Dissenting voices

As issues such as executive pay, government cuts and NHS reform continue to divide people in Britain, Rob Sharp looks how museums are reflecting protest across the UK
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Rob Sharp
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Warring locals, the angry unemployed, a community in tatters: Keith Pattison’s 1984 photographs of the miners’ strike in County Durham have as much impact today as they did nearly 30 years ago.

These stark images, on show at Wakefield’s National Coal Mining Museum for England, exemplify British museums’ strength in reflecting the country’s vivid history of public protest.

Other examples include the People’s Republic Gallery at the Museum of Liverpool, which documents nearly 200 years of social change, while Manchester’s People’s History Museum showcases the UK’s long tradition of public protest through trade unionism and women’s suffrage.

In recent months there has been no shortage of material for institutions tackling contemporary public discontent.

From the Museum of London’s collaboration with Goldsmiths, University of London, last year, when people donated placards from the anti-cuts demonstrations to be later exhibited, to M Shed’s controversial display of Banksy’s work in Bristol, museums have addressed Britain’s immediate societal imperatives under sometimes difficult circumstances and have often done so in defiance of local authorities.

“Taking on these topics became one of Britain’s strengths when it woke up to social history in the 1980s,” says David Fleming, the director of National Museums Liverpool. “Since then, we’ve had three decades of dealing with these issues. There’s more protest around at the moment, and that should be reflected. That’s good social history. Britain is the best at it in the world.”

Material witness

Bradford’s Peace Museum reopened last month after refurbishment, and the new displays include sections dedicated to local peace campaigning. Also in March, the Museum of London hosted a debate on how the museum should reflect everything from Occupy London to the Tottenham riots, with speakers including Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller (see box).

So should institutions get involved in collecting from contemporary protest and, if so, in what way? Many of those who work in museums feel it’s important for them to be relevant to current affairs. But, as with exhibitions that examine emotional events, collecting from the present day needs to be handled with sensitivity and circumspection. 

British people have struggled for democracy, and to exercise their democratic rights, for close to 200 years. From the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who were arrested for trying to form a union in 1834, to postwar campaigns such as the anti-nuclear Ban the Bomb movement, there is rich material on which to draw and celebrate.

However, a museum’s relationship with more recent events is often complex. Over time, the public’s attitude to once inflammatory events changes. The miners’ strike is ingrained in Britain’s collective consciousness partly because of the recognisable images it produced. But several decades of hindsight give events a different perspective.

“The number of people who remember the strike directly is dwindling rapidly,” says Margaret Faull, the director of the National Coal Mining Museum for England. “When I started in 1986 it was still pretty raw. There was a lot of polarisation. So we came under pressure to take one line or the other, and we didn’t do it. Now, I don’t get that sort of reaction. On the whole it’s old history. Our role is changing.”

Successful exhibitions about historical protest often retain greater impact if their creation and display is embedded within the relevant community.

Broadwater Farm: The Story of a Community 1967-2010, which takes in the riots that broke out on the north London estate in 1985, has been exhibited around Tottenham intermittently for the past two years. It is now at Haringey Council’s Bruce Castle Museum.

The show’s curator, social historian Odin Biddulph, worked with fellow locals to decide what it was acceptable to discuss. What he produced – portraits of local characters, political artwork, video footage – has won praise for airing difficult topics in a challenging environment and being presented in a nuanced way that is relevant to a present-day audience.

“Broadwater has been the subject of so much media attention, the idea was to let people say what they wanted about their own history,” says Biddulph. “However, rather than saying the government is bad, or the police are bad, people wanted to discuss it in terms of lessons learned.”

An exhibition at the National Wool Museum in Wales is assessing the impact of five key riots and strikes related to employment that took place over the past 200 years.

It ranges from the Merthyr Rising in 1831 through to the Caia Park Wrexham Riots in 2003. National Wool Museum manager Ann Whittall says that the aim is to provoke debate and ask uncomfortable questions.

With contemporary events, local museums feel collecting is a necessary way of understanding the present and putting the past in context.

The Museum of London has acquired a paint-splattered fluorescent jacket and police helmet from last March’s anti-cuts demonstrations, and is in discussions to take ownership of the Peckham Wall of Love, a board plastered with peaceful messages after last year’s looting.

“We are amassing a collection which will capture the events of London in the early 21st century and we want to be truthful to that,” says Cathy Ross, the museum’s director of collections and learning.

“We want to keep these things for the future, not just through our view of what happened, but from the donors’ perspective. That’s our purpose in life.”

All modern museums should keep one eye on the present and one on the past. “We look at peaceful campaigning from the first world war, but we also keep our eyes on what’s happening now,” says Peace Museum curator and manager Julie Obermeyer.

“We also make mention of the Occupy and Arab Spring movements. In terms of the collection, we are still trying to tell these stories.”

Hot topics

The flipside is that political hot topics remain contentious in other contexts. According to Julie Finch, the director of Bristol’s Museums, Galleries and Archives, when M Shed chose to celebrate the work of Banksy, who backed Bristol’s rioters in a 2011 work showing a petrol bomb emblazoned with a Tesco logo, it raised eyebrows in local government.

“But it’s worth remembering that M Shed wasn’t just paid for by the council, it was paid for by taxpayers’ money,” Finch says. “My view is that the politicians have to deal with the politics, but the museum has a responsibility to present different people’s views. My museum belongs to the people.”

With the declining power of the local newspapers, local institutions’ roles in resp-onding to current affairs is more important than ever.

“A good social history museum has a large amount of contacts and is well-placed to respond to things when they happen,” says Fleming. He points to Liverpudlian footballer Robbie Fowler publicly revealing a T-shirt in 2005 showing support for striking Liverpool dockers.

“A museum has to get inside these issues,” he continues. “What does it mean? It’s all up for debate. We need to try to understand what’s going on.”

Working with protesters

One way is by blurring the lines between protest and exhibition. The Museum of London collaboration with Goldsmiths saw about 800 of the museum’s images of historic protest, such as memorabilia from the Suffragette movement, taken up and brandished on banners during anti-cuts demonstrations.

An estimated 500,000 people marched through the streets of central London on 26 March and those on the demonstration could contribute their own placards, which were later exhibited at the museum. The project’s co-organiser, Guy Atkins, is now looking for other venues.

“We didn’t expect it to be as big as it was,” Atkins says. “We wanted to find out how we could involve the museum with something going on outside, and we came up with the idea of taking the museum out, and putting the protest back.”

Projects such as these, where curators and organisers put themselves at the centre of events, collaborating with those involved, seem to stand the test of time.

Deep engagement with a local community helps the public to better understand protesters’ motives – whether it is campaigning against pit closures or the ransacking of the public sector through budget cuts.

As a result, the events can feel as raw and vivid as those Pattison recorded during the miners’ strike in the mid-1980s.

Rob Sharp is a freelance journalist

Give peace a chance

The Peace Museum’s manager and curator Julie Obermeyer says its refurbishment, which was completed in March, features a new space devoted to the celebration of Bradford’s impact on the wider world, particularly as a “city of peace” that has a rich heritage and a history of diversity and campaigning.

“People who visit the museum do want to find out about Bradford,” she says. “A lot of people have heard about the riots but that’s all and we’d like to introduce them to the rich peace history which we have. There are many inspiring stories of people who have brought about peaceful change and affect others’ lives for the better.”

The lives of local figures, including artist David Hockney, writer JB Priestley and labour reformer Richard Oastler, will also be highlighted.

Rob Sharp

Rebel yells

Contemporary artists are among those who have tackled the issue of protest and dissent in the UK. Unlike museums, they are often seen more as outsiders who do not represent the establishment view.

Jeremy Deller’s Joy in People exhibition is at London’s Hayward Gallery until 13 May. The show features work from An Injury to One Is an Injury to All, a project that explores the 1984 confrontation between striking miners and police. This includes the Battle of Orgreave, a live re-enactment of events that took place on 18 June that year.

Tate Britain, London, is staging Migrations, an exhibition that is exploring British art through the theme of migration from 1500 to the present day (until 12 August). This features the Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs, a film that looks at the unrest that took place in Birmingham and in London during October 1985.

Mark Wallinger has also addressed protest in his work, notably in State Britain, a 2006 project that re-created Brian Haw’s peace camp in Parliament Square.

This was installed at the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain in 2007 and featured banners, photographs, peace flags and messages from well-wishers. Haw began his protest against the war in Iraq in 2001.

Simon Stephens

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