The following blog will analyse the meanings of a particular museum object. I will focus on two sabres that are displayed at the People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester. Firstly, the blog will explore the background to the objects (looking at the museum’s history and themes), it will then detail the ‘social history’ approach adopted by the museum and the effect this has on the visitor. To finish, I will investigate different ways that the same objects could be displayed, paying particular attention to aesthetic and object biography approaches. In doing so, the blog will also suggest other museums in England that house sabres and use these as an example of the differing ways objects can be displayed and interpreted.
The People’s History Museum, where the sabres are displayed, is a collection originally housed in Limehouse Town Hall in London. In 1990, the collection moved to 103 Princess Street in Manchester. This building was where the first ever TUC meeting was convened and so the building was closely linked with the themes of the museum. The permanent exhibitions moved to the Pump House in Spinningfields 4 years later. Here the museum remained until 2007, when a £12.5m redevelopment drastically increased the capacity. It was opened to the public in 2010.
The PHM explores a number of issues. In short, it analyses the growth of democracy in Britain over the last two hundred years. It looks at the struggle for the franchise (both women and men), the growth of trade unions and the fight against fascism, to name a few. It also houses the largest collection of trade union banners in the world. The motto of the museum is; ‘There have always been ideas worth fighting for’. While the museum is undoubtedly based on grand themes, this must be understood in terms of objects. Conn states that, “objects are largely secondary to the museums’ strategies…these new museums have themes rather than collections.” Similarly, Dudley suggests that objects in these museums, “often end up serving…as props in the telling of a story rather than as the focus of the story themselves.” This has to be considered.
The sabres that are on display were owned by a member of the Manchester Yeomanry who was present at St Peter’s Field on 16th August 1819. On this day, 60,000 demonstrators peacefully assembled in Manchester to demand the vote, an end to the ‘rotten boroughs’ system, and the repeal of the Corn Laws. Speakers included the famous orator Henry Hunt. The Magistrate, fearing revolution, ordered the Yeomanry cavalry to arrest the speakers and disperse the crowd. The ensuing melee left 18 dead and thousands more wounded. The incident became known as ‘Peterloo’ in reference to the famous battle of Waterloo that had taken place 4 years earlier.
When displaying the sabres, the museum uses a social history approach. The text panels describe the horrors of the Peterloo Massacre in a simple style. This is called Ekarv and is described as “history for those prepared to read 50 words”. There is a projection on the floor as the visitors enter Gallery 1 which shows blood spattered cobbles. The victims of the massacre are labelled also, while the dark gallery interior adds to the ‘sensory’ experience. By the time the visitor reaches the ‘exhibit’ cases where the sabres are concealed, they are (in theory) already sympathetic to the museum’s theme. As such, the museum’s social history approach has already set the object in its context. Dudley believes that there is a place for this approach; “sensory and emotional aspects in the museum environment certainly has an established value in relation to learning.” The small object biography that is placed next to the sabres is almost an after-thought.
However, this approach is not the only one available to museum designers. Sabres can be interpreted in at least two other ways. The Royal Armouries in Leeds for instance, houses a huge collection of weaponry and the physicality of the objects themselves is the central theme to the museum. In this sense, the sabres could be displayed in a purely aesthetic approach, alongside other weapons of similar size, colour etc. The weapons would be removed from their context and instead be interpreted on their aesthetic qualities.
The City of London Police Museum also displays early nineteenth century weaponry. However, they use a merger of approaches. While adopting a social history approach, they also rely heavily on an object biography approach, describing who the weapon belonged to, and where/how/when it was used. In this sense, this method of interpretation differs subtly from the PHM’s approach.
In evaluation, this brief blog has not only analysed how the sabres are displayed in the PHM, but also how these same sabres could be displayed in different museums. The background and themes of the PHM were studied, before explaining the social history and sensory approach that the museum adopts. We then saw how a museum such as The Royal Armouries could (and do) adopt an aesthetic approach, while the City of London Police museum for instance, often use a mixture of social history but rely more on object biography.
Conn, Steven. “Do Museums Still Need Objects?” from Conn, Steven. Do Museum Still Need Objects? (Philadelphia; University of Pennsylvania Press 2010) pp. 20-57.
Dudley, Sandra. “Encountering a Chinese Horse: Engaging with the thingness of things” from Dudley, Sandra. Museum Objects: Experiencing the properties of things (London. Routledge. 2012) pp. 1-16