Manchester’s continual architectural and cultural makeover has offered a few surprises over the past decade (the controversial design of the Hilton Tower splitting Mancunian opinion in particular) yet whilst that particular building has proved divisive, the redevelopment of The People’s History Museum (PHA) has received a far more positive reaction from the public. Manchester has a rich history with Working Class culture, resulting not only from the impact of Industrialisation on the city and the national landscape, but from a cultural perspective as well (as any self-respecting Smiths or Oasis fan will tell you), yet the key question remains: does class really matter in the present day?
Located on Bridge Street in the trendy area of Manchester, and close to John Rylands library Deansgate site, the newly refurbished museum makes a striking impression on first viewing. With the historically significant River Irwell running just behind the building, Salford in the near distance and the stunning design of the new Crown Court Centre and the museum itself, you get the sense that this is a new building for a modern era, yet still aware of the importance of the past.
I will be honest: I was sceptical before visiting the museum. Would it be a giant concrete homage to the virtues of Socialism? Would I find statues of Lenin and Trotsky towering in the reception area? Even worse, would I find Billy Bragg handing out copies of the Morning Star outside the entrance?
First impressions certainly did not show any glimpses of these pre-visit views. From the student perspective, I guess the words FREE ADMISSION are always welcome, and this feature of free and universal access plays a major role in the Museum’s attempt to paint “the struggle for Democracy” in Britain. The entrance area is wide, clear and open, whilst the staff are warm and friendly, ready to help and advise on where is best to start the tour. There isn’t much need for a map as the size of the museum itself is relatively small, but they are available at reception if needed, as is any further assistance with any access requirements.
Admin aside, the main point of the museum as mentioned above, is to highlight the process of greater democratisation in Britain, looking at the key events from the eighteenth century to the present day. The museum is split into three levels: level one acts as the entrance floor, with two large exhibition halls dedicated to print culture and the impact of propaganda over the last two hundred years. Both rooms are certainly worth a look, particularly the fantastic Community Gallery, which manages to fuse the more contemporary aspects of Manchester’s reconstruction, with the collection on offer, whilst never feeling out of place. Levels two and three are where the real purpose of the museum is best exemplified.
The story of the ‘beginning’ of the struggle for the vote from the turn of the nineteenth century, and for greater participation in society and government is explained concisely and effectively from the 2nd floor. It is clear that the museum wants to appeal to everyone, and it succeeds in this respect by keeping the textual explanations to the minimum, and allowing visitors to learn interactively thanks to the technological facilities on offer. In a sense, you are invited to ‘trace your own history’ within the galleries and the information they supply.
What was most interesting for me was that the PHA managed to reconcile the Mancunian story of democratic involvement with the wider national process. Key moments are continually signposted such as the Peterloo massacre of 1819, and the more recent miners strikes of the 1980’s under Margaret ‘Iron Lady’ Thatcher’s government.
The other important thing to mention is that with Thesis deadlines fast approaching, the museum has an onsite archive centre, which stores a vast quantity of primary source material relating to the history of working people, and would therefore by a useful point of contact to get any relevant research conducted. Going back to the question posed before, ‘does class really matter anymore’, that is a question that is left entirely up to the visitor at the PHA, but the museum does show how past events have shaped the structure of modern day society. How far have we come and how far do we still need to go down the route of democracy?