Museum exhibits & workers homes

Since I am currently, ahem, “between museum jobs”, I thought I might start to use this space to do what I never seemed to have time for in my curatorial days. That is, I thought I might try a thought experiment or two on what could be done in an exhibition, if you were to take away the deadlines and the budgets and the sponsors that need pleasing and the government targets that need hitting and so on. What would I like my exhibition to say and how would I manage to say it with objects?

For my first imaginary exhibition I would like to consider a question that came up last week in a conversation I had with my in-laws. They both worked, my father-in-law all his life, in a factory in the Black Country called Kendricks. This factory, like Saltaire Mill in Bradford (which they’d recently visited), had once provided its workers with housing. So far, so familiar. These kind of philanthropy of early industrialists is well known, and often used in arguments to show how kind and public spirited capitalists could be in the olden days. Perhaps my exhibition could start here, with a few models of such factory + housing set ups. I could perhaps add a few personal items from the first occupants of the houses, alongside letters and account books showing the discussions and negotiations that went into getting this housing built and perhaps revealing a deeper understanding of why.

I would next have a section on the industrial machinery, records of accidents, records of child employment of the same period just to counter-balance the altruistic capitalist story from the previous section. I may even broaden the story out a little here with some protest banners, and newspaper articles showing where this episode of employer-employee relations fit within a bigger, national story.

Next I would get on to the very essence of my question. You see I’m not so much interested in retelling the story of how these early industrialists provided their workers with accommodation. What I’m interested in is how they managed to stop providing it without apparently tarnishing their reputation. Kendricks housing is now council housing. My guess is that this is true elsewhere. Perhaps others were sold off to workers or on the free market or to landlords. It would be interesting to trace those routes. Councils, tenants and housing benefit now pay for the accommodation of workers, formerly housed by their employers, presumably at a saving to the company. How do I represent that in objects?

This is an area of history I’m not too familiar with; I’m better in the rather niche field of scientific instruments. I can only take fairly rough guesses, based on objects I’ve seen in social history museums, on the objects that might be available to tell this story. One approach might be to show that process of historical investigation in action. To show the layers gradually uncovered as you go from searching company records and/ or the histories of a sample of houses (as a solicitor might do) to find a date. On to newspaper archives for any public acknowledgement of the sale to trade union records for evidence of  opposition. All of this, though necessary for telling the story, might make for a rather dry, paper heavy display. So perhaps a better alternative might be to focus on a few case studies. To look at the history of a few, ideally representative houses as homes, whose occupants, decor, possessions, changed overtime, and the impact of changing ownership on those individual lives.

The time to produce such a display would obviously be much greater than than simply reproducing the historian’s research journey since it embodies all that research and more, but the result would I think be infinitely more engaging, and tell the story with more feeling.

My experience of museums is that at their best such displays, that involve so much invisible research behind the scenes are possible,  but are also a luxury. More often than not displays are put on with tight deadlines, with sponsors encouraging certain angle and being less supportive of others. Often there is a funding incentive to linking exhibits to the national curriculum. All of this is well and good. However, I think there is also something quite lovely about an exhibition that is pure and simply a conversation between a curator and their audience, driven only by the desire to share a passion for research and explore interesting questions. I hope, in our cash strapped, profit driven times, that museums do not lose this entirely.


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