If I recall correctly, I first heard about the Peoples Heritage Co-operative’s Represent project roughly three years ago, shortly after the grant funding application to conduct it was submitted to what was then still known as the Heritage Lottery Fund.
So, I was delighted to head over to Moseley Road Baths in Balsall Heath to see the exhibition that forms one of the final outcomes of the project. It is displayed there in the early 20th Century municipal splendour of the Main Baths, which today serves as a pretty unique event space.
The initial phases of the Represent project took place in 2019 and sought to research and think about what Birmingham was like immediately after the First World War and how the city’s politics were impacted and shaped by the sudden expansion of the parliamentary franchise to most women over 30 and virtually all men aged 21 or more. Of course, the exclusion of several million of adult women aside, this was far from universal equal adult suffrage. As one graphic in the exhibition reminded me in 1918 – and indeed up until the provision was finally abolished in 1950 – as a university graduate I would have had two votes, one for a local MP and one for a “Combined English and Welsh Universities MP”.
Many of the events associated with the project, including in-depth periods of work and collaboration by the project’s co-ordinators with the communities built around the Saheli Hub and the Edgbaston Community Centre Monday Morning Coffee Group, occurred during 2019 prior to most people knowing that such things as coronaviruses existed in the world, let alone the onset of COVID-19. The exhibition, however, has waited until now when the restrictions put in place to control the spread of COVID-19 have largely eased, before presenting its findings to the wider community.
In terms of mounting the exhibition at least, the misfortunes of the last 20 or so months, in terms of granting time to reflect and perspective, has worked to the co-ordinator’s advantage. And not just because, like our forebears a century ago, we have lived through a terrible pandemic.
When it comes to the history and heritage uncovered by the project Represent gives a brilliant insight into the issues that were at stake politically in the first year or two after the First World War. It clearly explains issues around the background to the expanded franchise, as well as the challenges the city faced in terms of post war reconstruction with regards to housing, education and other social services provision, which was rudimentary or sorely lacking, and just as today highly contentious.
Besides the political issues at stake, it unearths and resitutates in the context of 1918 and 1919 a whole array of the political figures who were pivotal focal points during the period. These include those who remain well known today such as Birmingham’s favourite son during the period Nevile Chamberlain, who is presented as a rather more three dimensional figure in the exhibition and it’s supporting booklet than is generally the case today. It is striking to be reminded that as a Unionist politician – even allowing for his favourite son status – he represented Birmingham Ladywood a seat that is geographically roughly coterminous with today’s constituency of the same name. In 1918, in the unusual circumstances of the first post-war election, he gained 69.5% of the vote, comparable in magnitude to the 79% Shabana Mahmood of the Labour Party won in 2019. Vivid illustration of how political allegiances can shift when voters are presented with an alternative that better represents them, their wants and desires.
Alongside the famous Nevile Chamberlain, the project also excavates and presents other fascinating and important figures from the period who stood for election. Such as, John Kneeshaw, a radical socialist, bricklayer and pacifist who stood as the Independent Labour Party candidate and Margery Corbett Ashby, a progressively minded Liberal Party member, who became Birmingham’s first woman parliamentary candidate. These stories are accompanied by a selection of election leaflets and other political literature and ephemera from the time, which convey some occasionally strikingly modern looking graphic design, alongside acres of often very quaint, and sometimes seriously reactionary, copy.
The history however, is only one component of the exhibition, and this is what makes it really interesting. Alongside exploring the historical findings of the project’s research the exhibition also explores in very interesting ways the project’s Active Wellbeing Society supported collaboration with community groups based at the Saheli Hub and Edgbaston Community Centre. Though, as the project’s documentation showing trips by members of these groups to the Library of Birmingham and Black Country Living History Museum, these connections and collaborations extended far beyond the four walls of the spaces where they were formally situated.
Panels in the exhibition document the events which were held in these spaces, as well as the fruits of the discussions which were held during the project and the outcomes of creative sessions making banners and similar materials to express the political hopes and desires of people today.
This aspect of the exhibition is striking, and excellently executed in terms of how it is integrated into the broader narrative of shifts and social changes 100 years ago. It is the nature of National Lottery Heritage Fund supported projects that they have volunteering and community engagement at their heart. However, it is unusual to see an exhibition and other collateral at the end of one which goes to such lengths to make the process of working with people from the community such a key part of it.
Seeing how people from a wide array of backgrounds who use facilities situated in today’s Birmingham Ladywood parliamentary constituency engaged with making the project happen is fascinating in of itself. It is very inspiring to get flashes and glimpses of the discussions about the nature of democracy and participation, as well as what the participants would like the political system to deliver for them. A series of dialogues and suggestions which is then reflected in the handmade banners and other pieces, crafted in workshops with the artists Carolyn Morton and Jo Löki.
By weaving the thoughts about politics, change, and what politicians should deliver expressed by participants into the exhibition, Represent opens the door to wider consideration of the key issues in contemporary politics. Responses to contemporary protest movements such as Black Lives Matter, School Strike for Climate and community campaigns to defend public amenities (like the campaign that preserved Moseley Road Baths as an open and working public space a few years ago) feature as a means to discussing broader contemporary issues and how people go about securing change.
Bearing these contemporary movements, mobilisations and struggles in mind, alongside the views and desires expressed by participants it is well worth bearing in mind one of Represent’s concluding observations. This is that whilst the inter-war period of 1920s and 1930s when people in Birmingham tried to move beyond the horrors of the First World War and the Spanish Flu was a time of strife and social upheaval, people responded to it by banding together. They responded to their experiences and the challenges they faced by building up existing grassroots social institutions like the co-op, trade unions and the Labour Party, or they created completely new ones to meet their leisure needs like sports clubs and other hobby societies. In this way they created a strong fabric which many of the social gains of the post Second World War were built upon. Who knows, hopefully out of everything that has happened over the past few years, Birmingham will enter a similar moment in the years to come?
The Represent Exhibition, designed by Kerry Leslie and fabricated by MJM Bespoke, will be on at Moseley Road Baths until the end of 2021. The Peoples Heritage Co-operative have an intention to tour it during 2022 and are interested in hearing from organisations and venues that would like to host it. The project was made possible by the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Active Wellbeing Society, Saheli Hub, Edgbaston Community Centre and the Library of Birmingham