John Monks on the campaign to save the People’s History Museum
The Manchester-based People’s History Museum (PHM), of which I am Chair of Trustees, tells the story of the inspiring struggle of working men and women to win the right to vote. A vital, contemporary message in an era of low turnouts and apathy about politics.
The story ranges from John Wilkes and Tom Paine, through the Peterloo massacre, the Great Reform Act, the Chartists, the emergence of trade unions, Gladstone/Disraeli, Labour’s origins, and the founding of the Welfare State. Importantly, the museum also houses the rich archives of our Party; and incorporates the National Museum of Labour History. The Tory archive is at the Bodleian and the LibDems at the LSE.
The PHM however, looks set to lose its support from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and will no longer be considered a national museum. It would leave a funding hole of £200,000 each year.
It is not the only museum to have its funding threatened, and many are having a hard time. Yet some have found ways to maintain DCMS funding, allying with one of the great London institutions. For example, the Museum of Science and Industry (also in Manchester) has linked up with the Science Museum Group in Kensington. Some, including the Horniman in South East London, have kept their direct funding.
Despite over 100,000 visitors a year, the PHM does not have obvious national partners. We have tried the British Museum and the British Library, but both have problems of their own. We currently feel like an orphan in the storm of austerity.
To be fair, Ministers have been reflecting on how to help but they have stalled on making a decision. That is feeding a view that there is an anti-Northern bias within the government, along with the more obvious anti-Labour one. Why are we left out in the cold when others, including the aforementioned Tory and LibDem archives at the Bodleian and the LSE, receive national help?
Although the PHM focuses on the fight for the right to vote and trade union history, it is neither sectarian nor tribal. William Hague, Matthew Parris and Charles Kennedy have all opened exhibitions. In our own exciting ‘sponsor a radical hero’ campaign, Margaret Thatcher, controversially perhaps, has been sponsored and will be honoured with others on a wall in the museum.
The right to vote is a precious privilege. As Jack Jones, my predecessor as PHM Chair of Trustees, often said, that right “did not fall off the Christmas tree”. It had to be fought for and people have died for it. Indeed, when you consider the queues at polling stations in new democracies, like those in post-apartheid South Africa or more recently Afghanistan and Iraq, there can be no place for cynicism about democracy.
I hope DCMS Ministers share this view and, in understanding the importance of the People’s History Museum as part of our country’s role in bringing democracy to the world, do the right thing.
Lord John Monks is a Labour Peer and former General Secretary of the TUC
Published 25 January 2015
For more information on the People’s History Museum, visit: www.phm.org.uk