Memorabilia, not analysis
James Bull reviews: Reds! exhibition, People's History Museum, Manchester
The People's History Museum in Manchester is home of a new exhibition. According to the publicity, Reds!, which spans two floors of the north's largest labour history museum, "charts the story of the Communist Party of Great Britain".
The majority of the exhibition focuses on memorabilia from the party's history, from the 1920s through to its liquidation in 1992, when the majority voted to form the short-lived Democratic Left, as well as charting 'official' communism's rise and fall throughout the globe under the shadow of the Soviet Union. A number of the party's achievements - including the National Unemployed Workers' Movement, the various cultural initiatives which formed an important part of the CPGB's activity and the campaign against apartheid - are all featured, with examples of propaganda and members' accounts displayed alongside some interesting audio and video features.
Although the exhibition is undoubtedly a welcome look at a vital and fundamental part of labour history often neglected, it is disappointing that it does not attempt any real analysis of the party's politics, or its ideological shifts throughout the 20th century - which often mirrored the increasingly degenerate 'Marxism' of the Soviet Union. Instead, various snapshots throughout the party's history - eg, the campaign against the means test or a march in opposition to the Spanish civil war - are examined in isolation, with a few artefacts, such as video reels of Harry Pollitt and old copies of the Daily Worker, scattered about, devoid of any serious political or historical context. There is also only scant examination of why the party was formed in the first place, and which groups and individuals struggled to forge it, although more information on this can be found elsewhere in the museum.
Primarily this is an exhibition of the party's various political actions throughout its history, and does not explain its essence at all. What analysis there is does not go into any great detail, and the layout is not even designed in a sensible chronological manner which at least might have helped place the party's activity in political context.
Instead, Reds! is at times a little like looking through the spare room cupboard of a retired member of the 'official' party, with various old publications and badges on display, the audio 'I remember when'-style dialogue from ex-members (including snide remarks from the likes of David Aaronovitch) accompanying you to complete the experience. Mostly, however, the exhibition feels as though it was designed and set up by a group of nostalgics reliving their memories of branch meetings and rallies. Despite this, the exhibition does draw on a wide range of original material, and contains some interesting and inspiring footage of various battles the working class has fought throughout the 20th century. A number of interactive displays are also included, with exhibits designed for children and so on, making it very accessible to all. One rather novel feature was a board entitled 'What does communism mean to you?', where youngsters had placed postcards describing their feelings after seeing the exhibition. There was interestingly a wide range of responses to this question, from "It belongs in a museum" (!) to "Humanness for everyone".
The exhibition is sponsoring a day conference on February 21, when the museum will be hosting a day dedicated to the party's history, with various events and speakers planned.
It is probably not worth making a special trip to see Reds! from any great distance (although the People's History Museum as a whole is definitely worth a visit), but if you find yourself in the area it certainly has some points of interest.