A Foot in the Past a Foot in the Present

A guest post by Curator Chris Burgess

Election!19th century historian Sir John Seeley stated that: ‘History is past politics; and politics present history’. Seeley’s words reflected the narrow view of history as a discipline at the time; history could only be history if it was political and concerned with great men. Our view of history has happily moved on since Seeley’s day but for the contemporary museum worker Seeley’s statement has some traction.

Museum objects are in the main from the past, in being of another time what do they say about the now? For visitors to PHM, what do political objects of the past say about the politics of the present? Such questions are not the idle musings of an idle curator, but run through the core of any interpretation of exhibitions. What are objects for, how should they be used?

If you occasionally scan this blog you’ll see that we are currently working on our next changing exhibition Election! a three part missive on all things voting. There will be a section with an object from every General Election of the 20th and 21st century; a whirlwind of voting history. In another section we’ve commissioned artist Alex Gardner to make the archaic and complicated mechanisms of how elections work visible.

So far so easy. In the first section we might anticipate that visitors might wallow in the nostalgia of elections, or discover new stuff about contests they never saw or can’t remember. The second section won’t be too controversial, an info-graph into politics the vision of voting mechanisms.

The third and final section is where it gets messy, when the museum grapples with the controversial of the current. As the 2015 General Election campaign gets going we will track its every move. As a politician speaks so their words will go in the show. When a new poster is produced we’ll post it in the space. And we’ll invite visitors to comment. We’re going to invite parties, and campaign groups, and individuals, of all shapes and all persuasions and all sizes to come and occupy this space for a bit and have their say. And the public can come to listen and can agree and can disagree.

It is at this stage we will have reached the point of no return. The museum will become a space to discuss politics whatever those politics may be. Quite what will happen I’m not sure. But hopefully past politics and present history will come together as one; we aim to make elections live and breathe here at PHM.

Election! Britain Votes opens on 14 Feb 2015 

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