We Need More People’s History Museums!

Manchester      “The Organizer” was screening at the Friends Meeting House today, and the members and leaders of the newly organized ACORN branch in Manchester were working, so I had the opportunity to not only visit, but also observe and work from the People’s History Museum and The Left Bank café and bar.  What a great way to tell the story of people’s struggles for democracy in civic life and a voice in the workplace and political space.

Fittingly, the museum is located in the Spinningfield district, named for all of the spinning mills that heralded the Industrial Revolution virtually birthed in Manchester.  Additionally, signaling the working-class roots that made Manchester wealthy and imprinted the politics for years, the museum is retrofitted into an old pump house along the river with some remnants of its former life still visible. The museum was supported by labor unions in the United Kingdom, but also the European Union, national arts councils, and, importantly the Manchester City Council, but don’t think that diluted the message of the museum:  this is people’s history.

The museum had many, many strengths.  Viewers were encouraged to participate.  Pushing buttons meant hearing historic speeches by politicians of all stripes, union leaders, and others.  At one-point yellow police tape was on the floor and when I walked across the entryway and picket line chanting greeted me as it if I had cross the line during a strike, making the experience very realistic and dramatic.  Speckled throughout in various time periods visitors were encouraged to open suitcases to see what people might have being carrying or wearing at the time, or visitors could try on hats that union leaders and managers might have worn. Visitors could open cubbyholes to see whole exhibits.  Very smart!

The museum was also aided tremendously by dramatic visuals.  Sweeping and intricate banners made by early trades group for their meetings and demonstrations were as creative as tapestries we saw only days earlier in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.  Posters for demonstrations or political rallies both modern and one-hundred or more years old were fascinating and forceful.  The sections on the suffragette movement and the fight to win the vote for women in England were outstanding, especially the separate pride in Mrs. Pankhurst from Manchester, as they called their native daughter and key leader of the fight.

The development of political struggles from the Levellers and Chartists to the Communist and radical elements as well as the more mainstream Labour Party were well documented.  One amazing illustration on a wall running from floor to ceiling several stories up showed a timeline of British history and the various movements, strikes, demonstrations, and repression that marked the time to either victory or defeat.

Workers, women, and various voices were celebrated everywhere here, as well.  Critically, the museum was not simply about organizations, winners and losers, but the importance of struggle itself.  The People’s History Museum’s motto tellingly was: “There have always been ideas worth fighting for.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bits Along the Road

Manchester     Two words heard regularly in the UK are “sorted” and “bits.”  Sorted makes sense in a way.  Get organized, straighten out, arrange in place, whatever, to sort something is to put it right, and the term is ubiquitous.  Almost as common is a reference to “bits” with is a catchall for a miscellaneous everything from a to-do list to random things that of course need to be sorted.  On the trains in the United Kingdom there is an announcement along with posters in every station about keeping your eyes open for things that are out of sort with the slogan “see it, say it, sort it” as a promise that that the authorities will take care of the matter.

One thing that is no longer sorted in the UK is the notion of being able to count on the trains running on time. Our crew left wildly early for airports back to the US, Canada, and France on the assumption that the trains would be late, not timely.  Going from Heathrow through Reading a train scheduled on our itinerary simply disappeared and remains, what can I say, but unsorted.  A larger surprise was showing up to buy train tickets in advance in Cardiff and being told to get to the station for the first train and hope for the best, they were unsure on that Sunday when or if trains would be running at all.  That was disconcerting!

Talking to information we learned about both the continued power of the railway unions on the Great Western line as well as the wild popularity of the World Cup.  We were advised on the down-low that the real problem was that some 75% of the train conductors had called off for that Sunday in expectation that England would prevail against Croatia and be in the Cup final.  The GWR was unclear if they would have enough trainmen to run more than a quarter of their routes, so for anyone trying to get a plane out of London or go anywhere else, that might just be too bad, but nothing management could do about it.  As it developed, England lost to Croatia and then again on Saturday to Belgium, though everyone was measured in their disappointment, not having believed they would get so deep in the tournament, for soccer-clueless travelers with no horse in the race, we got there early and waited to be rewarded with trains running both to London and Manchester.

In Manchester finally, I learned that unions have hunkered down to organize home health care workers which sounds about time.  Another organizer told me about the Wisconsin-style rules that force the public workers union to have to climb a huge mountain to poll 50% of the eligible workers in favor of a strike vote.  Failing to do so has stuck such workers with a 1% increase annually for almost a decade of austerity.  In cities like London the minimum wage guaranteed would only leave 20% left over to live after paying the average rent of over 800 pounds.  Meanwhile the government in a private-public partnership is spending billions on a high-speed train proposed from Manchester to London which would save perhaps 15-minutes of travel time.

There are a lot of bits that need to get sorted.

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