Museums play a crucial role in healing divides

Katy Ashton, Issue 120/01, 03.01.2019
As the national museum of democracy, our collections and our work have never been as relevant or resonant as they are today. This year marks a decade of the People’s History Museum (PHM) being in its current building, and 30 years in Greater Manchester, which feels like a good excuse for a celebration. We will celebrate our past, discuss our present and look to our future.

As the director of the PHM for the past 10 years, it has been a special journey of development and change for me, for the museum and for the world around us. Reflecting on where we have been, where we are now and where we go next fills me with a powerful mix of pride, excitement and hope.

We are extremely proud of the work of the staff, volunteers and trustees that are at the core of the PHM – they put their heart and soul into everything they do, each and every day.

We are also proud of the programme of events and exhibitions we have delivered, particularly since 2015 with Election! Britain Votes; The Euro Tunnel; Never Going Underground: The Fight for LGBT+ Rights; Represent! Voices 100 Years On; and Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest. This has been radical and challenging, pro-democracy and pro-campaigning, shining a light on our amazing Designated collections of banners, badges, posters, cartoons, placards and more.

There is also great pride in how we have worked with diverse communities and audiences to co-create our programmes. We have an incredibly participative approach and open our doors and collections to communities to carry out their own research, develop and write content, select artists and designers, and to deliver public engagement. This has created a multiplicity of voices and helped us share community stories widely and crowdsource and collect contemporary material to strengthen our collections.

And there is lots of excitement – excitement in the difference we can make to the world by using our radical past to inspire people to take action in a time of ever-increasing political, economic, social and environmental change and challenge. We are also thrilled by the new collections we are acquiring that document current and future campaigns for equality and social justice.

And there is huge excitement as we begin our most ambitious programme ever – a year-long journey exploring the theme of migration through the eyes of individuals whose own lives have been shaped by their experiences of it.

Over the next 10 years, we will build on our success and define our future more clearly as the home of ideas worth fighting for. We hope that the difference we make through our programme, our collections and our team is a positive one, and that we pass on that hope to others who care about the world we live in, who want to get involved in their communities and who want to engage in the democratic process.

We want our ethos of “More in Common”, which runs through our 2020 programme, to bring people together as we celebrate multicultural Britain, international solidarity and a global approach to our work.

At a time when society feels fractured, we hope that the arts, culture and museums can play their part and demonstrate more widely that we can make a real difference in healing divides and bringing different people together.

The PHM is at the forefront of change, just as the revolutionaries, reformers, workers, voters and citizens represented in our museum championed for change and rallied for rights and equality before us. There is a real opportunity to provide a unique perspective that brings together the yesterday, today and tomorrow on any subject or issue – and to be actively campaigning to show that museums do change lives.

Katy Ashton is the director of the People’s History Museum, Manchester