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Long live the People's Palace!

Glasgow's beloved museum of ordinary people's lives is threatened with closure. But these are exactly the kind of museums the UK needs as its nations struggle with questions of identity.

23 October 2018

Image: The People's Palace and Winter Gardens. Rights: Wikimedia/Kim Traynor, CC 2.0

If museums tell us what’s important to a nation’s identity, then what do visitors expect to find in Scottish museums? Tartan, whisky, and a load of blether about Bonnie Prince Charlie?

Or how about displays bringing to life trips to the seaside and tenement housing, the Big Yin’s banana boots, Rab C Nesbit’s string vest, and exhibits showing how centuries of ordinary people worked, shopped, laundered, dated, went to war, and – crucially – fought back against the capitalists?

At a time of collective handwringing across all corners of the UK nations about national and cultural identity, we need more museums like the People’s Palace in Glasgow. It stands out as a beacon of a different kind of identity – one forged around class struggle.

How tragic, then, to read last week that the museum is threatened with closure from December for the foreseeable future, unable (at present) to find the £7.5m required for repairs. The announcement has caused a huge backlash in Glasgow and beyond, with public affection spilling over into a petition and threatened legal challenges. As I write, the council appears to be looking for compromises so that the Palace can avoid closure, though its iconic Winter Gardens greenhouse (currently used as a fire escape for the Palace itself) still seems certain to close.

Let’s hope a solution is found. The Palace was visited by 356,000 people in 2017 – a rise of 20% on the previous year, making it one of the fastest growing tourist attractions in the UK. Earlier this year I (re-)discovered the museum myself. Approaching through Glasgow Green (Glasgow’s old common lands and next to the old East End docks), its Victorian edifice looms impressively. Fresh from a tourist trip around the Highlands, I wondered who had lived in this building before it was turned into a museum.

Of course, as all Glaswegians know, the museum was never a stately home. It was purpose-built in 1898 as a palace for the working class, to provide leisure and education opportunities that were otherwise in short supply. Upon its opening, Lord Rosebery declared it "A palace of pleasure and imagination around which the people may place their affections and which may give them a home on which their memory may rest…Open to the people for ever and ever".

For now, at least, it still fulfils this role. Free to enter, the museum is full of displays casting a human warmth, a cool clear eye, and an unerring class analysis over the history of the Scottish people.

More familiar museum exhibits – paintings of wealthy families and collections of their antiques, jewellery, clothes and fine crafts – are displayed with captions like “capitalist visions” and descriptions informing us that the capitalist class liked to collect such artefacts to demonstrate their good taste and show off their wealth.

Somehow, I couldn’t imagine text quite this cool pinned to the cabinets of any of the English museums I’d visited.

The poverty imposed on much of the Glasgow populace isn’t glossed over – there’s an eye-opening mock-up of the kind of one-room dwellings many families were cramped into in the 1930s, with a faint tinge of carbolic soap adding to the atmosphere. The dreams and disappointments of the slum redevelopments and new housing estates are given even-handed treatment, as is the role of alcohol in Glasgow life (complete with a discomfiting mock-up of a prison cell and a ‘drunk cart’ that was used to scoop up the inebriated).

But the People’s Palace is no temple of doom. Colourful trade union and international solidarity banners hang from the walls, and the museum proudly proclaims Scotland’s pivotal place in the story of the birth of the Labour party, as well as its labour movement struggles that some consider the closest anywhere in the UK has ever come to a ‘revolutionary moment’. The desk of a “Red Clydeside” leader (the movement which saw the Red Flag raised over Glasgow in the wake of the First World War), scattered with his letters and election banners: “I stand before you for election AS A COMMUNIST”. (He won). Above it, a TV screen showing an interview with the legendary Jimmy Reid, leader of the work-in on the Upper Clyde Docks in the early 70s, where unions seized the shipyards rather than accept redundancy, forcing then Prime Minister Ted Heath to back down and invest.

I emerged from the People’s Palace into the beautiful, plant-filled Winter Gardens café. Drinking a (very nice) cup of tea surrounded by hordes of pink-clad women who’d spent the morning running to raise funds for breast cancer, I found myself impressed by the Scots ability to find a history and national identity that wasn’t about aristo-kitsch, foreign plunder, and endless re-iterations of ‘our finest hour’. Could England, for decades now a nation in search of an identity, follow in its footsteps? A quick stop at the radical bookshop opposite the Palace on the road back to central Glasgow – displaying as many books on Irish republicanism as Scottishness – reminded me of the scale of the challenge.

But we need more museums like this. We need museums that tell us the stories of the struggles we still face, whether it’s the rapacious landlords (who were defeated by a rent strike led by Glasgow women in 1915) or the exploitative bosses (being challenged today by a new generation of Glasgow women striking against unequal pay).

Long live the People’s Palace!

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