It was Tony Benn who said ‘An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern’ and this is precisely why I was thrilled to have taken up a placement working for the People’s History Museum and the Working Class Movement Library. These institutions stand precisely for an ‘educated nation’ and stand for a ‘harder to govern’ nation. For all my sins, I was a Politics and Modern History Student at the University of Manchester, now a History student studying for an MA at the same University. Once more the lure of engaging in the world of political history became too tempting to ignore.
My work at the People’s History Museum and the Working Class Movement Library researching the extension of suffrage over the course of 150 years, beginning with the Peterloo Massacre and ending with the voting age being lowered to the age of 18, in 1969. In particular, I was working on the final part of the project, namely the extension of the franchise to 18 year olds. I was tasked with researching The Representation of the People Act (1969), who was behind it? How much support was there for it? Why was it introduced? And what were the consequences of implementing this act? Furthermore, I was asked to compare it with the current debates surrounding the lowering of the franchise again to 16 years old, in preparation for the up coming witness seminar.
Working on this particular project, however, was not unchallenging. Firstly, it became increasingly clear when reading the different sources relating to The Representation of the People Act and the 1970 election that it would be difficult to display this particular topic for an audience. Most of the evidence I could find relating to the act was hidden within larger documents and books, which are not necessarily pleasing to the eye or are an interesting means of depicting this concept. Furthermore, as I continued to work on the project it became clearer that the conclusions I was reaching may have not been compatible with the practices of the People’s History Museum and the Working Class Movement Library. For instance, there weren’t a lot of pressure groups that were pushing to lower the voting age and the agenda in particular was implemented from the government. This finding is in contrast to the narratives that these institutions particularly favour of. As a consequence, I learnt a great deal about how museums and libraries operate and the challenges these organisations face.
From a personal perspective, I feel that this placement has been a challenge as well. At the start of the process, it felt like I was being pushed into the deep end and told to swim because I was not used to having less support. But this lack of support is something I would expect from the institutions I worked at, because of the limited resources they have. Furthermore, I felt that this has made me more prepared for a career because it had taught me more about how to manage with the resources I have available to me and because it has taught me to have more faith in my abilities. To me this experience has provided me with a set of skills that will be invaluable for my future career path. Undoubtedly, I will have made some mistakes over my time, but as Tony Benn once said ‘Making mistakes is how you learn.’