People’s History Museum

Liz Thorpe

Learning Officer, People’s History Museum

People’s History Museum

Left Bank Spinningfields Manchester M3 3ER United Kingdom

Manchester, United Kingdom

Telegraph Family Friendly Museum Award 2017


Identity, Equality and Families

The People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester is the national museum of democracy, telling the story of its development in Britain: past, present, and future.  The museum provides opportunities for people of all ages to learn about, be inspired by and get involved in ideas worth fighting for; ideas such as equality, social justice, co-operation, and a fair world for all. 

PHM is a national museum, being based in Manchester having particular significance due to the city’s vibrant and colourful history of producing radical thinkers and ideas; home of women’s suffrage campaigner Emmeline Pankhurst, birthplace of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), site of influential research of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Manchester is a cosmopolitan hub of many cultures and communities, each bringing their own stories and experiences to this radical history.


PHM echoes this passion and celebration for collective action in our public programmes, which spark conversation, discussion and debate with all ages. All activity is aimed at making sure people care about the world they live in, get involved in their communities, engage with the democratic process and use their right to vote. As a museum about democracy, visitors may not think of PHM initially as the go to place to take their family, but we must not underestimate the passion and curiosity of children to stand up for what is right with a drive to make the world a better place. And at a time when many people are asking ‘why should I get involved?’ ‘why should I care?’ ‘why should I vote?’ it is ever more important to show how people just like them have worked together before, and can again.

2017 was the beginning of a new programme-led approach for the museum, where the focus is on a core theme each year, using our collections, archives and programme to tell the story of ideas worth fighting for in a dynamic and creative way. In 2017 the theme was Never Going Underground: The Fight for LGBT+ Rights, marking the 50th anniversary of the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act in the UK. We wanted to use the programme-led approach to build on existing engagement and provide a platform for people to share their stories and support those that are under or mis-represented. With funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) this was an opportunity to experiment with new ideas, build new partnerships and in doing so, hand over ownership. This was a daunting and in many ways challenging way of working, where it was not clear what the final outcome would look like and required full support from the museum’s Senior Management Team and Board of Trustees.

Kids in Museums support cultural organisations to ensure they are open and accessible to all ages. Their Manifesto helps museums to align their practice with advice and tips collated from consultation with families. The Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museum Award recognises best practice in the field and is significant in that it is judged by families. Their 'Mini Manifesto' contains eight key points to strengthen ‘confidence, knowledge and a sense of ownership’ and make families feel a part of your museum. It was by this criteria PHM was assessed.

The first step in creating a sense of ownership was to work in partnership with the community. For the 2017 family programme the museum partnered with a local LGBT+ parent group, Proud 2 b Parents. The museum recognised that while we had expertise in museum work, we were not qualified to tell the history and experiences of the LGBT+ community. Through four consultation workshops and six trial sessions we created a public events programme and a series of interactive activities for the supporting exhibition Never Going Underground: The Fight for LGBT+ Rights, that reflected the interests of the families and also ensured that they could see themselves in the exhibition. Feedback from one family judge credited this: "...[the exhibition] really does reflect the full diversity of the local community." The consultation helped to challenge the view that museums are about and for white, middle class, heterosexual people. It also prompted us to relook at our permanent galleries and find new ways of pulling out the often hidden histories of those from minority backgrounds.


Some may say that conversations around LGBT+ topics are not appropriate for children. At PHM we do not shy away from such perceived challenges and it was important to be honest and allow space for young people to ask questions and voice their opinions. We successfully achieved this by breaking down the conversation into three themes that children could relate to: identity, equality and families (that come in all shapes and sizes). Families responded to the personal possessions of activist Geoff Hardy by creating their own identity boxes, and material related to LGBT+ parenting rights through singing along to Sister Sledge's We Are Family! in a music workshop. Interactive elements of the exhibition encouraged visitors of all ages to project their own protest messages on to clothing, and also to tell stories with gender neutral dolls. Again, this was rolled out to the permanent galleries with all family resources being refreshed to promote the three key themes. For example, story books representing people of colour, those with a disability, and different sexualities were available to help families further explore the themes presented. Something that started with ensuring LGBT+ people were equally represented became a bigger conversation about how other communities are seen too.

The most meaningful aspect of our success in winning the Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museum Award was without doubt the welcoming and friendly environment created by staff at the museum, particularly the Front of House and Learning Teams. This was highlighted by one parent: “..the museum staff were amazing. They were friendly, welcoming and informative. They came and chatted to the girls (not just to me!) and asked if we needed any help, and gave great feedback to the artwork they were creating. They asked if we needed help, made sure that we knew where things were happening. Isabelle [the daughter/child] often wanted to ask for things herself, instead of letting me do it, and they took her seriously and helped her.” The Kids in Museums Manifesto challenges museum staff not to say ‘no’, if visitors are being disruptive to ask why, and to ask how they can help visitors engage. This guidance helps visitors to immerse themselves in their experience and connect with their history.

Passion flows through PHM. We see the importance in connecting the history we tell with the communities around us today. We cannot simply talk about how people have worked together to fight for equality in the past, because we do not live in a world where total equality exists. We have a duty to inspire people to do their bit and feel empowered through their time at PHM. From large scale community engagement to the family resources available, visitors can explore ideas worth fighting for in a fun and creative way. The Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museum Award recognises and celebrates the work we have done, and will continue to strengthen future programme activity.


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