Unlocking Ideas, The People's History Museum

25th July 2013

Experience History caught up with Chris Burgess of The People's History Museum, who tells us about the museum's 'Unlocking Ideas' project

Inside the museum

It is largely accident that the two most significant institutions for studying British working-class politics are only 15 minutes walk from each other.

Salford’s Working Class Movement Library is made up of manuscripts and books that chart working class struggles over the course of 200 years. Users do not have to be members, and there is no charge. It exists simply for anyone who wants to learn more about working people’s struggles and triumphs.

The People’s History Museum is a national museum telling the story of the history of democracy. Visitors to its galleries travel from the massacre at Peterloo in 1819 to the present day. Their journey is one that charts the gradual expansion of the franchise and the fight for employment and equal rights. In the People’s History Museum archive, visitors can explore the papers of the Labour Party and Communist Party of Great Britain.

Such is the vast combined scope of material available at the two organisations, anyone interested in the political life of the people of Britainwould do well to visit both.

Links between the two organisations have always been cordial, but never completely collaborative. A successful bid to the Museums Association administered, Esmeé Fairbairn funded Collections Fund has however, revolutionised the joint working practices of the organisations. The Unlocking Ideas project explores new ways of working, finds those hidden stories lurking in the stores, and uses the collections to draw in new audiences.

The Unlocking Ideas output is partly digital. A blog highlights new research currently ongoing as part of the project. It provides the opportunity to highlight objects and collections that might not otherwise have been seen, and it also means that these political collections can be used to help provide context for current politics.

When the horse meat scandal broke, for example, research at the Working Class Movement Library revealed that there had been an occurrence of horse adulteration in the Newton Heath area of Manchester in the 19th century. It was an instance when past and present were reconciled, and a chance to show the public how historical objects can provide more understanding of the present. The blog also provides the opportunity for volunteers at the library and museum to write about their own work at the two organisations.

Aside from interpreting the collections digitally the project also seeks to bring people into contact with the collections physically. Much of this work is an attempt to engage people with politics through objects of past politics. To this end we’ve had 7 year olds reading letters from Margaret Thatcher in the archive, and 16 year olds reading speeches by the suffragette Annie Kenney in the galleries.

The connections between the collections of the Working Class Movement Library and the People’s History Museum, and the physically proximity of the two organisations, means the Unlocking Ideas project is able to explore new ground in collaboration.