Harnessing city’s pride in protest

Protest Lab, Millennium Gallery
Spitting Image slippers
Protest Lab, Millennium Gallery Spitting Image slippers

Sheffield has a strong history of protest.  Activism has thrived in the city from the rise of the radical press in the 1790s through to today’s Campaign for Truth and Justice.

In between it has seen Samuel Holberry and Chartism in the 1830s, Suffragism and Adela Pankhurst in the early 20th century, right through to the miners’ strike and the Battle of Orgreave.

Museums Sheffield's curator Louisa Briggs with a Sheffield Women Against Pit Closures banner, part of an exhibition about the history of protest in Sheffield. Picture Scott Merrylees

Museums Sheffield's curator Louisa Briggs with a Sheffield Women Against Pit Closures banner, part of an exhibition about the history of protest in Sheffield. Picture Scott Merrylees

That spirit of standing up for what you believe in is still very much alive today, as can be gauged from the response to an interactive exhibition in the Millennium Gallery.

Protest Lab includes a display of photographs from Greenham Common, the peace camp established to protest against the deployment of nuclear weapons on British soil in the 1980s, in which women from Sheffield took part, and memorabilia such as a Crookesmoor Against the Poll Tax banner, posters, songsheets, newsletters and badges.

There is also space for the public to suggest which protests and causes matter to them.

Within days of Protest Lab opening the walls were filled with scrawled slogans such as ‘No fracking’, ‘No to academy schools’, ‘Free Sheffield trees’, ‘Protect the NHS’, ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Ban all vivisection.’

It’s really all about collecting stories and there’s no time frame

There is a display of toy figures carrying placards and the slogans will be changed at the suggestion of visitors to the exhibition.

The idea is that visitors can help shape a forthcoming programme of exhibitions and events marking the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018 which granted the vote to certain women over the age of 30 and all men over the age of 21.

Louisa Briggs is curator of the Sheffield: Protest & Activism project launched by Protest Lab with the aim of building up a collection which reflects the city’s proud history in political campaigns.

It dates back to the 1790s when mass meetings to petition for parliamentary reform were held in Paradise Square – which led on to Samuel Holberry’s attempted Chartist uprising in the 1830s. More radical action came with the ‘Sheffield Outrages’ of the 1860s and into the 20th century with Suffragette Adela Pankhurst residing in Broomhill and the General Strike of 1926.

More recently you can count the raising of the red flag at the Town Hall in the heyday of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire, Ban the Bomb marches and industrial strikes.

“Protest can appear in many different guises – it isn’t just about marches and demos, although obviously these are important. The project is looking at protest in the broadest possible sense,” explains Louisa Briggs. “It will cover both small community-based campaigns to improve people’s day-to-day lives and movements in the city on such wider issues as black or LGBT rights or the participation of Sheffielders in national and international protests.

“Many people from here went to fight in the Spanish Civil War and there were some Sheffield Black Panthers,” she added.

One of the challenges in creating a coherent collection is that by its very nature grassroots activism is not something that leaves behind objects and documents. “It’s so ephemeral I am surprised we have managed to find some things at all,” observed Briggs.

“There is surprisingly little actually about the miners’ strike and virtually nothing on the steel strike in 1980. These still have a big impact on the city today”

There are, however, banners, posters and T-shirts from the Sheffield Women Against Pit Closures and Houghton Main Women’s Pit Camp from 1993 when women from four Yorkshire mining communities camped outside the gates of collieries threatened in the final round of pit closures.

Other objects on display include lots of colourful badges and mugs inscribed with slogans plus more unexpected items such as a pair of fluffy slippers, one foot with the caricature of Margaret Thatcher, the other Neil Kinnock,

The signage is largely in a handwritten, agitprop mode. “It’s a bit more playful than the usual museum information displays, picking up on the protest style,” says Louisa Briggs. “We are hoping it becomes a living well-used space.

“It’s really all about collecting stories. There’s no historical time frame to this because it is something which is ongoing. Witness recent demonstrations on behalf of junior doctors or against Donald Trump.”

She believes that unlike say Manchester which has not been backward in proclaiming its history of protest, few outside Sheffield are aware of the rich history of activism that the city can claim which is what the project can help to address.

Sheffield: Protest and Activism is a two-year research and exhibition project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation Collection Fund.

Next year there will be two major exhibitions, one in the main space of the Millennium Gallery, focusing on artists’ responses to protest, and the other in Weston Park Museum with the emphasis on social history.

Protest Lab is in the Millennium Gallery’s Craft and Design Gallery until May 21.