People’s History Museum’s (PHM) 2023 Banner Exhibition, opening on Saturday 21 January 2023, will be a compelling reminder for visitors to the national museum of democracy of the power of collective action. Behind each of the 26 banners, whether over 150 years old or only recently created, there is a show of solidarity; all united by the fact that they carry messages calling for change and have been created by people seeking a fairer society.
One of the differences in recent times is that more young people are joining in the march for change, something which has been particularly evident in the demand for climate action. The ‘Fridays for Future’ strikes that swept the world were a youth-movement that began in August 2018 when 15-year-old Greta Thunberg began a school strike for the climate. The Save Me banner was created by 7-year-old Annabelle who took part in the Climate Strike in Preston on 20 September 2019. It is joined by the Which Tomorrow? banner from 1996 which tells of the need to take care of the world for future generations. The climate campaign may feel like action is a long time in coming, but this is a recurring theme in the galleries at PHM where the stories such as the right to vote stretch centuries.
Mark Ashton (1960-1987) was in his early 20s when he established Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners with Mike Jackson, a story of solidarity between communities that developed during the Miners’ Strike (1984-1985) that is told in the film Pride. People’s History Museum’s archives and collections include significant materials on Mark Ashton, whose legacy as an activist continues to inspire. That the Mark Ashton Trust banner (1988), which has attended some of the biggest protest and Pride marches of the 1980s and 1990s, will go on display for the first time at the museum is greatly anticipated.
Also responding with support for the mining communities affected by the strikes in the 1980s were a network of local and community based support groups in non-industrial areas. These areas provided food to miners and their families and raised money for them and the St Albans and District Nottinghamshire Miners’ Strike Support Committee banner (around 1984) is an example of this spirit of community action.
Stepping back in time, the early beginnings of the trade union movement is a narrative that you can trace through banners. The Ascott Martyrs quilt was made 150 years ago by Martha Smith, one of 16 women from the village Ascott-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire. The women were arrested for trying to prevent two farm labourers from working in place of their husbands, who were on strike for better pay. After a trial, they were convicted and imprisoned with hard labour. The outrage in farming communities was such that large protests were held and followed with Queen Victoria granting the women a free pardon. The women’s actions had a lasting legacy and saw picketing made legal in 1874.
The Union and Victory banner is a reminder of how those striking can help achieve progress for all. It was made for the Great London Dock Strike of 1889 when it was demanded that no docker or general labourer should be taken on for less than four hours a day, wages should be increased by one penny per hour and the maintenance of meal times. The strike was successful and also led to the establishment of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union. This banner became a talisman for the workers and would go on to be carried in the Transport Strike of 1912 and the Poplar Rates dispute of 1921.
The imagery and artistry of banners is incredibly important and the exhibition carries a number of examples of different art forms. The Merchant Shipping Bill banner (around 1884) is based on a cartoon by Sir John Tenniel which first appeared in Punch magazine. The first illustrator or cartoonist to ever receive a knighthood, Tenniel is especially known for the illustrations he created for Alice in Wonderland. In contrast, the Central Labour College banner (1912) is in the Art Noveau style, which is celebrated through the needlework of Winifred Horrabin, Winifred Blachford and Rebecca West.
Two banners are on display by master makers now known as Toye, Kenning & Spencer, who can trace their roots back over 350 years. The Pendleton Co-operative Society Broughton Branch banner (around 1920) represents those campaigning for issues that included better benefits and facilities for mothers and children, easier divorce and equal pay. It carries the image of a woman with a shopping basket to denote the economic power women wielded over household income, which was designed as the emblem for the Women’s Co-operative Guild by Sir Muirhead Bone who was the first artist to be appointed a War Artist in World War One and is one of the founders of the Imperial War Museum. The Confederation of Health Service Employees banner (1978), now merged as part of UNISON, campaigned on pay and conditions for nurses, student nurses and ambulance workers who are depicted on the banner. One of the notable facts about this banner is that it cost £2,065 to commission, which would be the equivalent to approximately £20,000 today.
Connecting the 2023 Banner Exhibition to PHM’s current headline exhibition, Nothing About Us Without Us (until 16 October 2023), are two banners created by groups campaigning on behalf of disabled people. The Disabled People Against Cuts banner made its first outing ahead of the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester in 2015 as part of an anti-austerity rally. Hanging alongside it will be the Breakthrough UK 20th anniversary banner (2017), a Manchester based organisation led by disabled people to support other disabled people to work and live independently. These are the only two banners in the exhibition that are not part of PHM’s collection, which is recognised as the world’s largest collection of political and trade union banners.
All of the banners forming the exhibition are located throughout the museum’s main galleries where their presence revamps a quarter of the content in these spaces and further links to the stories they tell can be found. There will also be other ways to enjoy the exhibition; on Saturday 28January 2023 (11.00am to 12noon and 2.00pm to 3.00pm) the first of a series of Banner Exhibition tours will commence and for younger visitors Banner Bingo will be launched for February half term (from 18 February 2023) as a fun way to enjoy the exhibition with your family.
The 2023 Banner Exhibition is one of a number of free activities at the museum, to which entry is free, most visitors donate £10. Opening hours are 10.00am to 4.00pm, every day except Tuesday. To find out about visiting People’s History Museum, its full exhibitions and events programme visit phm.org.uk, and you can keep up to date with the latest news by signing up to receive PHM’s e-newsletter, or following the museum on social media on Twitter @PHMMcr, Facebook @PHMMcr, and Instagram @phmmcr.
Header Image: Union And Victory banner 1889
All Images: Peoples History Museum