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Being relevant and resonant in today’s world | 5 minutes with Katy Ashton

14 February 2020

Katy Ashton, Director @ People's History Museum

PHM celebrates its 10th birthday this year, here Director Katy Ashton looks back on a decade of success and looks forward to an ambitious future.

Being relevant and resonant in today’s world

What is special about 2020?

2020 marks ten years of People’s History Museum (PHM) being in its current building, and 30 years in Greater Manchester, which feels like a good excuse for a celebration!  We will be celebrating our past, discussing our present and looking to our future.

Ten years ago PHM restored, expanded and re-opened its remarkable building that fuses the historic with the contemporary.  Since then our work has been transformative; quadrupling visitor numbers and establishing the organisation as a vital part of Greater Manchester’s cultural and heritage offer.

As the Director of PHM for the past ten years, it has been a special journey of development and change for me, for the museum and for the world around us.  Reflecting on where we have been, where we are now and where we go next fills me with a powerful mixture of pride, excitement and hope!

Describe what you are most proud of?

I am extremely proud of the work of the staff, volunteers and Trustees that are the core of PHM and who put their hearts and souls into everything they do, each and every day.  The ‘PHM family’ is a strong one made up of a passionate, skilled and committed group of people working with us today, and an equally enthusiastic and supportive group of advocates who have been involved in the past.

I am proud of the power of our programme-led approach which has highlighted and commemorated key events and anniversaries, including Election! Britain Votes, The EURO Tunnel, Never Going Underground: The Fight for LGBT+ Rights, Represent! Voices 100 Years On and Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest.  This has been radical and challenging, pro-democracy and pro-campaigning, shining a light on our amazing Designated collections of banners, badges, posters, cartoons, placards and more.

I am also proud of the way we have worked with diverse communities and audiences to co-create our programmes over the last decade.  We have an incredibly participative approach and open our doors and collections to communities to carry out their own research, develop and write content, select artists and designers, and deliver public engagement.  This has created a multiplicity of voices in the museum and helped us to share community stories widely and crowdsource and collect contemporary material to strengthen our collections.

All of this is captured in our new Impact Report– which gives examples, statistics, quotes and images of the last decade of inspiring action, reaching out, making a difference and empowering tomorrow’s voters. This report is full of examples of how we are changing people’s lives through very personal experiences that take place in the museum, through to the collective impact that we have on the large numbers of people who are engaging physically and digitally with PHM every year.

What can people see when visiting the museum?

Our museum really is full of emotional, empowering, inspirational stories, people and collections from the past and the present.  The experience of visiting PHM is of connecting with people who have fought for ideas and values, who have dared to be different and who have made a positive change.  It is this which makes our museum special and which connects and resonates with everyone who visits and works with us.

So walking around the museum today, it is full of inspiration, excitement and the world changing ideas at the heart of our collections and stories – from election by ballot, votes for women, and workers’ rights, to fair pay, equality for all and much more.

What’s happening at the museum in 2020?

This year there is huge excitement as we begin our most ambitious programme to date; exploring the theme of migration through the eyes of individuals whose own lives have all been shaped by their experiences of it.  We want the ethos of ‘more in common’ which runs through our 2020 programme to bring people together as we celebrate multicultural Britain, international solidarity and a global approach to our work.

As a museum about ‘people’ our ability to give communities and individuals a voice when they otherwise might not have one, is one of the most important things we do at PHM.  We use our collections, spaces and staff to open doors for people, connecting them with their own history and heritage, giving them space to tell their own stories and to share with others what they believe are still the ideas worth fighting for today. Working alongside community curators and community programme teams has been an incredibly exciting and empowering part of our programme-led approach as we’ve gained new perspectives and looked at our collections and subject matter through the eyes of those with direct experience.

What are your hopes for the future of the museum?

I am really excited by the difference we can make to the world using our radical past to inspire people to take action in a time of ever increasing political, economic, social and environmental change and challenge.  It is also exciting to see the new collections we are acquiring that document current and future campaigns for equality and social justice.

At a time when society feels divided and fractured it is important to have hope for the future.  At PHM we hope that the difference we make through our programme, our collections and our team is a positive one, and that we pass on that hope to others who care about the world we live in, want to get involved in their communities and want to engage in the democratic process.  I also hope that arts, culture and museums can play their part and demonstrate more widely that we can make a real difference in healing divides and bringing people together.

As the national museum of democracy our collections and work have never been as relevant or resonant as they are today.  We clearly have much to reflect upon and much to look forward to as our achievements provide a strong foundation for the next ten years and beyond.  I believe strongly that we have a real opportunity to provide a unique perspective that brings together the yesterday, today and tomorrow of democratic engagement.  We can bring people together and take a leading role in igniting and fuelling people’s belief in their democratic responsibility and sense of citizenship – inspiring everyone to get engaged, take action and actively play their part.

Katy Ashton, Director, People’s History Museum

People’s History Museum’s Impact Report

Watch members of PHM’s team come together to share our Impact Report; charting the museum’s success over the last decade. #PHM2020


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