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.

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