The museum viewed from across the river. Credit: Megan Eaves, Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/48119810@N02/5574045888/
Museums across the world tell the stories of Kings, Queens and great leaders. They cover the rise and fall of empires and companies, but the People’s History Museum in Manchester, United Kingdom, is the national museum of democracy, telling the histories of working-class people’s fight for rights. Entry to the museum is free, with a suggested donation of £5. The museum is open from 10am-5pm daily. Radical Lates events are held on the second Thursday of each month until 8pm.
The museum is located very centrally in the Spinningfields area of Manchester, on the left riverbank. It is signposted and easily accessible by foot if you are in Central Manchester. The nearest rail station is Salford Central, a mere 2 minutes’ walk away. St Peter’s Square and Deansgate-Castlefield are Metrolink stations 10- and 15-minutes’ walks away respectively. The museum is also incredibly well services by numerous bus routes stopping at the Bridge Street stop 2 minutes’ walk away. Several free bus services are available, with the stop at the John Rylands Library a 4-minute walk away. If your trip allows, I highly recommend you visiting here too. If you are driving, Bridge Street NCP is the nearest private car park.
The museum as it stands today was first opened in 2010 when a four-storey glass extension was added to the Bridge Street site, a former Edwardian hydraulic pumping station. This restored pump house is also available for hire, alongside some meeting rooms for anything from conferences to weddings! Prior to 2010, the collection was spread across the current Bridge Street site and at the former Mechanic’s Institute on Princess Street. The archives of the Trade Union, Labour and Cooperative History society were also held here for some time. The Mechanic’s Institute has played an essential and key role in British Labour history. The Trade Union Congress, The Co-operative Insurance Society and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology were all founded in the building, currently Grade II listed. The Mechanic’s Institute was founded to provide part-time education of the basic principles of science to mechanics, artisans and tradesmen. The People’s History Museum is deep rooted within the local history of the people of Manchester, and this heritage is shared through the history of their locations as well as the collection.
(NB: Although a large part of the material held is related to the British Labour party, Labour history also refers to working class histories before the formation of the party.)
The museum is funded by a combination of public donations and membership. Although free to enter, a donation of £5 is suggested. They also run a membership scheme on 3 various levels, with the most basic one at £30 a year entitling you to 10% discount in the shop as well as invitations to all museum exhibition previews. Alongside public donations, they receive money from a huge list of organisations and government departments found on their website, ranging from Arts Council England to the Department for Work and Pensions and the Trade Union Congress. It is surprising how despite their large collection and this support, many British people are not aware of the prominence of the museum.
The site remains discreet, with subtle signage despite the prominent central location. The 2010 extension boasts sweeping glass windows that let in lots of natural light on the staircase, revealing the logo to those outside. The museum is incredibly spacious and modern in layout, with a chronological layout of permanent exhibitions designed to follow the development of citizenship and democracy in Britain, since the 18th Century. There’s a fairly large gift shop at the front stocked with radical and protest themed books, bags and tokens with which you can show support for one of the causes supported by the museum, but this is best left until the end of your visit. You can move through the galleries as freely as you wish, or in any order, but it makes sense to follow them numerically.
Gallery 1 centres around the theme of Revolution. The Peterloo Massacre of 1819 is expectedly a focus, a very important event in both the history of Manchester and the progression of democracy in Britain. The 200-year anniversary has been celebrated with an exhibition, Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest, that came to an end in February of this year. However, you can still take a free online course, found here, developed as part of the centenary:
It also features many key political thinkers who developed new democratic ideas. John Wilkes, Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Cobbett, Francis Burdett and the Chartists are all included, and important objects such as Thomas Paine’s writing desk where he wrote his main works is on display. The message is clear; as much as collective power is important in affecting political change, it could not have been done without these key radicals. It is rare that the public have access to these stories and incredibly important that their stories are shared considering how much they collectively contributed to democratic thought in Britain and beyond. The development of unions and the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) up to 1945 also feature. The development of unions is closely linked to the British Labour Party, a political party founded to represent the interests of working men, but also features other early histories of socialism and the British Communist P. Finally, the gallery leaves us with Women’s Suffrage, featuring objects from the Pankhurst’s who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union to fight for the vote in Manchester.
Gallery 2 continues the story after 1945. Augmented reality experiences were added to improve interaction with the collections in 2020, with this gallery allowing you to listen to oral history recordings of people involved in strikes in the 1970’s and 1980’s. This gallery starts with topics beyond political parties- after the vote was won for all, we turn to LGBTQ+ and immigrant protest, as well as climate and anti-war protests. This gallery also features a heightened ceiling from which a selection of the museum’s expansive collection of protest banners are displayed. There is a real focus on interaction and visitor experience- hanging from the ceiling allows you to see both sides of the banner, and there is also a huge window allowing you to view the textile conservationist at work in their studio. Magnified samples explain the fragility of textiles and explain the important conservation work that goes in to preserving protest history in this form. The conservation teamwork beyond the museum’s collection, assisting community and private collections. It offers a uniquely close look at the technical work required and offers a fascinating insight that in my view makes it more than a museum. The Labour History Archive & Study centre is also in the building. It is very clear from your visit that the museum wants their collections to be engaged with and interacted with as much as possible and using the resources as a tool for education is a key focus of the building.
A huge amount of their collection is held at the former Mechanic’s Institute, but displays are rotated regularly. In addition to these permanent galleries, temporary exhibitions may be held in the other museum spaces. The theme for this year is Migration, and the museum is holding several events and talks around the topic. Whilst it is not possible to highlight or signpost any of these of note, I can only hope that the museum can open its doors again to allow these vital discussions to take place again. Most events are free, but if they are ticketed it remains under £5. The banner gallery has also been edited this year to highlight banners along the theme. They also hold Radical Lates, one off events on a variety of topics held on the second Thursday of each month until 8pm.
On my visits to the museum, which have mostly been midday, haven’t featured large crowds or ques. There is no pressure to maintain a flow, and you can walk around the museum at your own pace comfortably. Knowledgeable staff can be found on the information desk should you require, but the exhibitions are well constructed to provide fascinating and clear information, using the objects to amplify the stories of the minorities that they have represented. Sometimes the galleries can be a little dark, nicely counterbalanced by the bright atrium. However, should wish to take a break between galleries, there is an on-site café that is reasonably priced for some lunch or a coffee. It sits on the riverbank side, so you can enjoy the view. The museum has also been recognised for its family friendly nature, winning the Kid’s in Museums award for this in 2017/2018. Given the subject matter, it might not be considered an obvious choice for children. However, I would urge anyone with children to visit. There are free activity bags loaded with materials, and it is vitally important that children are introduced to the museums ‘ideas worth fighting for.’
It’s an important museum in Britain for so many reasons. The documentation and preservation of working class and labour history is vitally important to these communities. Manchester developed as one of the big industrial towns in the UK and played such an important part in the fight for representation. The museum tells the stories of citizens outside of London, and is much more than a museum, with all their conservation, education, and community work. I am interested in the study of ‘history from below’ in my academic work which does undoubtedly drive my support for the PHM. However, I think that the potential that the museum holds to counteract a reported disinterest in both studying the humanities and political engagement in the next generations is unparalleled. The connection and commitment to representing people from every divide that this institution holds sets it apart and I hope that should you get the chance to visit, you feel as inspired and engaged as I have every visit. For further information and to search the expansive and ever-growing collection, full of materials, please see their website.
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I’m coming to the end of the first year of my PhD in History at the University of Northampton, UK. I studied my MA at the University of Warwick and my research interests are mainly in 18th Century British Political History, as well as Gender History and Material Culture studies of the period. I have tutored school children in all aspects of history in summer schools and am passionate about using history to increase engagement in politics. I enjoy illustration and have a very small collection of vintage prints, maps and painting, some of which I’ve bought and sold alongside my own drawings that were inspired by them. Any free time is undoubtedly spent travelling, checking out a museum or two where possible!