In praise of people’s history

30 Oct

Co-operators gathered at the People’s History Museum to get to know each other, visit the exhibits and hear speeches by Co-ops UK’s Ed Mayo and the ICA’s Dame Pauline Green.

Back home in Canada, there has been some controversy about the federal government’s recent decision to rename the Canadian Museum of Civilization the Canadian Museum of History.  There are some who fear a purely historical museum would forego the anthropological focus that has made the museum so popular; others are concerned that it will focus on wars, industry and big-P politics: areas that have historically been the preserve of men and the ruling classes.

But what it it were to become a museum of people’s history: one that focuses on things like the women’s suffrage movement,  the fight for a minimum wage,  and the joining of people together to form co-operatives?

Sound farfetched?  Not in Manchester, home to the People’s History Museum and the site of tonight’s Co-operatives United welcome reception.

It was an appropriate venue in a city that has been pivotal to so many social movements over the years.  The museum’s political perspective was clearly somewhere on the left (the museum cafe even calls itself “The Left Bank”), and many of the exhibits focused on the labour movement. As one UK co-operator told me, “That’s Manchester. You probably wouldn’t have this in London.”

But not all the exhibits were political.  In the cloakroom area, there was a collection of historical artifacts from everyday life: 45 r.p.m records; shoes; handbags; and just outside it a display of old record covers from the likes of Nat King Cole and The Platters.  That too, is people’s history, and it was good to see it acknowledged as such.

A typical display panel at the People’s History Museum

A number of the museum exhibits focused on women’s battle for the right to vote

As Canadian co-operators, we often complain that co-ops aren’t taught in either our business schools or our history classes. As my colleague Tanya Gracie commented during the reception, perhaps the new Museum of History will provide an opportunity to make the case to give co-operative history the visibility it deserves.  If it can happen in Manchester…not to mention Rochdale…why not in Canada?

A list of museum funders, including The Co-operative Group, several government departments, Manchester City Council and the Heritage Lottery Trust

–Donna Balkan

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