Skills for the Future – two weeks at the People’s History Museum

A guest post by Charlene Price

I’m currently undertaking an HLF Skills for the Future Social History Curatorial Traineeship. The traineeship is for a year and I’m about half-way through. The aim of the traineeship is to provide workplace training for people who want to pursue a career in the museum or heritage sector. My host museum is The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry, but as part of the traineeship I’ve been doing a two-week placement here at the People’s History Museum in order to gain some experience of IMG_9591working in a national museum.

I’ve managed to fit in a variety of different tasks and activities into my two weeks here. I’ve also had a good chance to look around the museum and learn more about the collections that are held here.

One of the tasks I have been doing and very much enjoying is writing labels for trade union banners. The museum has the largest collection of historic trade union and political banners in the world. The banners are changed in the main galleries once a year in order to give the banners a rest and to do conservation work on the banners where needed. The banners will be changed in January 2015. It has been really interesting to research some of the histories of the banners and of the trade unions themselves and to develop further my skills in writing museum text. You can get an idea of the scale of some of the banners from the picture of me standing in the banner section of Main Gallery Two!

I was fortunate enough to spend a morning in conservation, where I got to see some of the banners I have been writing about being conserved. Banners can present some unique problems in terms of their need for conservation. PHM have produced this booklet which explains more about the care of banners.

My day spent working in the archives was also really interesting. I catalogued some photographs of CND demonstrations in the 1950s and the 1980s, which gave me an introduction to some of the collections held in the archives here and some experience of archive cataloguing.

I also took part in some activities which were more public-facing. I helped to staff a stall at the HMRC offices as part of their Learning at Work day. This was a very good way to learn more about the museum and what it offers, and also learn more about the work the Learning Team do. People definitely seemed interested and engaged with what the museum has to offer, so I hope we encouraged some new visitors.

I also learnt more about the museum’s learning programme by sitting in on a school session led by the Parliament Education Service as part of Parliament Week. It was interesting to see how the children were being engaged in the political process (and enjoying themselves at the same time!) with the activities they took part in during the session.

Spending a day with the Front of House team was a good way to engage with visitors directly and also see how the museum operates on a day-to-day basis. I helped to greet visitors when they arrived and patrol the galleries. It was great to get feedback from visitors and see how they reacted to the objects on display.

I also had the chance to engage with members of the public when I took control of PHM’s Twitter for the day. I learnt how time-consuming managing a busy Twitter account can be! I also used Instagram for the first time and did an update on the museum’s Facebook page. My day on Twitter seemed to generate quite a lot of interest and I got lots of retweets and favourites. I feel like I learnt more about what works well on Twitter and how things like the time of day can affect people’s engagement.

As you can see, I’ve had a jam-packed two weeks – I have not even covered everything I’ve done in this blog post! I’ve also met with various key people in the organisation to learn more about their job roles and the different teams in the museum. The staff have helped to make my time here productive and enjoyable, as well as contributing towards my learning as part of my traineeship. I am sad to leave, but also feel very lucky to have had this experience.

I would recommend the PHM as a place to visit, work or volunteer.

The Social History Curatorial Traineeship is a Heritage Lottery Fund, Skills for the Future Programme supported by Birmingham Museums Trust.


Volunteering – Helen’s Story

HelenVolunteers’ Week is an annual celebration of the fantastic contribution millions of volunteers make across the UK – and it’s taking place from the 1-7 June 2014. Here is the story of Helen – just one of the wonderful volunteers who give up their spare time to volunteer at PHM.

I was working full-time, teaching English in a local high school when I decided that life was about more than spending weekends marking books and analysing data.  Fortunately I was able to reduce my teaching commitment to three days and I was determined I would do something useful in at least one of my extra days off.  The advertisement for volunteers at PHM seemed like an ideal opportunity to do something different in my spare time.

Three years later I am still volunteering; it has been such a rewarding experience: I have been able to see what goes on ‘behind the scenes of a museum’; learn more about history, and get the chance to work in the shop, serving customers and pricing stock – which is particularly therapeutic!  I even had the opportunity to take a day trip to Shrewsbury when I was asked to return a banner to the local college.  Meeting visitors to PHM has been especially rewarding, they are usually pleased to be visiting and frequently make very positive comments about their experience.

Volunteering is something I would definitely recommend to others.  Hopefully I have been of some use to the museum; it certainly has enhanced my life and given me the chance to work with some interesting and lovely people!

The Pump House

A guest blog by our Senior Gallery Assistant (Buildings), Anthony Dillon

People's History Museum 011As a Gallery Assistant at the People’s History Museum we often get asked questions about the Pump House, which is situated in the old side of the museum.

A grade 2 listed building and built in Edwardian times the architect was Mr Henry Price.

Its purpose was to pressurise water up to 1200psi in the accumulator tower. This pressurised water was then pumped under the streets of Manchester through a system of metal pop riveted piping that led to the local cotton mills and factories that often leaked. This pressurised water was then used to power all the machinery in the factories.

The pressurised water was used to power the factories and  the local town hall clock and the emergency curtain at the theatres and anything else the Edwardians needed to power.

The Pump House today has a different use, it no longer pressurises water for the factories it now has a different use as a event space for weddings and conferences and also when not being used for theses purposes we use it as a Community Gallery space.

The Pump House is well worth a visit at PHM and if you need any help just ask any of our friendly front of house staff to assist you at anytime.

The dialogue between visitors and the museum and the ethics of visitor generated content

surveillance bug

Spying on our visitors? This surveillance ‘bug’, discovered by builders in February 1975, was used by MI5 to spy on communist activity.

Throughout our Play Your Part project we’ve been experimenting with new and different ways to interact with our visitors, both online and onsite using methods such as this blog, post it notes, pop up exhibitions and events.  What we haven’t explored in great depth, however, is the existing ways we interact with our visitors – from the day to day conversations our gallery assistants have with our visitors, our use of social media and traditional methods such as our comments book.  I was keen to explore ways that we could capture this dialogue and develop methods for visitors to see their feedback and responses from the museum in relation to that feedback.  I therefore brought together colleagues from a number of departments to collate how, where and why we interact with our visitors, what they tell us and to brainstorm ideas of how we can capture these conversations and respond.

How and where do we interact with our visitors?

We discussed three main places we interact with our visitors – physically, both inside and outside the museum; remotely, for example on the telephone; and virtually.  There were a large number of ways in which we interact with our visitors.  These included:

  • Interactions with members of staff – both in person onsite (on the info desk, in the shop, on the galleries, in the archive, when we conduct visitor surveys), off site (conversations with people when we’re outside of work, outreach workshops, stalls and events, socially) and remotely (phone and email)
  • Written interactions on site – via our comments book, chalkboards, post it notes and video booth (not strictly written)
  • Digital interactions – facebook, twitter, blog, website and enewsletter
  • Through museum interpretation and programming – galley interpretation, objects, interactives, events, exhibitions, learning programme
  • Communication via our brand – visual identity, print
  • Our supporters scheme

Why do we interact with our visitors?

The reasons why we interact with our visitors are equally numerous and it became clear that interaction and communication with our visitors is at the heart of what we do:

  • Because it’s our mission – to raise our profile, our funders require it
  • To educate – to deliver a tour or learning session
  • To entertain
  • To inspire
  • To inform – to respond to an enquiry, give information, explain what they can do whilst they’re here
  • To provide a service – social, educational, wellbeing, information
  • To market the museum – to create a destination for visitors to come and to encourage them to come back
  • Practical reasons – to take a booking
  • Income generation – to sell products in the shop, to encourage donations
  • To gather information – to get feedback to make the museum better, to get information about objects, alternative histories and stories,
  • Because we enjoy it and we love our visitors! – because without them what are we?

What do our visitors tell us?

One of the reasons that we love our visitors is that they are not afraid to tell us their opinions.  Some of the things they tell us include:

  • Praise – they’ve enjoyed their visit, they’ll come back, they’ve learnt something new, they’ve been before
  • Criticism and complaints – we don’t have anything (or enough) on a particular movement or story, tell us when we’re wrong
  • Reminiscence – tell stories
  • Opinions – their interpretation of objects, disputed histories
  • Ask questions – family history questions, practical questions (eg, can we film here? Why are we so difficult to find?)
  • Offer donations – of money, material or time, tell us what collections they have and want to donate
  • That they’ve lived in Manchester all their lives and have never been; other places they’ve visited
  • The toilet paper’s run out!

How are visitor interactions recorded (or not)?

It is only really the written interactions with our visitors that are recorded and the vast majority of these interactions are only collected and analysed internally. For example, feedback forms for events, learning and venue hire are collected in order for us to improve our service, however we rarely disseminate any statistics publically and only usually share them with our funders.  We regularly review our comments book and occasionally we write responses directly in the book.  Verbal conversations with visitors are not recorded, however occasional comments that require a response or contain feedback to improve our service are passed on via email or notes from our gallery assistants. Social media such as twitter and facebook mirrors this verbal interaction in that we respond directly to our visitors.  However these interactions can be recorded and are collated and circulated internally as they are a useful source of feedback.   In addition, we also conduct visitor surveys, which again provide useful feedback.

How can we capture these conversations and respond?

There is clearly a massive amount of ephemeral dialogue that is never recorded.  Is there a way that we can capture this and respond publically in order to bring more voices into the conversation?  Ideas to develop our visitor dialogue included:

  • When we pose a question on the chalkboards we add our own voice to the debate
  • Be specific with questions. Be provocative and current.
  • Use the blog
  • Respond on labels to questions that get asked
  • Answer questions publically that a lot of visitors have asked
  • Have a list of FAQs on the info desk – things like funding, directions, practical stuff
  • Have a space for monthly questions – our visitors have asked us this month
  • Ask visitors questions that spark debate and are related to collections.
  • Let visitors know that we’re here to answer questions


But do we want to capture these conversations? Is it ethical?  

The day after our brainstorming meeting I attended an incredibly thought provoking workshop at Leicester University.  It’s My Content 2.0 explored the ethics of using visitor generated content and explored issues of ownership, copyright and privacy.  It really made me reflect on Play Your Part and how important it is to be transparent about our interactions with visitors.  To be clear about why we’re collecting information and what we are using it for.  Throughout the project I have been very open and reflective about our ‘experiments’, about what has worked and what hasn’t.  All of our questions and visitor responses have been out in public spaces – for example on chalkboards in the museum or on this blog.  However, whilst I believe that recording and analysing these publically written responses and sharing them openly is essential and valuable to the project, what about the verbal ephemeral dialogue? Would recording these conversations be tantamount to spying on our visitors?  Or as a public space do we assume that information is passed freely within our walls?  Personally, I would not be comfortable knowing that a conversation I have with someone (either a member or staff or another visitor) in a museum was being recorded unless I had granted my express permission.  So don’t worry, we’re not going to be bugging our visitors!  I do think, however, that it is important for us to record the bigger picture.  To be aware of, generally, what our visitors are interested in, in order for us to respond.  You often get told that there is no such thing as a stupid question because someone else probably wants to ask the same thing. I think therefore, that it is important to explore ways of displaying answers to visitor questions and to display other visitors’ responses alongside those of the museum.  As discussed above, there are a number of ways we can do this, so we’ll carry on experimenting.

What do you think?  Are you interested in what other visitors think?  Would you be happy to share your own opinions?  What burning questions have you always wanted the answers to?

Experiment #1 – an update…

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been asking visitors to the museum what their favourite object is.  Initially this has been through the very old school way of chalk and blackboards! (I don’t think they even use them in schools anymore….)  We used two blackboards, one in the foyer of the museum next to our ‘Welcome Wall’, the other was outside Main Gallery Two where the comments book is. The aim of the experiment was to see if and how the blackboards were used, and to compile a list of top 10 objects in the museum.

Day 1 - 26 June 2013 (9) Day 1 - 26 June 2013 (2)

Total number of commentsFrom 26 June – 11 July we had 114 comments.  Two thirds of all the comments were made on the blackboard outside Main Gallery Two.  In fact, in the first six days of the experiment, only two comments were made on the blackboard in the foyer.  There are possibly a couple of reasons for this.  Firstly, the blackboard outside Main Gallery Two is placed directly after visitors have gone round the museum so the objects will be fresher in their minds.  It is also placed within a ‘have your say’ section, including a video booth and a comments book, providing a context to initiate feedback.  The blackboard in the foyer is placed when visitors enter the museum, so they are less likely to have an opinion (unless they have visited the museum before, or perhaps only visited the gallery spaces on the ground floor).  The foyer area is also more ‘exposed’ – it is in direct view of the information desk – so perhaps visitors are less comfortable leaving comments when they are being observed.

what's your favourie object in the museumOnly 35% of all the comments were suggestions of favourite objects.  Interestingly the favourite object (with six votes) was the jukebox, and an additional three votes were for specific songs on the jukebox.  As we didn’t ask why people had a favourite object it’s difficult to know if it’s because the jukebox is the final display, because it is interactive or just because our visitors enjoy a song and dance.

Visitors definitely enjoyed making their mark on the museum and 28% of all comments were their own names!  Some comments were incomprehensible, either because they were written in another language, or because they simply made no sense!  Other comments were a bit silly, “For King Stark!”, but others engaged in debate, “should be more about the migrants’ contributions”.

Blackboard in foyerBlackboard outside MG2

Total comments

Special mention goes to our Gallery Assistants who got two votes as our visitors’ favourite object.  Not wanting to objectify them, but one of the comments actually said “the sexy attendant”, which no one has admitted to writing!

A couple of interesting notes:

Day 10 - 5 July 2013 am1)      One of our Gallery Assistants observed a visitor writing ‘Labour Posters’ on the upstairs blackboard.  Almost immediately, the next visitor leaving Main Gallery Two added ‘+1’ to the comment.  The next person then wrote ‘Get Labour Out’.  I’d definitely like to explore further how we can provide a forum for debate and find ways for visitors to interact with each other after being inspired by our stories and collections.

Day 10 - 5 July 2013 pm  (2)2)      I came back from lunch one day and noticed that the blackboard in the foyer had been wiped clean.  Apparently we’d had a large group of creative five year olds come in and draw all over the blackboard.  Obviously I didn’t want the moment to go unrecorded (as I wanted to see how the blackboards were used as much as what was written on them), so I asked my colleague Mark to recreate the masterpiece:

For the next stage of the experiment we will be using post it notes to see if a change of medium makes a difference.  We’ll keep you updated!

Transatlantic Badge Swap


Happy Canada Day to all of our Canadian visitors. In honour of this very special day in the Canadian calendar, our Senior Gallery Assistant Anthony has decided to share one of his favourite visitor stories.

“We had a group of Canadian visitors to the museum last week who praised us as one of the best museums they had ever visited. They thought the museum was so fantastic that they gave two of the visitor services team a Canadian pin badge so they could leave their mark on the museum. As a sign of friendship, I gave them a PHM badge in exchange; I wonder where that badge will end up!”

resizedclose up