People’s History Museum victim of spending cuts

By Elaine O’Flynn

Death fills the People’s History Museum this month.

A 1933 Austin hearse greets you as you enter the building, and newspaper clippings from days gone by adorn the walls, dedicated to loved ones now forgotten. There’s a demonstration showing how to make a coffin, and the more morbid visitors can get details of Manchester’s hidden cemeteries to discover.

It’s all part of the Spinningfields museum’s latest exhibition, ‘Death and the Working Class’, which shows the changing perceptions about death and funeral customs over the past 200 years.

But behind the scenes there is a real struggle to prevent the demise of the museum itself, after it was announced that the museum faces massive funding cuts as part of Comprehensive Spending Review, announced in October.

The People’s History Museum, along with Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry and the Football Museum, due to open in August 2011, is one of eight museums who found their funding cut under plans made by the coalition government.

These museums will have their funding reduced by 15% across four years. After 2015 the museums will not receive any funding from central Government, at which point an alternative sponsor – not yet identified – will need to be in place.

The announcements that some of the city’s most-loved tourist attractions are under threat has shocked and angered many residents, scholars and students. The People’s History Museum is of particular importance to many political activists, as it houses the largest collection in the world of trade union banners.

The People’s History museum was chosen because the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) deemed it was not a ‘national’ museum, like the Tate or Imperial War Museum. However, the director of the People’s History Museum, Katy Archer, disagreed with that assessment.

She said: “The People’s History Museum continues to be the national centre for the collection, conservation, interpretation and study of material relating to the history of working people in Britain and their campaign for democracy over the past 200 years.

“We are passionate about our national remit and responsibility to tell a national story and will continue to do so.”

Simon Oliver, Senior Press Officer from the DCMS, said: “We are aware that any cuts are difficult, and absolutely not what the Government would have chosen. But given the seriousness of the economic situation, these relatively modest cuts make it clear how much the Government values the cultural sector.”

He also explained that the Department are helping non-national museums to identify alternative sponsors by April 2011.

He added: “It is important to stress that there is no question of cutting these museums adrift without any financial support in the unlikely event that no new sponsorship arrangements can be found.”

This attitude has done little to ease the concerns of visitors, who have taken up the campaign to restore the museum’s funding with vigour.

Martin Epsom, of the Manchester Right to Work campaign, set up an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron demanding that the policy is reversed.

So far the letter has attracted over 400 signatures from people across the country, determined to show that the museum and other cultural attractions are worth protecting.

For Martin, however, the campaign is about more than just one museum – he sees it as the part of a fight against the coalition’s cuts across Britain, which hurt society’s most vulnerable and poorest people.

He said: “The idea that the DCMS feels it can justify the cuts by saying they will help the museums find alternative sources of funding is missing the point. It will result in the private sector financing the museums and they will end up being run to make a profit – which is not what museums are supposed to stand for.

“These museums help the poorest people in society to educate and inform themselves for free. This is particularly true for the People’s History Museum, which has a unique collection emphasising the role that ordinary people have played for a struggle for their rights.

“These cuts are cruel and unusual punishment by the Conservative government on the public, and ideologically it’s not about saving money – the cuts are about abolishing the welfare state as we know it.”

One of the prominent signatories of the petition is Colin Baker, an honorary lecturer in sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University. He said that by signing the petition, he was showing his dissatisfaction with the government’s current policies.

He said: “My reasons for signing arise from my general hostility to the government’s planned cutbacks in public spending, which I regard as part of a class offensive against the majority of the population.

“The same reasons lead me to support the recent student protests, as I shall support forthcoming wider protests against other cutbacks, and as I support those who are protesting against corporations evading taxes on their profits.

“The issues are more than local.”

The museum’s exhibition on ‘Death and the Working Class’ will run until May 2011, by which time it will have found out whether alternative funding has been found.

Until then, it and others like it in the North West have a stay of execution. This author would advise that you visit them for free while you can.

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