I have been looking forward to the reopening of the remodelled and extended National People’s History Museum http://www.phm.org.uk/ as I held the old version in very high esteem. So high in fact that I used to have to steel myself for a visit because some of the histories, displays, documents, the moments of social revelation were so powerful that I would be moved to tears. This was the only museum that had such a profound effect on me – although appalling, even the Hiroshima Atomic Museum didn’t touch me so deeply.
Living in Manchester you have to have low architectural expectations – an ‘international’ city with no (contemporary) international architecture. Walking passed the museum every day, I have parenthesised my view of Austin-Smith: Lord design (http://www.austinsmithlord.com/ ) as competent mediocrity (although having seen the interior the ‘competent’ may be generous – picture: the foyer, notice the big column right in front of the information desk). But this isn’t an architecture review; so, hopeful for the survival of something special, for my first hopeful visit I committed not to let any architectural flaws detract from the central experience.
The warmth and earnestness of the staff as we entered lifted the spirits with a sense of a collective endeavour committed to the seriousness of the mission to privilege and treasure the memory of working class struggle. And then to the museum proper… and my heart sank.
The first thing we looked at was the temporary photography exhibition “Carried Away” – “taking a sideways look at protest through the last 100 years, illustrated by images of individuals being forcibly removed from the protests by the authorities.” (As it was an exhibition of images illustrating forcibly removal from protests, I am not sure what was ‘sideways’ about it). Many of the images from anti-fascist riots in the 30’s through the Miner’s Strike, anti-apartheid, anti-nuclear, etc, were powerful, and I really wanted them to accumulate into the emotive effect I craved, a celebration of resistance and courage, but the neat arrangement of images circled something crass in the centre of the space: a (new) tent on a photo vinyl of grass on the floor and a (new) rainbow flag hanging. It was a clumsy reference to the peace camps but what pushed it over the edge was a table beside it with colouring pencils and a badge making machine. In another part of the room I looked at the comments book – the comment which caught my eye was from a child: “very very nice but the badge machine is broken”. Obviously a child’s critical vocabulary is unrefined, and I dont actually care that the machine was broken - that's what happens - but this seemed to be a double indictment of the display rather than the play equipment: fundamentally, those images shouldn’t be very very nice but they had become strangely photographically interesting rather than politically engaging; and the broken badge match is symbolic of an aesthetic problem at the heart of the conception of the museum. There now seems to be a museological conceit that the history of workers’ struggle is manifest as primarily a graphic style, that trade unions’ and protest campaigns’ are characterized by their use of sloganising badges rather than ideas.
The frequent repetition of the museum’s new circular logo itself announces the importance of the badge as the focal point of the history.
The case is repeated in the colour coding of the displays (see sign)
And pulling out from this colour text we see a juxtaposition which again reinforces this idea.
Moving to the two floors of galleries, paradoxically, despite the colour coding, displays, items and ideas are jumbled and confusingly juxtaposed; really appalling moments of people’s struggle are thrown away; the uplifting cultures of hope are dissipated, collective aspirations for beauty and justice are marginal. At this point, I confess that there was an elephant in the museum which was completely invisible to me. Or should I say monster in the museum. It took Sue to point it out: this is a children’s museum! I think I have conditioned myself not to see the dismal signs but with her observation the sad reality confronts you.
Everywhere there are colouring-in activities, dressing up opportunities, lift the flap to find out, act out with puppets displays. If only I had remained blind to it. Faced with this I would just dismiss a museum as no interest, but as Sue used to be teacher, she made professional comments – though actually equally critical: her view is that given modern children’s greater sophistication and at the same time shorter attention span, this model of display and activity is outmoded for engaging children over 6. A good example of the problem is the pictured puppet activity. Puppets of British political leaders from the 70s and 80s. The label invites children, for that is height at which the “TV” is located, to conduct interviews. As Sue observed, what educational value does that have? The children have no knowledge of who the puppets represent or any of the political stances/philosophies which those figures stood for.
Because UK museums are measured by the number of visitors, as currently configured the museum will be a success in those terms; it will be loved by families with toddlers (2-6 year olds can pick up a Busy Bee explorer backpack) and schools – the latter because it is almost a school worksheet on the wall. It offers all the labour-saving preparation work that teachers relish. But Sue summed up the problem thus: The history of people’s struggle has been reduced to the form of Spot the Dog.
I think(hope) the museum as a whole is a more complex picture; the value of its work is immeasurable; it has very significant labour history archives, serious relationships with academic institutions and international working history museums which are commensurate to the seriousness of the history it retains. However, curatorially, it has been infected by the national cultural policy which homogenises and dumbs everything down. Given that this museum should be the inspirational repository of a class memory, a memorial to the ordinary made heroic, and a rallying idea that progressive change has and can be achieved, the prioritisation of toddlerism directly contradicts, neuters and marginalises the idea and experience that “there are ideas worth fighting for”. For me, the most powerful museum has been brought low. For the next few weeks the museum is in a ‘soft opening’ period, but sadly has conceptually located its public access at the level of Kids in Museums and as such it now seems distant from the idea of positive social and political change in favour of the central edict of public funding: the importance of civic and capital management of public thought. I felt a little sad for the staff whom I respect greatly, who in my experience are committed to the idea, optimism and knowledge of workers’ history but the policy landscape in which the museum operates, distorts its past in the deadening political shift that has redefined community (of idea, geography or workplace) as family, family as Engels observed the organisational unit of capitalism, and family as a mediated child-obsessed hierarchy in which complexity or collective action by definition are unnecessary and undesirable.
– Clock yourself in