When I was little, one of my favourite videos to watch was Passport to Paris, a Mary-Kate & Ashley film that, being a twin and a child of 00s, I was obsessed with.
What’s always stuck with me, however, is a scene in Passport to Paris, where the twins walk through the Louvre, and slowly, their fascination turns to utter boredom. The painting fly past them, barely noted, as they walk, shoulders slumped, through gallery after gallery. (Oh, and while we’re here, FYI other 00s kids, I can tell you that in real life twins don’t make their prospective boyfriends tell them apart by dressing the same, it is not a done thing).
That scene in the Louvre represented, to me, how people often saw museums. Lengthy, complicated interpretations, medieval paintings, some marble and if you’re lucky, some decent taxidermy.
So, when I started to work in museum, my greatest fear was that people would walk through my exhibitions the same way that the Olsen sisters walked through the Louvre – without looking at a single thing, uttered uninterested.
But, having been on the inside, I can say with authority that museum people are no longer the tweed jacket and elbow patch wearing people that the Olsen twins (and many of others!) thought they were. Museum folk aren’t out there just to recite some lengthy historical facts and bore visitors to tears.
The museum world has fought against this tired image and today, exhibitions and events in museums, galleries, historic houses and archives are becoming more and more engaging, accessible, fun and inviting.
In 2017 I started putting together an exhibition on the suffrage centenary, Represent! Voices 100 Years On, for Manchester’s Peoples Museum. At first, the main goal was to ensure that the people visiting the exhibition didn’t trudge through a’la Mary-Kate and Ashley. That they were able to discover stories of incredible women and leave excited and engaged.
It turns out that saying you want your exhibition to inspire and engage is a lot easier said than done…
Putting together Represent! was was the best of times and the worst of times – like with any job, huge amounts of stress was involved, but also so many rewarding moments. So lets look at all the lessons I learned!
What struck me throughout the process was how different it felt. People’s History Museum worked with so many different community groups and individuals to interpret the stories, contribute their own opinions and ideas, and actually make the story we were telling relevant, and impactful.
See, that’s what was missing from Passport to Paris – impact. (FYI, something the Louvre has a lot of – don’t believe those sneaky twins). Visiting a museum or an exhibition shouldn’t be about expectations. If you’re expected to appreciate, understand, or even celebrate what’s on display, then you’re going to feel out of place. You’re going to feel lectured at, and you’re going to switch off.
But that’s where most museums are changing.
If you see yourself reflected in the objects, in the labels, in the interpretations – something you might have thought, or said, something entirely not curated or edited – you might feel a stronger connection to what you’re seeing, or reading. That realisation that one voice – the voice of a curator – is not the most important voice in the room is the biggest change that museums have made to exhibitions, for the better.
Now, of course, working with communities has its challenges. Traditionally, you source your objects, working with the Collections team and Conservation to ensure everything in the collection that we want to use is in a good condition and is able to go on display. Loaning objects might also be part of the process, from other institutions, or sometimes just individuals. A lot of work goes into preparing these loans, so it’s always a relief when they finally make it into the building.
Working with communities, you don’t always get that level of planning. Even if you do plan, things might go awry.
One of my favourite moments from Represent! was when I spoke to a well-known group of activists, and met them to discuss potentially lending some objects to the exhibition. They turned up to our meeting with a treasure trove of objects – only I was stranded without an entry form or the paperwork.
Sometimes, working with activists and grassroots groups means that proper museum practice can’t always be as black and white as it traditionally is. Flexibility, and to an extent, spontaneity are definitely needed.
That’s the best part of mixing the past and the present, though! Getting a glimpse into the heart of campaigns today, then seeing it reflected back in objects from 100 years ago is what made the exhibition what it was.
That’s the beauty of it! How can you look away? Real people make you feel included, and part of something.
There’s more, though. The raw truth that community groups and individuals are able to deliver – untamed by the voice of the museum – offers a sort of uncomfortable reality whilst also being authentically inspiring.
Honest reflections like these fill the walls of Represent!, with phrases including “The vote was for white women” and “Feminism is about equality and if the values were actually played out, maybe I would believe in it.” Alongside these quotes, narratives and stories of the continued fight for equality show that it still very much needed.
Right until the end of the process, we kept this community-led focus on the exhibition.
We launched the exhibition by recreating the below photograph, taken at Caxton Hall in 1910, just before this deputation of suffragettes led by Emmeline Pankhurst marched on Parliament and were brutally attacked for hours on end (on the orders of none other than Winston Churchill).
We filled the platform with activists and campaigners of today, and it was a moment where the past and present combined, to commemorate those who had gone before, and to champion those who were carrying on their struggle.
Different, from start to finish. Different, diverse voices. Unique, unsung narratives. Costumes,newspapers, banners, placards, arrest warrants, pink pussy hats, maiden speeches, paintings and pamphlets.
I don’t think Mary-Kate and Ashley would have been bored in this one.
Helen Antrobus is 1/3 of F Yeah History. She’s also a curator (formerly for Manchester’s Peoples History Museum) with a passion for telling the stories of radical women and working class history.