A visit to the People’s History Museum

This museum focuses on the lives of the ordinary – yet extraordinary – people who fought for democracy, writes Nell Darby.

Photo by Bernard Randall

The People’s History Museum is one of our all-time favourite museums. It focuses on the lives of ordinary people in the past, looking at their political involvement and how they marched or fought for democracy and representation.

It is not surprising that the museum has its origins in the Trade Union, Labour and Co-operative History Society, which formed a small collection of artefacts back in the 1960s. The PCM holds the largest number of trade union and other banners in the world, but is worth seeing more for the wealth of fascinating working-class history on display in its two main galleries. 

The galleries look at particular themes. Gallery one focuses on the earlier history of democracy, looking at revolution, reformers, workers, and voters. As these names suggest, they form a timeline of democracy. The museum starts by looking at what causes revolution – issues such as poor working conditions, and a lack of political representation, working through to the demand for the vote, the Suffragettes, and the development of socialism and fascism. 

Gallery two looks at our history from the end of World War 2, with themes covering citizens, leisure time (from football to music), and the importance of protest and march banners. Here, questions are raised about whether our involvement in politics has changed since the Victorian age, making us ‘citizens’ rather than ‘revolutionaries’ or even ‘voters’. The gallery prompts visitors to think about how we used to simply vote for parties, whereas now we vote more for issues – and what issues motivate our personal political decision-making at election time.

If you want to know more, the  Labour History Archive and Study Centre is also based at the museum. You will need to make an appointment (see phm.org.uk/collections/labour-history-archive-study-centre/ for details), but you’ll be able to find archives of organisations including the Chartists, and individuals such as radical politicians, writers and activists.

From Chartism to the Anti-Corn Law Movement, Peterloo to the Bryant & May matchworkers’ strike in 1888 and the 1926 General Strike, the People’s History Museum details our involvement with politics and protest over the past three centuries, in a creative, evolving and interactive way. It’s a thought-provoking, well-curated place that is well worth a visit.