Thumbs up for new, improved People’s History Museum

The People’s History Museum in Manchester was always one of my favourite haunts. Housed in a former water pumphouse on the banks of the Irwell, it gave a brief introduction to all of the world-shaking ideas and popular causes which sprung out of the region such as industrialisation, Chartism, votes for all, socialism, feminism and trade unionism.

With such a wide scope of topics, and a rather restricted space in which to cram them all into, it was superb news when the museum bosses secured enough funding to allow it to massively expand. Now, three years on, the extension – cased in the rusty metal used in the Angel of the North which looks more appealing the more you view it – is finished and the museum has flung open its doors again.

People's History Museum, Manchester

The People's History Museum behind a forest of direction signs

The verdict? Almost everything about it is a hit.

The permanent exhibition begins on the first floor, covering the 1600s right up to 1945, and continues with the post-war period on the second floor. Some of the highlights I remember from the old museum have kept their place – for instance the selection of trade union banners, a clocking-in machine, and Michael Foot’s famous donkey jacket – but there’s dozens of new intriguing artefacts too. it’s massively more engaging for kids as well, with dressing-up kits, a play shop, computer screens and sound clips all being well used when I visited.

Even though the museum has expanded massively, though, it’s still not big enough to do full justice to all topics. How can you cover feminism, for instance, when you have just two walls to play with? In addition, it’s hard to follow how all the topics flow at times – a section on the slave trade could be jammed between Peterloo and Mary Woolstencraft because of the sheer range that needs to be covered. They have created a diagram showing how the subjects interlock, but you’d need the museum to double in size again before there’d be enough room to do them all justice.

What the PHM does superbly well is give visitors a bite-sized introduction to key themes, usually with some fascinating period objects, and hopefully these will encourage people to dig deeper on the topics which grab them. To help visitors follow things up perhaps there could be more cross-promotion of related nearby attractions such as Chetham’s Library, the Museum of Science & Industry, the Pankhurst Centre and the Working Class Movement Library, while a bigger selection of related books in the shop would also help.

For repeat visitors, the temporary exhibition space is perhaps most important. After all, there are a limited number of times even a huge People’s History Museum fan will want to revisit the permanent collection.

The omens look mixed here. The quality is high – I vividly remember a cracking collection of photography bursting with colour from the Silk Road a few years ago, and the new People’s History Museum opens in similarly impressive style with Carried Away, great black-and-white action photos of protests, strikes and insurrection. But the next temporary exhibition isn’t scheduled for eight months. If you have only one changing space, it seems a shame to move it on a bit more regularly. There are, however, some talks and guided walks to keep you coming back.


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