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Main Galleries

Main Galleries

There have always been ideas worth fighting for. Join a march through time following Britain's struggle for democracy over two centuries.

Main Galleries

The main story of the museum is told in two purpose built galleries located on the first and second floor.  The galleries have been divided into seven themes and roughly follow a chronological order over the last 200 years.  The story starts with the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and ends in the present day.

Floor One


The first theme of Main Gallery One is Revolution.

Two hundred years ago Manchester was at the centre of Britain’s Industrial Revolution.  Based on the cotton textile industry, the town became the world’s first industrial city.

Despite high wages in good times, workers endured appalling living and environmental conditions.  Little could be done to improve these; there was no political structure and Manchester, for example, had no MP.

On 16 August 1819 a reform meeting held on St Peter’s Field in Manchester attracted over 60,000 mill workers and their families.

Magistrates sent in soldiers to arrest the leaders.  There were 18 dead and over 400 seriously injured.

The event became known as the Peterloo Massacre and led to the first reform of Parliament in 1832.


This is all about the birth of democratic ideas.  This includes the Levellers, the Chartists and individuals such as John Wilkes, Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Cobbett, Francis Burdett and the Cato Street Conspirators.

The Great Reform Act was passed in 1832 giving the vote to some.

Two of the oldest banners in our collection are on display in this section – the Liverpool Tinplate Workers banner from 1821 (the oldest trade union banner in the world) and the White Lion Lodge banner from about 1830 (the world’s oldest surviving miners’ banner).

Manchester Manufacturers developed the Anti Corn Law League whose ideology was free trade and liberalism.  They created the Manchester Guardian and the Free Trade Hall in Manchester marks the celebration of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.  Their campaign led directly to the creation of the Liberal Party.


This covers secret societies (which existed before trade unions were legal and were often large, national organisations).

Tolpuddle Martyrs - six workers arrested and convicted for attempting to form a union in 1834.  They were all pardoned in 1836 following a public outcry.

We then follow the growth of the trade union movement and the differences between unions for skilled and unskilled workers.  Look at some workers who found it hard to join a union, for example home workers.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) held their first meeting in Manchester in 1868.  (The building where this first meeting took place is 103 Princess Street and it used to be the home of the Archive, Textile Conservation Studio and Collections Store.  The public galleries of the museum were based there for a few years in the early 1990’s before moving to the Pump House).

Strikes include the strike in 1888 at the Bryant & May match factory in London and the Dock Strike of 1889.


It is probably no surprise that this section covers all the main political parties and political movements – from socialism to fascism.

Both Engels and Marx founded their joint theories on examples from Manchester – the world’s first industrial city.

Subjects covered include early socialism (plus the Clarion movement), the Conservative and Liberal Parties, the birth of the Labour Party, Communist Party of Great Britain, including the Spanish Civil War, fascism and post war politics including the General Strike.

Another aspect of this section is all about how women had to fight for the right to vote on the same terms as men.   Includes the formation of the Manchester Suffrage Society 1867 and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) founded in Manchester by Emmeline Pankhurst and her sisters in 1903.

Voters is the final section on floor one.  The story ends in 1945 at the end of World War II.  The story continues on level two.

Floor Two

Main Gallery Two is on the second floor and starts in 1945 at the end of World War II.


The first theme in this gallery is all about politics and protest post 1945.  Rather than being revolutionaires, reformers, workers or voters, have we become citizens?

This theme looks at Britain after the vote has been secured for all.  Politics from 1950 to 1979, then 1979 to almost the present day.

Politics moves to being more issue based rather than about political parties – war and peace, equality, gay rights, green issues, strikes and migration changes as a result of the end of empire.

Time Off?

This section covers how time off was won as well as what people did in their new leisure time.

Working class leisure activities such as football including items from the collection of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), plus music and the musicians union.

Time Off? also includes the Co-op which was formed in Greater Manchester by the Rochdale Pioneers, friendly societies and the ‘saving for a rainy day’ philosophy.


This area of Main Gallery Two is double height especially to showcase some of the museum’s most impressive and significant banners.  Some of the banners are displayed showing both sides which gives a unique view.

An audio visual show helps to create the atmosphere of the culmination of a march or protest with crowds of people, lots of noise and banners fluttering in the wind.

This is where you also have the opportunity to take a look into the country’s only Textile Conservation Studio dedicated to the conservation and preservation of banners and textiles.  From the Textile Conservation Viewing Area you can see the conservators working on some very delicate and often beautiful textiles and banners.

Visitor Experience

When visiting the galleries you might notice a few distinctive things about the displays.

The Colours
Many of the historic items in the museum used colour to represent ideas.  We decided Red for courage and revolution, green for reform, blue for loyalty, purple for dignity, pink for peace and prosperity, white for purity and gold for ambition.  Each theme in the galleries has a different, and appropriate, background colour.

The Light
The light levels in both galleries are set low to protect the delicate textiles and papers on display.

Throughout the museum galleries there are a range of interactives to help bring the story to life.  These include ‘people in boxes’ - boxes containing items related to a person’s life that you can look at, read and interact with.  They are based on real historical people.  There are timelines located at various points throughout the galleries – click onto these to find out what other big events were happening in the country at the time.  Follow our families throughout the last 200 years and see how their lives have changed.  Find out what kind of house they lived in, where did they work, how much leisure time did they have and what did they do in this time.  The galleries are not a square box - they have curved corners  – we’ve made the most of these by using them as speakers corners.  Listen to some of the most impressive speeches made in recent times.

Almost 1500 historic objects are on display in the new galleries – ranging from large iconic objects such as banners and posters to smaller items such as minutes from meetings, ceramics and badges.  Lots of objects are on display for the very first time.

You might notice that the interpretation panels in the museum are written in a different style to some other museums and galleries.  This way of writing information is called Ekarv and it is designed to make providing information to you as a visitor as easy and accessible as possible.  For those of you with not much time there are introduction panels you can read - ‘history for people prepared to read 50 words’ - reading these will give you a good initial idea of what our story is about.

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