Refugees Make a Greater Manchester

A guest blog by Ben Knight a social work student on placement on the Wellbeing project at Refugee Action.

Ben worked with the arts drop-in group at Refugee Action to create a banner with positive messages about refugees and asylum seekers in Manchester.

As the collection at the People’s History Museum demonstrates – the making and displaying of banners has always been present at protests and marches. They are an essential way for the uncounted or underrepresented to make their voices heard loud and clear.

Refugee Action Banner- Aslyum Seekers Are Welcome HereFor the weekly arts drop-in at Refugee Action we wanted to create some banners that are inspired by the rich tradition of banner making on display at the People’s History Museum. Many of the participants in the group have experience organising protests around asylum issues such as the ‘Shut Down Yarlswood Detention Centre’ campaign and we wanted to channel this energy into creating some positive messages about refugees and asylum seekers in Manchester.

During the designing of our banners the educational resources made available by the People’s History Museum were invaluable. These resources included some symbols that have appeared on protest banners throughout history, including images of unity, diversity and collective action. The sessions resulted in two banners, one based around the phrase ‘Refugees Make A Greater Manchester’ and an ‘Asylum Seekers Welcome Here’ banner. Both banners are on display in our office at Canada House, and the latter banner was used by Manchester University students at a recent pop-up campaign to raise awareness of asylum issues on the streets of Manchester.

Refugee Action Banner- Aslyum Seekers Are Welcome Here at standOf our art-sessions, regular participant Bisham Dass says, that the art-sessions ‘aimed to provide a means for stress relief and emotional healing for asylum seekers and refugees who have been victims of abuse and hardship, and are in need of a mental sanctuary’.

The banner making session was a stimulating and thought provoking activity and we’re all pleased that the banners could be used in a public campaign.

If you would like to find out more about Banner Making workshops at People’s History Museum please contact the Learning Team.

Refugee Action are one of our Parliament Week partners.  Find out about our programme of events inspiring you to change your future.

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The Incredible Hulk!

A guest post by Conservator Jenny Barsby

Fig 1.The banner in use at a demonstration

Fig 1.The banner in use at a demonstration

The Textile Conservation Studio here at PHM takes in private work as well as caring for our collection which helps to support the running of the museum. I recently had the pleasure of working on a banner belonging to the GMB union. This was an interesting project for me not only because the banner is still being used, which presents specific conservation issues, but also because the artist who created the banner was able to provide valuable information about the object which informed the treatment.

The banner in question was designed and made by Scottish artist Andrew Turner. Turner was born into a coal mining community and his early experiences as a miner’s son feature heavily in his work. In 1961 he attended Edinburgh School of Art but was later expelled for organising a student demonstration. He went on to study at the Leeds College of Art before attending the Royal Academy as a postgraduate in 1971. The banner was commissioned by the Manchester branch of the GMB (then GMWU) in 1977. The brief was to produce a banner which represents the strength of the working class, depicting the ongoing struggles but also hope for the future.

The design put forward by Turner featured a muscular proletarian figure positioned in the centre with his head facing down; eyes closed and fists outstretched breaking the chains which bind him. Turner recalls that the figure was christened by a young shop steward at the unfurling of the banner who thought he looked like the Incredible Hulk. Other symbolic references are included such as the negotiating table which appears often in Turner’s work, a key and a small piece of cake. An open book sits on the table with a quote from Engels ‘It is not the Lowness of wages which forms the fundamental evil but the wages system itself.’ It is painted onto heavy-weight blue cotton sailcloth; the colour was a controversial choice because it is has conservative associations but in an art history context, blue symbolises hope, which is why Turner favoured it.

Turners working process involved stretching the fabric out under tension and pinning it to a frame before applying a primer layer and blocking out the design using scale drawings. The painting was worked up in thin layers with drying time in between. The style of painting is quite expressive with shading used to pick out the shapes and make the image look three dimensional and dramatic. The figure and chains are depicted with exciting, dynamic marks which suggest movement and aggression whereas the text is worked very neatly in flat colour with sharp clean lines.

fig-2-andrew-turners-visit-to-phm.jpg

Fig 2.  Andrew Turner’s visit to PHM

It is quite rare for a conservator to be working on an object and be able to consult the maker or artist about the treatment of their piece. So when the opportunity arose to meet Andrew Turner we didn’t hesitate to invite him to the studio to see the banner he finished painting 35 years ago. Turner was delighted to be re-united with his work and was pleased to see it was still in good condition despite being used on marches for many years. For me the experience really enhanced my appreciation of the banner and although the insight provided by Turner did not alter my treatment plan, it confirmed that my approach was appropriate for the materials I was dealing with.

Fig 3. Microscope image showing cracks and soiling

Fig 3. Microscope image showing cracks and soiling

The banner was painted with good quality artist’s acrylic paint. This media is a modern material and still commonly used by artists today, it does however present problems for long term preservation. Even when dry, the paint film remains quite soft which means it can be easily damaged; this also means that dust and other types of particulate soiling can become embedded in the surface. Cleaning all types of paint can be very difficult because water and other solvents can react chemically and cause more damage. In the case of acrylic paint, research is still being done to find safe ways of cleaning which do not alter the original quality of the paint. With this in mind my treatment plan for the ‘Hulk’ banner was to surface clean and stabilise cracks in the paint film without full scale wet cleaning of the paint.

The first stage of treatment was a thorough surface clean; this was done using a low suction vacuum with a screen placed across the object to protect the painted areas. The non-painted areas were worked over more thoroughly using soft brushes and the vacuum. Any dust removed was captured on muslin traps inside the vacuum nozzle; this allows us to assess the condition of the textile and the type of dirt coming off. In this case, a surprising amount of dust was found on the traps along with loose fluff, dislodged paint flakes and a lot of blue fibre from the fabric itself.

Fig 4. Cracking in paint on book motif

Fig 4. Cracking in paint on book motif

Fig 5. consolidating the paint

Fig 5. consolidating the paint

Fig 6. Face of banner after conservation

Fig 6. Face of banner after conservation

The second stage was a series of tests to establish the suitability of possible consolidants for the painted areas and then work began on stabilising the cracked and flaking paint. The consolidant is a type of adhesive, it is transparent and no attempt is made to ‘touch up’ missing areas. In most cases conservators aim to do what we can to preserve the original material rather than make something look new again. In addition to stabilising the paint some humidification was done to ease out creases across the top of the banner, unfortunately some creases in the body of the banner have set in with the stiffening of the paint over time and will now be impossible to remove.  As part of the treatment a special banner bag was made to make it easier for the client to store and preserve it, advice was offered for its ongoing care with the hope that it will be enjoyed for years to come.

A sticky situation

A guest blog by Conservator Jenny Barsby

At PHM we collect objects which have a story and this is often told through the physical condition of the piece, if a banner has holes or stains these may be a clue to how, where or why it was used. As is often the case with social history collections we sometimes deal with complex objects made from a variety of materials, many of the textiles I treat show signs of wear and tear or may be disfiguring if viewed in a different context. It is my job as a conservator to preserve this evidence while ensuring that the object is safe for storage and display.

As well as maintaining our existing collection and preparing objects for display we treat new objects as they come in. When a new object comes into the Textile Conservation Studio the first thing I do is a condition report, this is a detailed document which I use to assess the current condition and will help me to track any future changes so the next time it is taken out I can compare against the report. I also note down as much information as possible about the object including a physical description, take measurements and lots of photos.

Banner face during treatmentAn example of this approach is a banner I recently worked on, it was donated by York and District Trades Union Council in 2014. It was made in 1975 but was used by the York TUC in fairly recent rallies. It is a single sided banner made from one length of red cotton sateen with appliquéd black cotton lettering cut out and machine sewn to the cloth. The interesting thing about this banner is that it is adorned with 21 self adhesive stickers pertaining to different campaigns when the banner was used.

We know from images provided by York TUC that the banner was taken on several marches from an anti-nuclear demo in 1980 where the banner appears to be fairly plain to the signal workers rally in 1994 when you can see from the photo that many stickers have been added. As part of the conservation I carefully assessed each sticker and noted its condition, although most are now well adhered to the fabric beneath, this could change over time meaning I may need to adjust my treatment. When these stickers were made they were probably not expected to last long, but this ephemeral nature is part of the reason we value such items, if they weren’t being cared for in museums they might be lost forever.

RMT sticker before conservation RMT sticker after conservationSome of the stickers were coming loose so they required treatment to make them stable and fit for display. To do this I used small amounts of conservation grade adhesive applied in patches underneath the loose areas. This provides adequate support without forming too strong a bond and can be removed if necessary in the future.

The banner was also quite creased from folding in storage, and in diagonal lines running across from the corners. As a rule we do try to smooth out creases because they can distort the fabric and eventually lead to splits and tears along the crease. With this banner, the fold lines were eased by introducing moisture as vapour and weighting down the creases, basically a really gentle form of ironing! The diagonal creases however were not treated because they demonstrate how it was carried, between two poles with little or no tension across the top. Of course this creasing will need to be monitored to make sure it doesn’t deteriorate and cause further damage. This is the balancing act we play as conservators, trying to preserve as much physical evidence as we can without putting the object at further risk.

York TUC banner after conservationFor the time being the York TUC banner has been wrapped up for storage but it will hopefully be on display soon. In the meantime please come and see some of the other wonderful banners which have been lovingly treated and installed by our conservation team.

New year, new job, new gallery display

A guest post from our newest member of staff, Conservator Zoë Lanceley

Every year during the first two weeks of January the PHM change over the banners on display in the main galleries. This was particularly exciting for me as Monday was the first day of my new job as a conservator here in the Textile Conservation Studio.  This week we have been hard at work putting a new selection of banners on display and taking the old banners away for a rest from light, dust and the physical strain of hanging vertically.

Taking down the banner 2Taking down the banner

Here at the PHM the main galleries have been designed with a nifty system to make it easy to change over banner displays. Each banner hangs from a long pole inserted through a sleeve at the top of the banner. The pole is then gradually raised or lowered into position using a pulley system which is hidden behind the walls.

Vacuuming the bannerTo remove banners from display we carefully lower them down, rolling them as we go. We then take them to a large open space and lay them flat out on the floor (they are too big for tables) and gently vacuum both sides to remove any dust which may have accumulated in the past year. We vacuum them through a mesh screen to protect the delicate surface of the fabric and also put a piece of muslin inside the vacuum nozzle to allow us to collect the dust. Dust samplesThis is really helpful as it allows us to monitor exactly what sort of dust and fibres are being removed, i.e. general dust from the carpet or fibres from the banner itself. The banners are ‘put to bed’ until the next time they are displayed by rolling them onto large cardboard tubes, and wrapped up in acid free tissue paper, calico and Tyvek® (a non-woven polyethylene fabric) .  We take a lot of care when rolling the banners to make sure that no creases are formed as these could turn into permanent distortions or splits in the future.

New banner ready to go upRolling up the new bannerFinishing touchesWhen we put banners up on display we follow the same procedure in reverse, carefully unrolling the banner as it is raised up. To put the finishing touches on the new display we make sure the that banners are lit in the right way; bright enough so that visitors can see them clearly but not too bright as this would cause the fabric to fade.  The final step is to put barriers in front of the banners to deter people from touching them, as even clean hands can leave traces of oils and salts on the fabric which would cause the fabrics to deteriorate.

Being a textile conservator is an exciting and wide-ranging job. Working with large flat textiles like banners means that our job varies day to day from carrying out painstaking precise treatments at a workbench to kneeling on the floor or carrying heavy objects. I have really enjoyed my first week at the PHM and hope all our visitors enjoy the new display.

If you want to find out more about the work that is carried out in the Textile Conservation Studio, pop up to Main Gallery Two where you can peek through the window into the studio, or join us for one of our quarterly tours.

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.

Preparing for our banner changeover

Conservators fully engaged in banner preparation

Conservators fully engaged in banner preparation

Our Senior Conservator, Vivian Lochhead reflects on the process of getting our banners ready for their annual changeover.

It is that time of year again; one of the landmarks that punctuate activities through the conservation calendar. The collections team are busy selecting banners for the next annual change of free-hanging banners in the PHM main galleries. This collaborative process involves exhibition, curatorial and conservation staff to ensure selection of banners appropriate to the displays and that each banner is either already fit to hang or can be made so in time for the actual exhibition change. This is timed for early January each year to minimise disruption to gallery visitors and especially learning groups as, for safety reasons, we have to close each gallery during the change-over.

Securing loose paint

Securing loose paint

Now into my 25th year as Senior Conservator at the PHM, the annual process is both exciting and nostalgic. The opportunity to be reacquainted with previously displayed banners can be evocative and enlightening, presenting the chance to re-examine previously conserved banners and to assess how the treatment is bearing up to the demands of display and handling required of the collection. Conservation treatment aims to prevent deterioration and preserve the banner. It can massively slow down but not halt the process of decay. Some materials and construction methods used to make banners cause them to be more susceptible to deterioration. Certain types of degradation are imperceptible to the eye as they happen at microscopic level, but the overall effects can be catastrophic. Painted silk banners, for instance, can fracture without warning or obvious sign of weakness.

Surface cleaning

Surface cleaning

Consequently once selected for display each banner must be thoroughly assessed, even if it is a familiar friend. Newly acquired banners deemed suitable for exhibition in the galleries will be checked and any necessary conservation treatment carried out to ensure they are in good condition for the 12 month display period.

Pre-display assessment and conservation activities usually begin in October, allowing visitors a tantalising preview of next year’s banners and the intensive treatment each one receives.

What if… banners were never used as part of campaigns and demonstrations?

On Thursday 15 May, the PHM will explore alternative histories for Museums at Night. Join our hypothetical tour guides as they weave tall tales and ask you to imagine infinite possibilities of what might have been.  In a series of blog posts before the event we’ll be featuring questions so you can swot up on your hypothetical history and add your own alternatives.  On the night we’ll subvert our timeline with your suggestions. In this blog, our Director, Katy Archer asks What if… banners were never used as part of campaigns and demonstrations?

Liverpool Tinplate Workers' bannerOur museum is full of fantastic, beautiful and colourful banners. From the Liverpool Tinplate Workers banner from 1821 through to the Mansfield Labour Party Women’s Section in 1988, we are very proud and privileged to be the custodians of such an essential part of the history of the development of democracy in our country.

As the ‘home of ideas worth fighting for’ we showcase a wide range of campaigns from a wide range of organisations and groups who have fought for a cause… and who have all used banners as an effective tool and technique in their campaigns.

Our banners to me are works of art, they are full of meaning and messages. They show how people came together united by a common cause – and were, and still are, objects of great pride.

When you see each of our banners on display individually or collectively, they are not easily forgotten. They provide a lasting legacy (through the work of our amazing conservation team!) of the ideas that people have fought for… equality, democracy, peace, reform, co-operation and many more.

Banners on a marchAnd they’re still current and contemporary too – look at any images of footage of recent protests and marches and you’ll see great numbers of banners still being used today.

Brixton Bomb banner by Ed HallAnd they are still being made today as well – our recent exhibition with Ed Hall displaying the work of a contemporary banner maker still using the traditional tool and technique to give voice to current campaigns.

  • But what if… banners had never been part of the campaigning tradition?
  • Or what if… the tradition died out years ago to be replaced by digital alternatives with no ‘real’ substance?
  • What if… none of the banners in our collection had survived to be seen by our visitors today?
  • How would we know and see what people have fought for and still fight for today?
  • How would people today be connected to past campaigns in a way that creates such an emotional response? And which moves people to fight for something that they believe in today?
  • What else would have had such dramatic impact?
    • Mascots? Cheerleaders? Dancing Elephants?

Add your answers below and come along to our Museums at Night: What if…? event on Thursday 15 May, 5.00pm – 8.00pm to see our beautiful banners for yourself and have your say about what if… they never existed!?