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Taking down an exhibition at PHM

Established in London in the 1960s, a group of pioneer activists sought to collect items that belonged to the working people, as part of a drive to preserve labour history. Owing to financial reasons, the museum moved to Manchester in the eighties. This was a particularly fitting location as it is a city whose past makes it a ‘key historical battleground for the democratic movement in this country’. Since then it has become one of the most culturally significant institutions in the UK. Until recently it was one of eight museums that was subsidised by the DCMS, such was its perceived importance, but now the organisation is facing an uncertain future. However, this hasn’t dampened the energy and passion of the people working within the museum.

There exists real vitality in the ethos of the team, and a commitment to engage new and old audiences in the museum itself. It is within this catalyst that the campaign ‘Ideas Worth Fighting For’ was launched, and encapsulates the mission of the museum to inspire, educate and entertain visitors. The self-described ‘national museum of democracy’ highlights the history of working people as well as the continual fight for equality of different groups in society to this day. The determination to raise the museums profile with the public has manifested in its social media presence. Its on-line accounts frequently link objects, events and people to current issues and themes. For instance, the ‘Feminism is Dead’ exhibition (3rd-31st March 2016) which related to International Women’s Day, directly connected the museum’s suffragette collection to a contemporary social issue.

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Tours in the museum stores

Yet there is significant effort being directed at encouraging visitors into the physical space of the museum, such as tours of the museum’s store, and the Community Curator project taking place this summer. The aim here is for volunteers to research, plan, and develop an exhibition of LGBT rights, offering a platform for advocacy but also involving non-professionals to gain invaluable experience in the heritage sector. The push for physical interaction is the context in which my role is placed.  Thinking back to when I started my placement in November 2015 I can see that the prospect of creating handling collections that represented the vision of the museum was rather daunting. The vast array of content, objects, themes and causes to choose from was overwhelming. In addition to this, I was aware of the responsibility laid on my shoulders to deliver an engaging, educational collection that would spark the interest of visitors. If they enticed those in the café to cross the boundary from café into the museum’s galleries then even better.

Consequently, I felt, as all novices do, a certain amount of fear that regardless of the effort I put in the final collections wouldn’t fulfil the expectations of my supervisors. And yet on the final day of my placement I stood back and admired my carefully wrapped objects, safe in their boxes I found that my fears were unfounded. Over the months I had conceived and abandoned ideas, formats and objects until I had two collections. One related to the theme of ‘Protest’, which linked to historic and contemporary events, the other was entitled ‘Ideas Worth Fighting For’ and incorporated the messages of suffrage, equality, and fundamental rights that museum promotes. This placement has encouraged to be confident in my own ideas, and as a result I was able to deliver a project that only months before had seemed almost insurmountable. The self-assurance in my abilities that I have acquired will be something I will always take with me.

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My newly packed handling collection boxes