much of the sections of the galleries).

To some extent all the displays reflects the size of the collection. As a museum our uniqueness, our USP, is the stuff.  Often it was objects that drove the decision making about the relative size of displays. The suffragette collection at PHM is probably one of the largest of its type in the UK (the Museum of London and obviously the Women’s Library also in London can count larger examples). Despite this, other collections at PHM dwarf it, the examples of posters and the banner collection spring to mind. Suffragette material is highly coveted by public institutions and private collectors alike, acquiring more of it is very difficult (though we would like too). Given the size then of the collection what with the objects and the recreation of leading peoples history museum ManchesterSuffragette Hannah Mitchell’s kitchen, I’d say the display is relatively large.

I’d also like to say that I think the museum’s focus on the suffragettes goes beyond the story of ‘rich women’. As stated the kitchen is a recreation of Hannah Mitchell’s who was a working class woman from Derbyshire who lived in Bolton and Manchester. We also have the arrest warrant of Leeds suffragette Alice Noble a 17 year old working class woman arrested on a march in London and sent to Holloway. Moreover, the museum’s ‘displays’ move beyond the physical. We host a yearly festival called ‘Wonder Women’ which has events, conferences, art instillations etc which highlight women’s fight for the vote. The museum also has aLiving History - The Hard Way Up @ People's History Museum 021 ‘living history’ character which brings to life for school groups the story of afore mentioned working class suffragette Hannah Mitchell.

Does this sound defensive? It’s not meant to. Because I do think there are some problems with the display as it stands. That gap between 1918 when women aged 30 and over were included in the franchise (I’m avoiding the word given, far too patronising) and the equal franchise act in 1928 is almost entirely absent from the gallery. Bearing in mind this was a time when there a significant campaign to end the discriminatory age bar for women, we do need to say more. And to be honest, the act itself, that seminal moment when women and men could vote on equal terms is also not properly recognised. Every time I give a tour of the galleries, I emphasise that crucial point, and yet not everyone who visits can make the tour.

To finish I’d like to say that of course there is mention of the famous women of the suffrage movement; the Pankhursts and Emily Wilding Davison’s. Though I feel we’d get complaints if there were not. And we recognise that there were thousands of women (and men) who campaigned for suffrage. Of them nothing survives, not even a name. How then to recognise those women? I’d like to think that in some ways the museum is a memorial (is the right word?) to them, but perhaps we need more. When working on the new museum we had the same problem with the display on sweated labourers; women who worked horrendous hours for criminally low pay. The same for the account of match girls strike, of which there are no objects. There is a display to both and an interactive which (we hope) helps people empathise with their plight.

But ultimately the museum is one of the poor, the unrecognised, and the underrepresented. These people did not necessarily own much. At which point the obvious question arises: how do museums whose very foundation is built on objects of the past, tell the lifes of those whose history is not expressed through material possessions, but through ideas, through fights and above all through hope?

In part, I hope, it’s by having these discussions with our visitors.


Experiment #1: Part 4 – Post its in the galleries

Whilst doing these Play Your Part experiments, I often imagine I’m wearing a white coat and blowing things up in the lab.  Fortunately for our visitors and collections, I’ve not been let loose with any chemicals yet, so you’re all safe (for now… *evil laugh*).  Science at school wasn’t very hands on, but I can imagine that proper scientists have experiments that succeed and many that fail (and some that have unexpected results).

Whilst not a catastrophic failure, Part 4 of Experiment #1 was a bit of a damp squib.  The aim was to encourage visitors to engage directly with the collections, right in the galleries.  We placed six instruction signs (three in each gallery), colour coded post it notes and pencils throughout the galleries and asked our visitors to Setup - 6 September 2013 (17)‘Ask a Curator’, Setup - 6 September 2013 (3)tell us their inspirational objects and Setup - 6 September 2013 (16)share any memories sparked by the collections.

One of our main concerns was that over–enthusiastic visitors would stick their post it notes directly onto our banners on open display.  With this in mind, we asked visitors not to, and briefed all staff to be vigilant of stray post it notes on the objects:

So everyone can still see the objects, please don’t hide them with your post-it, and do not stick them on our beautiful banners as the sticky will damage them!

We didn’t need to be so worried.  The results of the experiment showed that our visitors were reluctant to post their comments directly in the galleries and we only received a light smattering of responses.  This was in contrast to the results of previous experiments when we got a larger response.

There are a number of possible reasons for this:

–       Low light levels in the galleries

–       We asked too many different questions

–       We didn’t ask relevant questions

–       The signs were too hard to spot

–       Visitors didn’t feel comfortable adding comments directly in the galleries

Halfway through the experiment we moved the signs outside the galleries to see if this made a difference.  We thought that if the visitors saw the signs before they went in, the questions would be in their minds when they encountered the objects, and they would be more likely to respond.  Unfortunately this didn’t seem to have any discernible difference.

Over the course of the experiment we logged 26 post its: 5 blue ‘Ask a Curator’ questions, 12 green ‘I like this because’ and 9 yellow ‘I remember’. The responses we did get were very engaged with the collections and well thought out.  They included a detailed answer in Spanish next to the Chile Solidarity Campaign banner, which translates as ‘Thanks for the solidarity with can always fight the people of Chile. Thanks for helping to overthrow the dictatorship. “Workers of the World Unite”’.

Main Gallery Two - Post its plotted on map002 Main Gallery One - Post its plotted on map001I mapped the comments onto a floorplan of the galleries to see the spread of responses.  The dots are the post it notes, the crosses are where the stands were placed. By far the most popular area was the Co-op shop.  This is probably not surprising as it is one of the more popular areas of the galleries and is within living memory.  Comments included, ‘I got my first bike from the co-op. My grandma paid the deposit and I paid the weekly payment.’ and ‘I remember going to the co-op for my mum, I had to memorize our Divi number and tell it to the shopkeeper.’

Whilst the responses were limited, the experiment definitely drew out quality over quantity.  Surprisingly, there were no post its mentioning the allure of One Direction, or just visitors signing their names, although there was the hilarious, ‘I stole a loaf of bread. Sorry – John Valjean’ in the Co-op shop.  This does have implications of how we’re going to take the project forward.  We are in the process of tentatively developing a similar system, which is more high tech, for visitors to comment on objects, both online and onsite.  I am concerned that this experiment shows that there may be a lack of take up, however the comments did show a level of engagement on a deeper level than some of the previous experiments we’ve done.  The next step will to embrace my inner scientist and carry on testing!


IMG_3385IMG_3387This month we’ve been working on some programming that explores the often complicated relationship between fashion and protest.  We’ve got an exciting new pop-up exhibition in the foyer and The Left Bank cafe bar from Labour Behind the Label called Made in Cambodia and you can sample life as a garment worker at their Race for a Living Wage: educational exploitation for all the family! event this Sunday.   The exhibition details the lives of Cambodian garment workers producing sportswear goods in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics. The photography exhibition follows one day in the lives of a group of women garment workers who work in the Shen Zhou garment factory in Phnom Penh, making products for Adidas’s 2012 Olympics range. Their stories speak of poverty pay, excessive working hours, job insecurity and lack of union rights. Many work 11 hour days and survive on a basic wage of £39 a month, forced to share small rooms in factory-owned apartment blocks. The photos are taken by Will Baxter.

IMG_3398Our Learning Officer, Lisa Gillen, shares the story of her personal fashion/protest object:

I was given the protest clothing ticket by a friend during the summer of 2012. She was distributing these to ask people to get involved in a protest against the poor wages paid to people involved in making adidas goods in other countries.

Adidas was one company receiving a lot of coverage for the Olympics that summer.  The protest involved putting the protest tickets in stores that sold adidas goods. I really liked how the protest was a simple idea, but also quite effective in raising awareness of the issue with people who may be buying adidas goods.  I keep this pinned by my desk to remind me of the creative and inventive ways that people can protest and how methods of protest can comes in many different forms.

Buildings with a Social Memory – PHM represented at international conference in Belgium

A guest post from our globetrotting Director, Katy Archer

Buildings with a Social Memory 1I’ve just got back from a Conference in Ghent, Belgium exploring the social memory of buildings across Europe as part of a Belgian project being run by the University of Ghent, the Public History Institute, Amsab-Institute of Social History and the Arts Centre Vooruit.

I was one of 6 international speakers representing organisations from France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands… and the UK of course!

The workshop took place at the Vooruit Arts Centre which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The Socialist movement built the ‘Feestlokaal’ or Party Room of Vooruit in 1913, the same year that the world exhibition was organised in Ghent. It had to be an “opera for the working people”, offering blue-collar workers a café, a restaurant, entertainment and education. And it’s a fantastic building and organisation to visit today.

The range of speakers was great and provided a number of perspectives and examples of how historic buildings (and especially those associated with working people) have been repurposed and reinterpreted today.Buildings with a Social Memory 2

Talking about PHM’s connections to two important buildings – The Mechanics Institute and home of the TUC, and the Pumphouse as a working Engine House – went very well. There was lots of interest in the museum and it was great to share our history and journey with an international audience.

I then took part in a Q&A session with Louise Karlskov Skyggebjerg from the Arbejdermuseet in Copenhagen (a fellow member of Worklab) and there were some really interesting and challenging points from the audience:

  • How can museums be truly neutral spaces when they receive government funding?
  • How can we use derelict / empty historic buildings in our cities in creative ways?
  • How do you navigate the grey area of being a contemporary space where current campaigns and conflicts could have a home, with being a professional museum?

I found the discussion really invigorating and inspiring – it was great to have conversations about the role and purpose of museums – especially when we’re dealing with different points of view, political collections and conflict in history. Lots of ideas and thoughts to feed back into our work at the museum – especially as part of our current Play Your Part project which is all about the museum’s response to contemporary events and ideas – which are often challenging to represent and interpret.

Buildings with a Social Memory 3I also really enjoyed my first trip to Belgium and was very impressed by Ghent – it was a beautiful city and I’ll definitely be going back again when I’ve got more time to explore…

Should prisoners have the right to vote?

Yesterday, the Supreme Court was given the opportunity to decide on whether two prisoners in the UK had the right to vote under European Union rules. If they had sided with the prisoners getting a vote, even though it is still illegal under British law, it could have resulted in UK parliament lifting their blanket ban on prisoners voting- a subject which the European Court of Human Rights had previously told them to do.

As it turned out, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeals, stating that EU law did not provide an individual to vote if the national parliament did not agree to it. Convicted prisoners in the UK are currently banned from voting on the basis that they have forfeited that right by breaking the law and going to jail.

Inevitably, there has been some debate around this subject so we thought we’d ask our visitors what they thought!  We posed the question ‘Should prisoners have the right to vote?’ on a blackboard outside Gallery One on the day of the vote, and checked back in the evening to see what consensus had been.

IMG_3267We had a total of five comments, all expressing rather different, but equally interesting views. Consensus was split equally, with two visitors stating that they did believe that prisoners had the right to vote- one arguing that they are ‘all citizens like you and me’, while the other left us in no doubt of their political affiliation and stated that prisoners should be able to vote- so long as they voted Labour!

One visitor stood in the middle of the debate, and stated that voting should extend to some prisoners, but not all. This is an interesting comment and raises a number of questions such as who would and wouldn’t be included, and where do you draw the line? For example, should it be allowed for prisoners serving short sentences, (an idea which has already been proposed in the UK), or would it rest on the severity of the crime?

Two visitors believed that prisoners should not be allowed to vote; one writing ‘NO’ in very large letters! The other elaborated on this belief and argued that prisoners lost their right to vote when they ‘turned their back’ on society.

Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling? Have your say on our poll at the bottom of the page!

PHM presents POLLfest!

PW Partner logo web versionAs part of this year’s Parliament Week, the People’s History Museum are holding our very own politics festival- POLLfest- an exciting series of events all based around this year’s theme, women in democracy. Parliament Week is a government initiative which aims to inspire, engage and connect people with parliamentary democracy. Running from Friday 15 November to Thursday 21 November, PHM will hold discussions, debates, displays, comedy and much more!

Friday 15 will see visitors come and learn more about women’s contribution to democratic life in a specialised gallery tour and those who would like to stick around will be treated to some unique material from our Labour History and Archive Centre as well as the chance to go behind the scenes in an archive tour.  Booking is advised- call the museum on 01618389190 or email

We will be holding two events on Saturday 16 November, a debate in the afternoon, and a Pecha Kucha event in the evening. The debate will look at the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, as a whole, and more specifically her legacy to women in senior political roles. We are still in the process of confirming speakers for this debate, so stay tuned for more exciting announcements! Pecha Kucha will be held from 6pm in our Engine Hall, and will feature 6 speakers talking for 20 seconds on 20 slides. Themes for the speakers will be on a whole host of topics including politics, social revolts and art. Our cafe bar will also be open for drinks, what more reason do you need to book! Tickets are free and can be claimed via Eventbrite.

On Sunday 17 November, we will be hosting our very own comedy spectacular from 4pm in the museum. We will have performances from Do Not Adjust Your Stage who will provide us with improvised fun based on scenes and stories in the People’s History Museum. Stand-up comedian Grainne Maguire will headline the evening with her ‘One Hour All Night Election Special’ show. Both acts have received rave reviews from past performances, and we are very much looking forward to welcoming them to PHM! Tickets are free but donations would be gratefully received- book them via Eventbrite.

Check back for more POLLfest announcements, and get booking your tickets- it’s set to be an amazing few days!