I’m lucky enough to live near a city filled with rich culture and arts heritage, among many other things. One place that’s been on my list for years is the People’s History Museum, Manchester. I was due to visit for the first time in March 2020 but that got postponed, and the museum stayed closed for most of the remaining year, and into the next due to lockdown restrictions.
I’d booked a Friday off work last month and museums had not long opened up again, so I took the opportunity to book myself a ticket for the PHM to fill the time before an appointment I had in town later that day. Entry is free but donations are encouraged.
Tucked away in Leftbank, Spinningfields, just a few minutes from John Rylands Library (aka ‘the book museum’ in our household), the PHM is a museum of national democracy, showcasing Britain’s past, present, and future. If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you’ll know I’m not shy about sharing my personal political views on the importance of social equality and justice.
From the Peterloo Massacre, the Great Reform Act, and the Industrial Revolution, through to protests and strikes around racism, immigration, LGBT rights, working conditions, Brexit, and general political evolution, it aims to give an insight into working-class Britain throughout the decades.
The museum was quiet when I arrived at 10am, with just myself and four or five other visitors there. After showing my pre-booked ticket at reception, this gave me space and time to really take in the exhibitions, which were displayed across three floors. These consisted of banners, badges, posters, and propaganda from various political parties, dating from 200 years ago, right up to the present day.
Some things were from before my time, and others I have vague, early memories of, such as protests around the introduction of the poll tax in England and Wales. It was deflating in a way to see some of the same issues that we’re battling today were being fought decades, and even centuries ago, with little progress made as each generation passes. That said, it was equally inspiring to see what an incredible impact some of those actions did go on to have, such as the suffrage and abolitionism movements.
I thought PHM succeeded in giving a well-balanced and non-biased view of the development of democracy in Britain. It also served as a timely reminder of those who struggled before us to enable the freedom we enjoy today, and those deemed to be on the ‘right side of history’ so many years later. By bravely challenging oppressive policies and outdated attitudes, often to their own detriment, it gives me a spark of hope for the future, when things seem to feel particularly dark on the political front right now.
A special exhibition is being hosted at the PHM until 24 April 2022, celebrating the life of Labour MP, Jo Cox, who was murdered in June 2016. The ‘More in Common’ project was hard viewing, as expected. Featuring snippets of Jo’s personal and political life, this shares the legacy she left behind, including pictures of Jo enjoying time with her young family, and how her work to promote equality in education and communities still lives on passionately through others, regardless of her cruel and untimely death.
Jo’s words, “We are far more united, and have far more in common than that which divides us”, feel more poignant than ever before.
It took me a good couple of hours to get around the museum, which is also fully accessible, and they have a small gift shop near the reception area. Gift shops to me are what catnip is cats, so I bought a few bits for myself, including an obligatory fridge magnet with the slogan, ‘the patriarchy isn’t going to fight itself‘ as a memento of my visit, and some things to put away as gifts for upcoming birthdays.
I stopped for lunch at the Open Kitchen Cafe, located on the ground floor of the building. I’ve been following them on social media for a while now, having been aware of the work that founder, Corin, did via The Junk Food Project, and using the same model here. Most ingredients used are intercepted from various places, meaning that they re-use perfectly good food that would otherwise have gone to waste or ended up in a landfill, providing a varied ethical, and sustainable menu.
I ordered a massive cup of tea and a bowl of veggie chilli; it arrived shortly afterward, packed with fresh flavours, and with a side of sweetcorn salsa and handmade nachos. It cost about £10 altogether, which was more than reasonable given the high quality. I whipped out my book, like a classic elder millennial, and thoroughly enjoyed spending an hour alone to enjoy my meal in such a serene, welcoming riverside setting.
My experience at PHM left me thinking about it for a while afterward and provided an opportunity for opening up topical discussions with friends, family, and colleagues. You can find out more about the PHM and Open Kitchen Cafe below:
People’s History Museum
Open Kitchen Cafe