A few months ago, I was lucky enough to go to New Orleans. It’s a city I have always wanted to visit, and it more than lived up to my expectations. It is a vibrant city, full of excellent music, good food, and wonderful people. New Orleans is not without its problems however; the city has become increasingly segregated since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and it has an uneasy relationship with one of its most important industries, tourism (I wrote about the problems with AirBnB in New Orleans here). However, it doesn’t seem to be a city that shies away from it’s problems. The protest stickers I found suggest that New Orleans is a city with a healthy political culture, and I’m certain it’s people will never stop trying to make it a better place.
A few months ago, I visited Warsaw for the International Conference of Historical Geographers. Whenever I visit a new place I try to find out as much as I can about its history of radicalism and dissent, and there’s no doubt that Warsaw has plenty of that. In Part 1 of this post, I wrote about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April and May 1943, and the ways that it is remembered in Warsaw’s streets and museums. Part 2 is about the Warsaw Uprising, which lasted for 63 days in 1944. The Uprising has an entire museum dedicated to it, as well as an impressive monument.
During the summer of 1944, the German Army was retreating across Poland, pursued by the Soviet Army. The Polish Home Army undertook uprisings in several cities in order to help the Soviet Army, and to assert Polish sovereignty–there were fears that the German occupying force would just be replaced with a Russian one. As the Soviet Army advanced towards the Vistula river, the Home Army in Warsaw decided to begin their own uprising on 1st August. It became the largest military effort of any resistance movement during the Second World War.
The uprising was only ever supposed to last a few days, until the Soviet Army reached Warsaw. However, the Soviets halted their advance on the eastern bank of the Vistula, and the resistance forces ended up fighting, almost entirely unsupported, for 63 days. The Home Army, aided by other groups including the National Armed Forces and the communist People’s Army, quickly took control of large sections of Warsaw. These areas were separated from each other however, and communication was difficult. The resistance fighters had received training in guerrilla warfare, but they were inexperienced at prolonged fighting in daylight and severely under equipped.
On the 4th of August, the Germans started to receive reinforcements, and began to counterattack. The following day, they began a systematic massacre of civilians in order to crush the resistance’s resolve. The strategy backfired however, only making the people of Warsaw more determined. Resistance fighters captured the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto (see Part 1), and liberated the Gesiowka concentration camp. At the end of August, the resistance decided to abandon the Old Town; the area was evacuated through the city’s sewers, which also served as a major means of communication for the resistance. The resistance eventually surrendered to the Germans on 2nd October; the expected help from the Soviets never came. The city wasn’t captured until 17th January 1945, giving the Germans plenty of time to systematically destroy the city and transport many of its residents to work and concentration camps.
Life in Warsaw was very hard during the uprising, for civilians as well as resistance fighters. There were severe shortages of food; people largely survived on ‘spit soup,’ made from barley captured from the Haberbusch i Schiele brewery. The media flourished in the city however, multiple newspapers were published frequently, and 30,000 metres of film documenting the uprising was produced.
Warsaw Rising Museum
The Warsaw Rising Museum was opened in 2004, to mark the 60th anniversary of the uprising. The Museum contains more than 800 items and 1500 photographs and videos spread over 3000 square metres. It covers all aspects of the uprising, and provides visitors with a huge amount of information. It is arranged chronologically, and I would recommend following the order of the galleries carefully (you go from the ground floor to the top, then work your way back down, which could be more clearly sign posted). I think you need at least 3 hours to see everything, and I would recommend stopping halfway through for a drink and a slice of cake in the cafe, otherwise you will get too tired to take it all in properly. A highlight for me was the Kino Palladium, a small cinema that shows footage of the uprising that was used to make newsreels. I was also particularly moved by the collection of armbands. Soldiers in the uprising didn’t have uniforms, so used red and white armbands to identify themselves. Some people personalised theirs, and it really brought the human element of the uprising home to me.
Monuments and Memorials
The Uprising Museum is located in Freedom Park, where you can also find several memorials connected to the uprising. The memorial wall documents the name of more than 10,000 resistance fighters who died during the fighting. Set within the wall is a bell dedicated to General Antoni Chrusciel, one of the uprising’s leaders. There is also a memorial to the estimated 150,000 civilians who lost their lives during the uprising, as well as the 550,000 who were deported from the city after the uprising failed.
Set into the city walls surrounding Old Town is the Little Insurgent, a memorial to the children and young people who served as orderlies and runners during the uprising. The statue is based on a small plaster statuette created after the war by sculptor Jerzy Jarnuszjiewicz. It was paid for by former scouts, and unveiled in 1983 by Jerzy Swiderski, a cardiologist who had served as a scout during the uprising. It is a moving reminder of how the uprising consumed every aspect of Warsaw; even children could not escape the brutality.
The best-known memorial to the uprising, the Warsaw Uprising Monument, is on a much grander scale. Located on the southern side of Krasinki Square, the momument was unveiled in 1989, and is up to 10 metres tall. The monument has two sections: the larger represents a group of insurgents in combat, running from a collapsing building; the smaller section, in the foreground of the above photo, shows fighters and civilian woman climbing into a manhole. This is an acknowledgment of the significance of the city’s sewer system to the uprising. The monument is impressive, and you’d be hard pushed to walk past without stopping for a closer look. Monuments and statues can often blend into the street around them, which I think defeats one of the key objectives of memorials; drawing attention to the event, person or people it is meant to commemorate. There is no danger of the Warsaw Uprising Monument failing to attract attention.
Like all cities, Warsaw’s past is inscribed into its streets, buildings and public spaces. Warsaw’s history is more violent than many cities–it has faced more than it’s share of death, destruction, and upheaval, and not just during the Second World War. There a number of different approaches to dealing with such a traumatic history in Warsaw: the city’s museums use different balances of objects and multimedia; and the monuments work on different scales, from the small and personal to the grand and official. Which approaches work best probably depends on personal taste, but the fact that so much effort and thought has gone into all of these commemorative practices demonstrates an admirable relationship with the past.
Sources and Further Reading
Frederico. “The Warsaw Uprising Museum.” Odd Urban Things. Last modified 13th March 2017, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://www.oddurbanthings.com/warsaw-uprising-museum/
Polish Tourism Organisation. “Monument of the Little Insurgent in Warsaw.” no date, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://poland.travel/en/museum/monument-of-the-little-insurgent-in-warsaw
Simkin, John. “Warsaw Uprising.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/2WWwarsawU.htm
The Warsaw Rising Museum. “The Warsaw Rising Museum.” No date, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://www.1944.pl/en/article/the-warsaw-rising-museum,4516.html
Trueman, C N. “The Warsaw Uprising of 1944.” The History Learning Site. Last modified 18th May 2015, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/world-war-two/world-war-two-and-eastern-europe/the-warsaw-uprising-of-1944/
Wikipedia. “Warsaw Uprising.” Last modified 21st August 2018, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising
Wikipedia. “Warsaw Uprising Monument.” Last modified 28th March 2018, accessed 25th August 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising_Monument
In July, I visited Warsaw for the International Conference of Historical Geographers. The Polish capital is a vibrant city with a fascinating, if traumatic, history. As ever, I paid particular attention to the history of protest and dissent in the city, and Warsaw has plenty of that. Whilst under German occupation during the Second World War, the city experienced two significant uprisings. The first took place in the Jewish ghetto in April and May 1943, and is known as the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The second is known simply as the Warsaw Uprising, and engulfed the whole city between August and October 1944. In retaliation for these two events, the Nazis destroyed more than 85% of the city. The total death toll from both events is around a quarter of a million people, both combatants and civilians. It is hard to forget such awful events, but they are still actively commemorated in Warsaw, both in the city’s museums, and on the streets through memorials. This post will focus on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, whilst Part 2 will look at the Warsaw Uprising.
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Germany invaded Poland in 1939, and the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw was established not long after. More than 400,000 people were crammed into an area of little more than one square mile, and many died from disease and starvation. In 1942, the Germans began deporting people from the ghetto to concentration camps (mainly Treblinka) and forced-labour camps. Around 300,000 people were deported or murdered, leaving 55-60,000 fearing they would suffer the same fate. They began to develop resistance organisations; the Jewish Combat Organisation (ZOB) and the Jewish Military Union (ZZW) decided to work together to oppose any further deportations. On 18 January 1943, the fighters manage to disrupt a deportation, and drive the Germans out of the ghetto.
Buoyed by this success, the ghetto population began to build underground bunkers in case the Germans tried any more deportations. Unfortunately, the reprieve was only temporary, and German soldiers re-entered the ghetto on 19 April. Most of the ghetto’s residents were hiding in the bunkers or elsewhere. The Germans put down the uprising by destroying the ghetto building by building, forcing people out of hiding. Resistance continued for almost a month, but on 16 May the Great Synagogue on Tlomacki Street was destroyed to symbolise the German victory. Almost all of the remaining Jews were deported.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest Jewish uprising, and the first urban uprising, in German-occupied Europe. It inspired uprisings in other ghettos and concentration camps. Although the ghetto was destroyed during the uprising, its memory is inscribed in the urban fabric of Warsaw through various memorials. It is also commemorated in the city’s museums.
Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews
Opened in 2013, Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews won European Museum of the Year in 2016, and it’s clear why. It uses the latest technology to explore 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland, and it is absolutely overflowing with information. The building was constructed in the former ghetto, in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (more on this later). Personally, it was a little lacking in actual objects for my taste, but it’s still a wonderful museum. One of my favourite things about it is that it whilst it does cover the holocaust, it doesn’t dwell on it. Jewish history in Poland is so much more than World War Two, and Polin reflects that. It does, however, cover the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and it does it well.
There are many memorials in the area of Warsaw that used to be the Jewish ghetto, but there are two that relate directly to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The first, as I mentioned above, is the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, next to Polin. Designed by Natan Rappaport and Leon Marek Suzin, the monument was built in 1948, near to the location of the first skirmish between the Jewish resistance fighters and German soldiers. It is an imposing structure, built from stone that was originally bought to Warsaw by the Nazis; it was intended to be used for monuments to Hitler’s victory. There is a bronze sculpture on the western side of the monument, depicting both resistance fighters and civilians. It represents the resistance’s struggle, and the suffering that civilians experienced. On the eastern side is a relief of women, children and the elderly being led by German soldiers.
During a state visit to Warsaw in 1970, Willy Brandt, the Chancellor of West Germany, fell to his knees in front of the Monument in a solemn gesture of apology and regret. It was a fitting location for such a significant political act; the Monument has a very grand, official feel. The second monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that I visited feels much more personal.
A few hundred metres from the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, on the corner on Mila and Dubois streets, is a large mound of earth surrounded by trees. It is all that remains on the bunker at 18 Mila Street, one of the largest bunkers built during the Ghetto Uprising. It it thought that more than 100 people died within the bunker, both resistance fighters and civilians. Many of their names are not known, but it is thought that Mordechaj Anielewicz, one of the leaders of the resistance, was killed there. Their bodies remain there, in the words of the monument, “to remind us that the whole earth is their grave.” I personally found this memorial much more moving than the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes; it feels more connected to the extent of the human tragedy experienced by Jewish people during the German occupation of Poland.
Warsaw is a city that is thriving in almost every way, but you don’t have to look far to find signs of its traumatic history. Varsovians don’t try to ignore that history or sweep it under the carpet, but neither do they dwell on it. I think it is a city that has struck a good balance between learning from the past and looking to the future.
Don’t forget to check out Part 2 of this post, about the Warsaw Uprising, here.
Sources and Further Reading
History. “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” Last modified 2009, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/warsaw-ghetto-uprising
Polin. “Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (9/11 Zamenhofa Street).” No date, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at https://sztetl.org.pl/en/towns/w/18-warszawa/116-sites-of-martyrdom/52110-monument-ghetto-heroes-911-zamenhofa-street
Polin. “The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Historical Information.” No date, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at http://www.polin.pl/en/news/2017/03/17/the-warsaw-ghetto-uprising-historical-information
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” No date, accessed 12 August 2018. Available at https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005188
In April I attended the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in New Orleans. In July I will be going to the International Conference of Historical Geographers in Warsaw. I am lucky that my career gives me so many opportunities to travel, but it does come with downsides. As an early career researcher, I have to fund many of the conferences I attend myself (whether I should or not is perhaps a conversation for another day). As such, I need affordable accommodation, which can be very difficult to find. Increasingly, people are turning to Airbnb and other short stay accommodation platforms in order to help manage the costs of conference attendance. However, opposition to websites such as Airbnb is growing, supported by arguments that it drives gentrification and negatively affects local communities. Geographers have frequent discussions about the environmental implications of flying to international conferences. Perhaps we should also be discussing the ethical implications of what we do once our flights land?
I have always wanted to visit New Orleans, and I loved getting the chance to explore the city whilst I was there. However, a huge number of tourists visit the city every year, and there were several occasions where I felt uncomfortable about the impact of this vast influx that I was part of. In 2016, the number of tourists visiting New Orleans reached 10.45 million, the highest they had been since before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005 (FQBA, 2017). This is compared to a permanent population of about 400,000 (Nola.com, 2018). Whilst this undoubtedly has benefits, not least the $7.41 billion spent by tourists in the city in 2016, it also brings challenges.
One of the most hotly debated issues of tourism recently has been the rise of short stay accommodation websites such as AirBnB. They have been blamed for rapid increases in rents and house prices in popular tourist destinations; a recent article for the Independent blamed AirBnB for 23% rent increases over three years in some parts of Barcelona, a city which has seen an increasing backlash against mass tourism in recent years (Bryant, 2018). Short stay accommodations have also been criticised for damaging local communities, in a number of ways: it is difficult to get to know your neighbours if they are changing once a week; businesses cater to the needs of tourists rather than residents (souvenir shops replace supermarkets); and tourists on their holidays tend to be louder and more raucous than locals that have to get up for work the next day. AirBnB argue that short term rentals have a negligible effect on the housing market and provide a valuable opportunity for people to make money from their spare rooms. The fact remains, however, that many short term rentals are for the whole property, and some ‘hosts’ own and rent out multiple properties.
This new kind of Airbnb-powered gentrification comes with all the downsides of traditional gentrification — home prices and rents are going up, lower-income residents and people of color are moving out — but with fewer upsides. Tourism and gentrification typically bring cleaner streets and less crime, but tourists don’t stick around to clean up the neighborhood, vote in local elections or lobby for better schools.
There have been various attempts to fight back against the damaging impact of short term rentals around the world. Some resistance is legislative. For example, in October 2016 it was made illegal in New York City to rent out flats for less than 30 days (Ashley Carmen, 2017). AirBnB often opposes such measures, however; they attempted to sue New York City for passing the law, eventually backing down on the condition that only hosts would be held liable, not AirBnB itself (Benner, 2016). Different cities have different levels of restrictions on short stay accommodation, and enforcement also varies, so it is not necessarily an effective response.
Inside Airbnb is a not-for-profit organisation that provides tools and data for analysing the impact of Airbnb on housing markets. The data is publicly available from Airbnb, and you can either use the tools provided by the website or download the data and analyse it yourself. Data isn’t available for every city in the world, but quite a few are covered, particularly in Europe and North America. Inside Airbnb is a kind of ‘knowledge is power’ form of resistance to short stay accommodation; such data can make arguments about the negative impacts of Airbnb and other similar platforms more persuasive.
Others are taking an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ approach. Fairbnb is a group attempting to build an ethical short stay accommodation platform based on four main principles: collective ownership, democratic governance, social sustainability, and transparency and accountability (Fairbnb, n.d.). Part of the profits will be reinvested into local projects that counter the negative impacts of tourism and gentrification. There is no launch date for the platform at the moment however, so it might be a while before it gets off the ground, if it ever does.
So where do we as academics fit into all this? Geographers in particular are supposed to have an awareness of our own impact on the world around us, and take ethical considerations into account as a result. Some universities (including Royal Holloway, where I did my PhD) do not allow staff and students travelling on university business to use Airbnb. This is not out of a sense of social responsibility, but because Airbnb do not enforce sufficient health and safety requirements (Royal Holloway, 2017). For those of us who are self-funded, or who’s funding allows the use of Airbnb, it can be an enticingly cheap option. Perhaps we should think twice about this in future.
Sources and Further Reading
Benner, Katie. “Airbnb Ends Fight with New York City Over Fines.” The New York Times. Last modified 3rd December 2016, accessed 16th May 2018. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/03/technology/airbnb-ends-fight-with-new-york-city-over-fines.html
Bryant, Jackie. “What Not to do in Barcelona as a Tourist.” Independent. Last modified 30th April 2018, accessed 16th May 2018. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/europe/barcelona-travel-what-not-to-do-rules-laws-tourists-protests-overtourism-visitors-a8329086.html
Carmen, Ashley. “New York City Issues First Illegal Airbnb Fines.” The Verge. Last modified 7th February 2017, accessed 16th May 2018. Available at https://www.theverge.com/2017/2/7/14532388/nyc-airbnb-first-illegal-renting-fines-issued
The Lens. “How AirBnB is Pushing Locals Out of New Orleans’ Coolest Neighbourhoods.” Huffington Post. Last modified 30th October 2017, accessed 16th May 2018. Available at https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/airbnb-new-orleans-housing_us_59f33054e4b03cd20b811699
van der Zee, Renate. “The ‘Airbnb Effect’: Is it Real, and What is it Doing to a City Like Amsterdam?” The Guardian. Last modified 6th October 2016, accessed 16 May 2018. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/oct/06/the-airbnb-effect-amsterdam-fairbnb-property-prices-communities
Plymouth is a city of a quarter of a million people on the south coast of Devon, close to the border with Cornwall. There has been a settlement there for hundreds of years, and the city has had some brushes with radicalism during that time. For example, the Pilgrim Fathers sailed from Plymouth for the New World (America), in 1620. They left because they were not allowed to practice their Puritan Calvinist beliefs in England. In December 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst was due to be arrested as soon as she arrived back from the United States. The boat she was on was due to dock in Plymouth, and suffragettes descended on the city, determined to prevent this. Emmeline was arrested before the boat docked, and over the following months the city was targeted for revenge attacks of what were considered to be ‘cowardly’ arrest tactics. For the last century, the city has been an important site of naval shipbuilding. As such, it was targeted for aerial bombing during WW2, in what became known as the Plymouth Blitz. As a result significant parts of the town had to be rebuilt after the war, and there are few historic buildings in the town centre.
When I visited the city recently, I found a wide variety of protest stickers, more than I would normally expect for a town of its size. Below are images of what I found.
Sources and Further Reading
Rowbotham, Judith. “The Suffragettes and Plymouth.” Plymouth University. Last modified 5th November 2015, accessed 26th February 2018. Available at https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/news/pr-opinion/the-suffragettes-and-plymouth
On my trips to New York City (in 2015 and 2016), I have scoured bookshops looking for a history of protest in the city, assuming that there must be one. After all, there are at least two books about London’s turbulent past. Whilst there is lots of great research about dissent in New York, there has not been an overarching survey–until now. Next year, a book will be published not just about the history of protest in New York, but about the historical geography of protest in the city. Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Revolt, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City began as a project by Neil Smith with some of his post-graduate students at the City University of New York. When he passed away in 2012, Professor Don Mitchell took over the task of editing the collection, and it is finally being published next year. As you can imagine, I’m quite excited about it, whilst also being a bit frustrated that I didn’t get there first!
Last week, Professor Mitchell gave a lecture about the project at Queen Mary, University of London. I went along to find about more about the project. Mitchell used various examples to demonstrate the strength of the relationship between dissent and the material landscape. We tend to view demonstrations, riots, and other expressions of dissent as unusual events, but they are actually very common, particularly in large cities like London and New York. It is actually more uncommon to have a peaceful period.
Mitchell started the lecture with an in-depth look at a decade of bombings in New York, culminating in anarchist Mario Buda’s attack on Wall Street on the 16th of September 1920 (I have written a review of Mike Davis’ excellent book about this bombing’s part in the early history of the car bomb here.) The bombings contributed to the deindustrialization of New York, as the small-scale manufacturing and transport networks that produced and planted the bombs were driven out of the city. Finance, insurance, and real estate came to dominate the city’s economy. In attempting to strike a devastating blow against the bankers of Wall Street, Buda inadvertently helped them tighten their grip on New York.
Mitchell used this narrative, and others, to argue that “landscape is power materialised.” Whilst this is not a new argument, Revolting New York applies it in a new context. Space is produced through social struggle, the result of constant negotiation and conflict between groups with different visions for that space. Protest is just one form that this process takes. As such, protest shapes and reshapes the city you see when you look out the window (apologies to those of you who are not currently in a city!)
The lecture was an introduction to the Revolting New York project, outlining it’s history, structure, and key arguments. It is particularly exciting for me because of its parallels with my own work on London. The book will be affordable too, less than £25 for the paperback, so hopefully it will help bring historical geography to a wider audience. I for one can’t wait to read it!
This summer, I spent a few days in Vienna on a family holiday. Although beautiful, I found the city, particularly the city centre, had an add, formal feel that didn’t sit very well with me. It didn’t feel lived in, more like a model city than an actual place. There were some parts of the city I did connect with however, like the Prater funfair, the city’s lively protest sticker culture, and the street art. I quickly discovered however, that the advice the guide books give you about finding street art is not necessarily the best.
Dotted around the Museum Quarter of the city there are a series of Micromuseums, small passageways that focus on different art genres, including literature, typography, and sound art. They are the brainchild of Q21, which provides creative work and exhibition spaces in the Museum Quarter. One of these Micromuseums is called Street Art Passage Vienna, and its where a lot of guide books direct you if you want to see street art in the city. Whilst I like the idea of turning “simple means of entrance and exit to innovative art spaces,” I found the reality a bit disappointing. The space is almost 10 years old, and it feels a little neglected.
The main feature of the passage is a tiled bridge by French artist Invader (2008). His distinctive Space Invader mosaics are a recognisable feature of many cities. There is also a permanent typographic piece by Lois Weinberger (2013), which is visible in the above picture on the wall behind the Invader bridge. There are also temporary exhibitions by a wide range of artists (you can see a full list here). There are two vending machines, which are supposed to contain mini catalogues and sets of stickers that you can buy for 2 Euros, but the machines were empty when I went there. In addition, each temporary artists produces a limited number of affordable screen prints, designed to encourage young art collectors.
When there is crossover between the informal, ephemeral tradition of street art and more formalised traditions of artistic display like art galleries and museums, there can be tensions. Whilst street art is often associated with a certain urban ‘scruffiness,’ in the case of the Street Art Passage Vienna it just felt neglected. For me, street art is exciting and vibrant, it makes a city feel more alive. The Street Art Passage felt…stagnant.
If you want to see dynamic and vivid street art in Vienna, and lots of it, then I would recommend going to the Danube Canal, which splits of from the Danube proper north of the city centre, then loops round to the west of the river before rejoining the Danube further south. The canal is below street level, with a tow path on either side and concrete walls rising to the main roads that run either side. The walls on both sides of the canal are covered in street art, and there are also some sculptures along the tow paths. In the hour or so I was walking along the canal, I saw several artists working on pieces on the walls.
Most guide books and websites will send you to the Street Art Passage Vienna if you’re looking for street art in the city. But I wouldn’t recommend it. The litter, dust bins, and empty vending machines felt a little sad. The street art at the Danube Canal, however, is energetic and vibrant, and helped me to connect to a city that had I had struggled to relate to previously.
A few months ago, I spent a couple of days in Manchester. I’ve already blogged about the brilliant museums I visited whilst I was up there (the People’s History Museum, and the Imperial War Museum North), but I also found some great protest stickers whilst exploring the city. Paying attention to a city’s protest stickers helps me get to know a place, by giving me an insight into the issues that matter to the city. Manchester had a lot of protest stickers, many of which I hadn’t seen before, which is just one of the reasons I liked it so much. Manchester is a vibrant city with a fascinating history. Protest stickers in some cities are dominated by only one or two issues (Newcastle, for example, had a lot of stickers relating to animal rights), but this was not the case in Manchester. Its diversity is reflected in the wide range of issues that are represented in the city’s stickers. There were also a lot of stickers in Manchester that I haven’t seen before; I have not seen any of the stickers featured in the post anywhere else. I’m not saying they are all unique to Manchester, but it is an indication of the city’s healthy culture of dissent.
On a recent visit to Manchester I visited the northern branch of the Imperial War Museums (IWM) in Trafford. I liked the museum, and enjoyed making comparisons with the IWM site in south London. The IWM North was opened in 2002 as the IWM’s first (and only) branch in the north of England. It receives around 300,000 visitors a year. In comparison, the IWM London is visited almost one million times annually. The museum’s focus is people, and how they have been affected by conflict.
The IWM North is a striking, modern building, purpose-built and designed by Polish architect Daniel Libeskind, who also designed the Ground Zero site in New York. It is very different from the IWM London, which is housed in the former building of the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark, built in 1815. The London building is flooded with natural light from the roof of the atrium, which stretches the entire height of the building. In contrast, the IWM North building was designed to be disorientating, in order to give the visitor a taste of the effects of war. There are no windows in the entrance hall or main exhibition space. It works; I didn’t like the interior of the building when I first walked in, it felt oppressive and disjointed. However, I thought the main exhibition space on the first floor was well-suited to its purpose, even more so when I discovered it was meant to be disorientating.
The permanent exhibitions are all housed in one space. They are arranged chronologically, from 1914 to the present. Dotted around the space are six ‘silos’, enclosed spaces that focus on specific themes such as ‘Women in War’, and ‘Impressions of War’. Every hour the entire space is taken over by ‘Big Picture’ shows, audiovisual presentations that fill the space with pictures and sounds from the IWM’s archival collections. The shows are immersive, and you have little choice to stop whatever you were doing and watch it. I quite like the idea that everyone in the space is watching, listening to, and thinking about, the same things.
The museum’s use of artefacts feels minimal, with lots of text and open space. This is in sharp contrast to the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) that I had visited the day before. MOSI is housed across five buildings close to central Manchester, several of which are chock full of planes, cars, motorbikes, trains and engines of various kinds. In contrast, IWM North felt almost sparse. I prefer this minimal approach; too many objects can make it difficult to take anything in.
The curatorial decisions in any museum can be controversial, but the representation of conflict and war must be particularly difficult. In some ways I think the IWM North makes better decisions than the IWM London, for example it is more inclusive of conflicts in which the British armed forces were not involved. In other respects, the IWM North makes some decisions that I think could have been improved upon. Like the IWM London, there is very little information on conscientious objectors and peace movements. Most of what there is is located in the ‘Women in War’ silo, implying it is only women who object to war and conflict. Also, the museum has some steel from the World Trade Centre on display. Whilst I do not necessarily think that it shouldn’t be there, I do think there should be some explicit discussion of the relationship between terrorism and war. The ‘War on Terror’ is a very different kind of conflict from the World Wars, the Falklands War, or the Gulf Wars, but the IWM North’s display does not acknowledge this.
Over three days in Manchester I visited three museums. The People’s History Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry and the IWM North are all brilliant, and well worth a visit. The IWM North is certainly the most innovative in terms of architecture and display, and although my favourite has to be the People’s History Museum (I am fully prepared to admit bias here), the IWM North has to be one of the most intriguing museums I have ever been to.
Sources and further reading
Museum of Science and Industry. “About Us.” No date, accessed 1 January 2017. Available at http://msimanchester.org.uk/about
Tully, Lucy. “8 Things You Didn’t Know About the IWM North Building.” Imperial War Museum. No date, accessed 1 January 2017. Available at http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/8-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-iwm-north-building
Wikipedia. “Imperial War Museum.” Last updated 11 December 2016, accessed 1 January 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_War_Museum
Wikipedia. “Imperial War Museum North. Last update 11 December 2016, accessed 1 January 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_War_Museum_North
I have been studying the historical geography of protest for the last four years. For most of that time, I have wanted to visit the People’s History Museum. The problem was that I am normally in the south of England, and the museum is in Manchester. Last week, I visited Manchester and finally got to see the museum, and I was not disappointed!
The People’s History Museum started life as a collection of protest-related material belonging to a group of activists in the 1960s. They opened a museum in London in the 1970s, but it struggled financially. In the 1980s, the collection was rescued by Manchester City Council and Greater Manchester authorities, with some help from the TUC. In 1990, the People’s History Museum opened on Princess Street in Manchester, in the same building where the TUC had its first meeting, over one hundred years before. In 1994, the museum opened a second site at its current location—an old pump house on Bridge Street. In 2010, the museum relaunched in a restored and expanded pump house. Now the museum has several permanent galleries, a temporary gallery space, and meeting and conference rooms. It describes itself as “the national museum of democracy,” and receives around 100,000 visitors a year.
The permanent gallery spaces are arranged in a largely chronological order. The zones are colour coded, each colour chosen for its symbolism in radical culture (e.g. red for courage and revolution, blue for loyalty). The galleries are accessible, interactive, child-friendly, and well-paced. There is a nice balance between individuals, groups, and events, and between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics. I think it is important to highlight the connections between these elements, as it is all too easy to focus solely on one. Whilst the galleries begin with the Peterloo massacre, a local event, the rest of the museum covers the whole country. The museum presents itself as a national museum, and I think it lives up to that.
For me, there were two threads running through the galleries that connected everything together. The first was a series of videos about 5 generations of one family. With each family member, the videos and accompanying text explained what life was like for the individual, what rights and services they were entitled to, and whether or not they could vote. They demonstrated how the conflicts and struggles described in the displays affected people in very real ways, from working conditions to healthcare.
The second unifying thread running through the galleries was the banners. The People’s History Museum has one of the largest collection of protest banners in the country, and they are the only group that specialises in the restoration and preservation of these kinds of banners. There are banners on display in every area of the galleries, from the oldest surviving trade union banner, to a banner protesting the 2012 Bedroom Tax. Some are highly detailed, others were obviously made very quickly, but all are striking. They illustrate that whilst there have been many changes over the past two and a half centuries, there are also a lot of continuities in radical culture. Banners have provided a sense of identity and belonging for radical groups for decades.
The museum has an open approach to curation which I like. The plaques describing items often explain how the items came into the museum’s collection. Many items were donated by activists or their descendants, and there can sometimes be a disconnect between the received history of an event and the stories that are attached to particular items and passed down through generations. All museums have to make decisions about the authenticity of the items in their collections, but most cover up this process. The People’s History Museum does not, asking the visitor to reflect on such issues—would you trust the descendants of a protester over historians? I liked this honesty, and appreciated the way it engaged visitors in the ongoing debate about how best to represent history.
The People’s History Museum is well worth a visit, even if protest is not something that particularly interests you. It is a museum of social history as well as radical history, and as I look back on 2016 it is a much-needed reminder that many of the rights and privileges we take for granted today had to be fought for, tooth and nail, by earlier generations. If we are not willing to fight, just as fiercely, to protect them, we will lose them.