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.

Staff Top Picks: Badges and stickers in the Citizens section

In the second of our ‘Staff Top Picks’ series, PHM Marketing and Development Officer, Daisy Nicholson, explains why the badges and stickers in the Citizens section of Gallery Two are her most-loved objects in our collection. What’s your favourite item in the museum? Tell us on Twitter using #phmtop10.

Daisy Nicholson (5)

My favourite object(s) / bit of the museum are the badges/stickers in Citizens (pink) section – having grown up in the 80s and spent lots of time as a child on marches & demos etc.(very politically active dad!), I loved collecting related badges and stickers, though at the time didn’t appreciate the various campaigns’ significance. Seeing such collections on the galleries is a nice trip down memory lane, but more importantly reflects the importance of preserving this aspect of history.

Experiment #1: The votes are in!

29 July (2)For the next stage on our ongoing quest to find our visitors’ most loved PHM object, we turned to a more traditional form of polling – the ballot box.  To mix it up we used some transparent ballot boxes, so visitors could see which object was ‘winning’ (yes we blatantly nicked this idea from Waitrose!).  Visitors could vote for their favourite object out of the current ‘top three’ – the jukebox, our poster collection and the hats.  We also left out some trusty post it notes for visitors to add other objects if they disagreed with the ones selected.

Out of 201 votes cast, the winner was….

The jukebox!!!

The votes agreed with the previous stages of the experiment.  Clearly our visitors love a boogie!

Final results Other votes

Whilst we produced some official looking ‘ballot papers’, when these ran out, visitors used their ingenuity and voted with post its and even clocking in cards!

What do you think our next question should be?  What would you cast your vote for?

Experiment #1: Part 3 – the post its!

Setting up- 11th July  (3) Setting up- 11th July  (7) Setting up- 11th July  (1)

In the next part of our experiment we learned a valuable lesson: never assume your visitors are psychic. After the results of our chalkboard experiment we enthusiastically stuck up big sheets of paper outside the galleries asking visitors ‘What’s your favourite object?’  We popped some post it notes on a table and waited for the responses to flood in.  Would visitors prefer Tom Paine’s desk or Hannah Mitchell’s kitchen?  The Co-op shop or the Tin Plate Workers’ banner?  After a couple of days we went to look:

‘my iPad’

‘my phone’


‘my boyfriend’

D’oh!!  We’d only gone and asked the wrong question!  We should have asked ‘what is your favourite object in the museum?’.  Massive lesson learned!

We put up a sign to try and get some more of the answers we wanted….

Day 6- 16 July 2013 (14)

Fortunately this seemed to work and we did notice an increase in the number of favourite museum objects.

Interestingly, we got more comments via thNumber of commentse post it system than we did via the chalkboard.  We got 114 comments over 16 days in the chalkboard system (an average of 7.125 comments per day) and 302 comments over 13 days (23 comments per day) in the post it system.  Admittedly, we did have more places to add comments for the post its (2 pieces of paper outside Main Gallery One, 1 piece of paper outside Main Gallery Two, and visitors also posted comments on the chalkboard outside Main Gallery Two), but there was a substantial rise in engagement.  This may have been a result of the positioning, the medium or perhaps visitors engaging more with the question they thought we were asking.  35% of visitors told us their favourite object in the museum when we asked the question on the chalkboard.  Only 21% of visitors did when we asked the question on the post its (although this figure raises to 51% when you include visitors’ favourite personal objects).  The vast majority of the comments were outside Main Gallery One, where we didn’t have chalkboards previously.  This appears to be a good location to engage our visitors and is definitely something to explore later in the project.

Total - excluding blackboard Total    Floor 1 - by lift Floor 1 - by entrance to main gallery oneFloor 2 - on paper Floor 2 - on blackboard

Surprisingly, there were no favourite objects (PHM or personal) stuck on the chalkboard outside Main Gallery Two.  This may have been because the question was not posed there, so visitors felt more freedom to comment on other areas.

The favourite PHM objects were very similar to when we asked on the chalkboard.  When you combine the results the jukebox is thFavourite objects - post itse clear favourite!Favourite objects - psot its and chalkboard

Next step is for visitors to vote out of the top three objects – will the jukebox be the victor again?