MIA Red Queens: The Lost Political Heroes of The Crown and Peaky Blinders

A delve into why The Crown and Peaky Blinders are leaving out female political heroes


I’ve waiting with bated breath and a faux cigarette holder at the ready for the third instalment of Peter Morgan’s The Crown, alongside many of my fellow historians and friends.

It feels like we’ve been treated this autumn with excellent historical fiction – particularly those that ties so closely to contemporary problems. And whilst I welcomed the majesty of Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies breathing emotion and life into two of the biggest characters of the twentieth century, I was most excited for the era of politicians that this series would bring.

I prayed, I hoped, that I wouldn’t suffer the same disappoint I felt at the equally brilliant Peaky Blinders.

From a historical point of view, there was still so much missing from Tommy Shelby’s journey between the streets of Birmingham to the gloomy, hallowed halls of Westminster. Making Tommy a Labour MP and introducing him to the unsavoury, darker side of inter-war social change was genius, there’s no doubt about that. In context of today’s politics it felt weirdly Black Mirror-esque – seeing the charisma and the tide of populism that far-right politics can get swept up on, before we even realise, is a vital part of our history.

And still, it was also missing something vital. 

The series was set in 1929. The first election year where all women aged 21 and over could vote. Female MPs came to parliament, including Ellen Wilkinson, MP for Middlesbrough. Young, unmarried, full of passion, power, and socialism.

She is perhaps the most important woman in early 20th century politics, and if Tommy Shelby was playing the part of socialist MP well enough, he would have undoubtedly been hatching plans and hanging out with her. I could fully imagine Ellen, with her blaze of auburn hair, drawing herself up to her small height and reckoning with Tommy, showing him who really had the power in parliament. She could have shone on screen, could have slotted into the story so perfectly – Tommy should have been helping her fight fascism and Mosley from the start.

But he wasn’t… 

Tommy and Ellen
The fact we we’re denied this double act will never not be devastating!

Now I do understand that decision. Of course, I get that you can’t have everybody onscreen. That it’s historical fiction for a reason and fiction should be the operative word. But I was so grumpy (immediate cross messaging my Peaky WhatsApp group level grumpy) not to have seen her brought to life on screen when she fitted so perfectly into the story.

Was it because Jessie Eden – the trade unionist rousing the workers of Birmingham – already took that part? Was it that the other female characters were already too much, too powerful, too challenging of social norms?

Don’t get me wrong – I love seeing challenging, tricky, revolting women on screen, on stage, in books, in art.

But are we too used to seeing portrayals of women fighting to be heard, to be let in – rather than women who are on the inside, who are being listened to? It’s food for thought.

So, with my disappointment in the lack of Ellen Wilkinson aside, I hoped and prayed that this series of the The Crown would treat me better, and we’d get to see one of the most prominent, unique, and inspiring politicians of the time.

And no, I don’t mean not Harold Wilson! 

Ok, yes, I did like seeing Harold Wilson there, especially looking so uncomfortable, so ill at ease in his first meeting with the Queen. After all, it fitted perfectly. Gone were the Prime Ministers who worshipped the Queen as a goddess, yet who also tried and sway and shape her views. This was a woman in power, a woman who knew herself, her mind, who has seen much and fully embodies ‘The Crown’. Her relationship with Wilson wasn’t friendly, nor intimate; it’s frank, open. It’s a business arrangement, each recognising the other’s advice and knowledge.

BUT, in another world – a forward-thinking, progressive world, there would have been another person sat opposite the Queen. More left-wing, with a sharper tongue and a wealth of experience in the political arena…if Barbara Castle, long-serving MP for Blackburn could have been selected as the Leader of the Opposition in 1960, then it may have been a different conversation, a different story. And this story should have at least nudged it’s way into The Crown.

Barbara Castle
Barbara Castle

Barbara Castle was the legacy that Ellen Wilkinson had left behind. Unashamedly socialist, a force of energy, enthusiasm, and outspokenness, Barbara had stormed into the House of Commons ready to take up the mantle female MPs had been putting into place – to battle the gender inequality that was inbuilt in society, and to disprove that women MPs were only in place to speak out for other women.

During her 24 years as an MP, Barbara not only ensured the passing of the Equal Pay Act, but took on the role of Minister for Overseas Development and then Minister of Transport, where she introduced the 70mph speed limit, breathalysers and – would you believe it – seat belt rules. Harold Wilson even said of her:

‘…she was good at whatever she touched.’

She was an incredible politician, who helped mould the era. And yet, in The Crown, she is limited to just a couple of lines in a cabinet meeting, where she lambastes Prince Philips plea for more money. Then she is later briefly mentioned by Harold Wilson as one of the lefties who might topple the monarchy right over if they had the chance. In fact, her full name is never explicitly spoken – she’s recognised simply by her tell-tale red hair.

The fact that Barbara Castle’s appearance in The Crown as a mere flash in the pan, is a waste. Like Ellen, she would have been a total scene stealer.

The Crown celebrates the merits and the shortcomings of the Queen and the women around her. But, when it comes to women outside of the royal household, they are few and far between. As they are in far too many period drama’s. This can’t continue.

Women like Barbara and Ellen should have places in these dramas.

Not only because it’s right. But because their stories are vivid, bold and simply fascinating. To miss them out is a huge disservice on a creative level and also on an ethical one – when we don’t see them on our big television screens, when the perfect opportunity presents itself…when will we see them?

It’s because of this lack of storytelling and inclusion that these women were outliers in their time, and lets be blunt,  today they still would be. It’s far past the time where women in politics should be included in television, film and books. We need to shine a light on these women, past and present.

Fingers crossed, next series will bring better.

Why won’t museums pay their staff fairly?

With museum staff all over the country going on strike, we ask – why exactly do museums keep refusing to pay their workers fairly.

This week staff at Museums across the UK have gone on strike. Everyone from curators, explainers, archivists and front of house staff are calling to not just be fairly paid, but to be a paid a reasonable wage to live on.

Since 2011 Science Museum staff have seen a real terms pay cut of 10% since 2011. It’s estimated that 25% of staff earn less than the real living wage, which is frankly disgusting.

For those who don’t the national living wage is the bare minimum you can legally pay someone over 25. Currently this is £8.21 (or if you are under 25, it’s £7.70). HOWEVER, when you actually factor in silly little things like rising rent costs, inflation on food, transportation and general goods and services, the national living wage doesn’t cut it.

Instead it’s advised that companies pay the real living wage (which for you economics lovers out there, is £9 or £10.55 for those in London, because everything is more expensive in London!). But the key word here is ‘advised’. You don’t actually have to pay the real living wage and you best believe many museums are choosing not to pay it.

So what’s the big deal?

It’s not a matter of pounds but pennies right? And yet, those pennies make a difference. It’s knowing you have enough money for the bus to work at the end of the month, It’s having enough food on the table and putting the heating on when it’s cold. It’s the teetering point, between a good quality of life for you and family, or scraping by perilously close to the poverty line.

That’s an incredibly hard position to financially be in. And it’s made worse when you realise that whilst a quarter of staff are counting the coins to get by, The Science Museum Groups director is on over £100k.

As Prospect negotiator Sharon Brown said:

“It is clear from the accounts that SMG (Science Museum Group) can afford to pay a reasonable way. It’s time for management to sort this out so our members can get on with the jobs they love”.

And the Science Museum staff are far from alone. Also striking are staff at the Museum of London, who have seen a 6% real terms pay cut since 2013, but also watched on as the number of those in higher up positions earning over 100k has doubled. Oh and despite being in a period where the museum is undergoing a location move costing hundreds of millions and they apparently can’t afford to pay all their staff fairly – the museum Director took home a 5% raise.

Science Museum strike, Courtesy of Prospect
Because although this is THE WORST – museum staff know how to break it down. Courtesy of Prospect

Having worked at one of these museums in the last few years, I can categorically tell you that there is a startling disparity between how those at the top are paid and those at the ‘bottom’ are paid.

To give full disclosure, until Nov 2018 I worked as a press officer in one of the striking museums and I was paid around 31k. I didn’t negotiate for that, that’s just the set level. To put that into context at the same museum (according to glass door for an average as this fluctuates!) an archaeologist might be on something between £19-22k.

So why was my pay so much higher? Well to be blunt, because my role exists outside of the sector. If you work in something like museum PR, marketing, or events, having knowledge of history, collections and how the sector works is of course a bonus, but it isn’t necessary. You’re expected to know your area and because all these roles exist outside of museums, your generally paid the going rate that most companies would pay a PR, marketing officer or events organiser.

But that fair pay all goes to shit when it comes to the people who are the very glue of a museum. The people who look after the collections, put together exhibitions, care for archives and are the boots on the ground, making people fall in love with a museum.

The reason for this low pay is simple but bleak.

According to Fair Museums Jobs

‘why do museums pay so badly? Short answer: because they can. There are numerous museum related courses churning out graduates who need jobs, not to mention other academic courses for whom museums are a “back-up” career option, so there’s a constant supply of applicants for most jobs. Why would trustees or directors think they should pay more when they are getting applicants at every level? 

Science Museum strikers, Courtesy of Prospect
Science Museum strikers, Courtesy of Prospect

What makes this worse are that The Museum Association guidelines for pay are kind of screwing people over. For those becoming a curatorial or conservation assistant, with a post graduate degree (or decent experience working in collections, which they probably had to do for free FYI) The Museums Association advises they are paid a just 17-22k. Break that down to an hourly rate and its £8.17. Which you guessed it, is below the real living wage!

Whilst museums can get away with paying people a pittance, they will. Which is why strikes like this are so needed. As Fair Museums Jobs put it:

“If we want to see change in this area, then actions like these strikes are crucial. They have brought the issue to the mainstream UK media and increased awareness with visitors about the unfair practices of their organisations. More visibility = more pressure = we hope, change!”

Change is a coming, but it is happening slowly. 

The Science Museum Group have now agreed to pay their lowest paid staff the living wage (and London living wage for those based in their flagship museum) they won’t actually do this until April 2020. Which means months more of a quarter of their staff having to just about scrape by.

In addition, The Institute of Conservation recently announced that entry level conservators should be paid at least £27,108, which is fantastic! Recognising all the years of work and training these people do. BUT, it’s just a suggestion, museums don’t actually have to do it. And lets be real, until they are made to, they won’t.

strike, from Prospect twitter
Striker, courtesy of Prospect

So what happens now?

Well it looks like industrial action will have to continue. And we can expect to see more museum workers unionising and going on strike in the coming months. At least until museums realise these three key things:

  1. ‘What I did for love’ is not a decent hiring strategy – This is not A Chorus Line. Do museum workers love what they do? Yes. Can you keep on depending on being able to retain amazing staff based off of the love of museums rather than actual pay? No. Sadly you can’t feed a family on passion.
  2. You can’t diversify museums with low pay like this in place – It’s a fact that museums are facing a diversity crisis, especially in areas like curatorial and conservation. A huge reason for this is that the extraordinary low pay for entry level roles in these departments simply prices out many candidates from low income and minority backgrounds.
  3. People outside the sector are realising how shady this is – These strikes are drawing attention, not just at the museum sites but in the national press. The longer this is drawn out, the less people will want to come and drop their cash at a place that doesn’t care about it’s staff.


Fair Museum Jobs kindly gave as the below statement on this issue. It’s definitely worth a read: 

“The Science Museum Group and Museum of London strikes highlight the fundamental issue that many jobs in museums and heritage just do not pay enough to live on. In such a highly qualified sector, where expensive post-grad qualifications are constantly deemed essential; that many organisations pay 25% of their staff less than their directors annual bonus is ridiculous.

“So why do museums pay so badly? Short answer: because they can. There are numerous museum related courses churning out graduates who need jobs, not to mention other academic courses for whom museums are a “back-up” career option, so there’s a constant supply of applicants for most jobs. Why would trustees or directors think they should pay more when they are getting applicants at every level?

“If we want to see change in this area, then actions like these strikes are crucial. They have brought the issue to the mainstream UK media and increased awareness with visitors about the unfair practices of their organisations. More visibility = more pressure = we hope, change!

“Some organisations are leading the charge for this: Institute of Conservation recently announced that entry level conservators should be paid at least £27,108 – recognising the training conservators go through before their first job. 

“In short, if you want highly qualified, accredited, candidates, you must be willing to pay for them.

“More work could also be done by the Museums Association; their salary guidelines are a good starting point and we would welcome some robust implementation of these across the sector. Funding bodies should also take a look at their policies and requirements: for example, we would love to see National Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund and Arts Council England add salary and recruitment requirements for project posts.

“Nobody goes into this sector to become a millionaire, but all of us deserve to be fairly recompensed for our time, skills, knowledge and qualifications.
Fair Museum Jobs campaigns on fair and transparent recruitment, pay and jobs in museums and heritage. Find out more about our manifesto here: https://fairmuseumjobs.wordpress.com/manifesto/ “



A revolution in reclaiming history

Why that Economist article on history being dull is a load of crap and how we can counteract that with a revolution in reclaiming history!

This week The Economist published an article called ‘The study of history is in decline in Britain’. Which in summary was basically an argument that as the UK finds itself in the midst of political, social and economic upheaval, we’re standing right in the middle of history in the making. And yet, historians today suck at telling history. It’s dull, not engaging, uninspiring and basically nobody cares.

And to that I say:


Now was this article click bait, designed to rile up historians and get them to share it far and wide in their fury (thus resulting in more clicks)? Well of course. However, that really doesn’t make up for that fact that it’s poorly researched and misses the mark by a country mile.

Oh and while we’re here, putting the article behind a paywall kind of undermines it’s point about making accessible and entertaining history for the masses. Just saying.

Here’s the pretty big thing that The Economist missed:

We’re at the start of a reclamation of history revolution!

Note, ‘at the start’, we’re not there yet. But we are well on our way. Never before have so many historians, libraries, museums, teachers and writers, been so dedicated to making history fun and interesting for everyone.

The David Starkey breed is dying out. No longer does history have to remain under lock and key for (primarily) white old men in tweed jackets. It’s seeping into our everyday, through mass remembrance of historic milestones like Vote 100 and 14-18 Now, which created cultural moments that bought history alive and made it tangible to the present.

Then there’s the increase of TV shows Drunk History, Horrible Histories and the rise of the glory that is Philomena Cunk. There’s people like Rebecca Rideal trying out new types of inclusive history festivals with 2018’s HistFest. Greg Jenner not only making Horrible Histories a television (and now film) phenomenon but also creating books that bring history into the everyday. There’s documentary makers like Helen Tither, bringing suffrage to life on TV. Oh, and don’t forget social media heroes such as Whores of Yore (who gave us the unbridled joy that is ‘Historical Hotties’) and English Heritage (who just did a Georgian make up tutorial for crying out loud!!)

And we’re not even touching on all the people who don’t work on the public stage, but put their everything into the classroom, exhibitions, podcasts, books and websites.

I’m sorry to say this The Economist, but it’s looking like there’s a wealth of evidence that you might be waaaay off the mark on this whole, history is dying, shtick.

And what makes this even worse for your argument that historians are killing history because their too cocooned in their own bubble, is that these public history endeavours have succeeded because they tie into the world around them.

Take for example the celebration and commemoration around the centenary of some women getting the vote. One of the main reasons it succeeded was that it also linked in to current feminist issues.

Tens of thousands of women joined marches across the UK in 2018, that recreated the protest pageantry utilised by the suffragettes one hundred years ago. That’s thousands of women who made placards, wore the suffrage colours of green, purple and white and took to the street. Not because they were bored and just fancied a nice protest, but because that chapter of history inspired them to action.

There were suffrage placards right alongside those calling for equal pay, crying out #MeToo and for better period care for school girls.

And that was just one event. In a year that saw suffrage books shoot up to the top of the charts, Lucy Worsley’s documentary series, Suffragettes, getting prime time viewing figures, along with multiple museums and archives teaming up with Google to digitise suffrage archive materials and make them accessible (and free!) at just the click of button.

Now, lets be real The Economist, that’s not exactly cocooning yourself away from the modern world, is it?

Ariel view of the 2018 Suffrage march in London

So, now we can all agree that Economist article was BS, the real issue is – where does this history reclamation revolution go from here?

The truth is, it could go anywhere. But it needs to go to people.

One thing The Economist sort of got right, is that many still find history alienating. There’s been decades where the minute you stop doing history in school, the only clear way to interact with it, was to be told it by an Oxford/Cambridge grad. Understandably that made it felt elitist and untouchable.

No wonder then that with that image so cemented in peoples minds, even with the history landscape changing, many are still resistant to get on board. I mean, use me as an example, I write a history website and I only fell into history by accident!

I’d loved history as a kid, but when it got time to pick a degree, I figured that my straight B, working class, dyslexic arse was way to dumb (and not posh enough) to even try and get into this space.

It was only a few years later when I fell into doing history PR (an actual job, I swear) that I realised I didn’t need permission to delve into history. I was allowed to learn my way through an archive, how to do research and analyse different texts. I’ve now been doing this for years. I’ve been nominated for awards, I even get paid to write and research… and I still have people reject me purely because I don’t have a degree in history.

Now imagine what that’s like for people who stopped their education at GCSE, come from minority backgrounds or just don’t have the income needed to go off and spend thousands on student debt.

That’s why we need to empower people to get stuck into history. We already have the tools. Along with all the amazing TV, books and film, there’s digitised archives (god bless the internet), academic papers online and even free courses in history (thank you Suzanna Lipscombe!)

If we want to make history a cultural wave, then we can’t just tell people about it, we have to allow them to discover it for themselves too.

Sure the metaphorical history ivory tower is no longer under lock and key only for the chosen ones to access. But right now, it’s more like an ivory tower open day – come in, have a look around…don’t touch anything.

And who doesn’t love an open day! But today’s visitor wants more than that. They want to see, do and experience. So if we’re going to ensure that history doesn’t go back to that stuffy world The Economist is pedalling – we need to not only let people in, but give them the keys.


What makes you a historian?

Following the big blow up around Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new book and his title of ‘historian’, it’s high time we had a talk about what actually makes a historian.

There has been a big blow up in the history community recently around Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new book on the Victorians (for my international readers, Rees-Mogg is a divisive politician here in the UK, who has gone from a back bench MP to one in the spotlight, thanks to being incredibly posh, having a ton of kids and having a world view from a bygone era)

Unsurprisingly, the book has not been met with positive reviews. With many calling out the fact that it is more fantasy than fact, ignores recent scholarship of the subject and is badly written and dull. But, of course, that won’t stop the book selling, it won’t stop Rees-Mogg being invited on historical and literary panels and it most definitely won’t stop him from calling himself a historian.

And that right there is the crux of the issue. What makes a historian and who gets to call themselves one?

Unsurprisingly that is a tough question to answer. Because being a historian isn’t like being a doctor. There isn’t a set in stone list of qualifications and training you need to be allowed to practice. At least not technically. There is however a unofficially agreed path you need to tread before being allowed to call yourself a historian. And that is:

  • Undergrad degree in history or similar
  • MA in a more specific field or area of history
  • PHD
  • Published academic papers

Now, you might have spotted two really big things there:

  1. It is years worth of studying
  2. It takes a lot of money to do (in the thousands)

And that isn’t including the optional additionals, such as learning new languages, studying abroad, volunteering and ‘free’ internships and apprenticeships (and so many more!)

So yes, being a historian takes a lot of hard graft and sacrifice. And so it should. Sifting through the past and telling it’s story is a really tough thing to do and there’s a lot to learn to be able to do it well.

BUT (and it’s a big but) that leaves a huge amount of people excluded from ever being able to become a historian.

For a career path that focuses on the old, it’s a young mans game. At least when getting into it. Once you have kids, work, bills to be paid and especially when you’re doing all that without a finical safety net (which many people now are) the prospect of going back to years of education, matched with a hefty price tag and at the end of it probably taking a nice big pay cut to make this a full time gig (at least at first) makes becoming a historian not so much a mountain to climb but a fiscal impossibility.

That’s not to say people don’t still manage it. And a huge hats of to those people! But they are the exceptions. And it’s not just because ‘they wanted it more’, it’s because there will always be anomalies.

We can’t rely on a system that only permits those in a position of -lets face it – privilege, early on to be allowed to tell history. Who are then followed by a trickle of exceptions to the rule. There lies ruin. A lack of diversity and a whole host of voices completely lost.

During the Twitter storm that has raged following Rees-Mogg’s book, Historian, Dr Frank McDonaugh (who quick aside, I love), got into an exchange with a person whose dad is having a history book published, despite having no history qualifications. With McDonaugh explaining:

‘There are some exceptions but my general point is that training is necessary and advisable to understand how to do it correctly. It’s not like riding a bike, nor should it be.’

It is a cracking point. But who decides who the exceptions are? Is there panel of historian elders who take this up on a case by case basis?

We’re now living in a world where the track we once set to become a historian is simply no longer tangible. To have a variety of voices and more areas of history explored. We need to collectively expand our view on what it means to be a historian.

I’m not saying that anyone can watch the History channel, write a book on their top ten historical figures and call themselves a historian. But I am saying that if you write a book about the history of your local area after spending years researching, sifting through records, piecing things together and working that all into 300 pages. Then yes, you get to call yourself a local historian.

Because becoming a historian is a learning curve. That includes going out and spending years at university working your arse off for qualifications. But it also needs to include the people who self-study. Who spend years learning how to read historical data, research and delve into mountains of documents for that one nugget of information.

And yeah, there’s not piece of paper to prove that the work was done. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t count.

More like this:

News flash: Exhibitions don’t have to be boring

When I was little, one of my favourite videos to watch was Passport to Paris, a Mary-Kate & Ashley film that, being a twin and a child of 00s, I was obsessed with.

What’s always stuck with me, however, is a scene in Passport to Paris, where the twins walk through the Louvre, and slowly, their fascination turns to utter boredom. The painting fly past them, barely noted, as they walk, shoulders slumped, through gallery after gallery.  (Oh, and while we’re here, FYI other 00s kids, I can tell you  that in real life twins don’t make their prospective boyfriends tell them apart by dressing the same, it is not a done thing).

Do not trust them on twins or museums

That scene in the Louvre represented, to me, how people often saw museums. Lengthy, complicated interpretations, medieval paintings, some marble and if you’re lucky, some decent taxidermy.

So, when I started to work in museum, my greatest fear was that people would walk through my exhibitions the same way that the Olsen sisters walked through the Louvre – without looking at a single thing, uttered uninterested.

But, having been on the inside, I can say with authority that museum people are no longer the tweed jacket and elbow patch wearing people that the Olsen twins (and many of others!) thought they were. Museum folk aren’t out there just to recite some lengthy historical facts and bore visitors to tears.

The museum world has fought against this tired image and today, exhibitions and events in museums, galleries, historic houses and archives are becoming more and more engaging, accessible, fun and inviting. 

In 2017 I started putting together an exhibition on the suffrage centenary, Represent! Voices 100 Years On, for Manchester’s Peoples Museum. At first, the main goal was to ensure that the people visiting the exhibition didn’t trudge through a’la Mary-Kate and Ashley. That they were able to discover stories of incredible women and leave excited and engaged. 

It turns out that saying you want your exhibition to inspire and engage is a lot easier said than done… 

Putting together Represent! was was the best of times and the worst of times – like with any job, huge amounts of stress was involved, but also so many rewarding moments. So lets look at all the lessons I learned!

Represent! Voices 100 Years On at the People’s History Museum, Manchester

What struck me throughout the process was how different it felt. People’s History Museum worked with so many different community groups and individuals to interpret the stories, contribute their own opinions and ideas, and actually make the story we were telling relevant, and impactful.

See, that’s what was missing from Passport to Paris – impact. (FYI, something the Louvre has a lot of – don’t believe those sneaky twins). Visiting a museum or an exhibition shouldn’t be about expectations. If you’re expected to appreciate, understand, or even celebrate what’s on display, then you’re going to feel out of place. You’re going to feel lectured at, and you’re going to switch off.

But that’s where most museums are changing.

If you see yourself reflected in the objects, in the labels, in the interpretations – something you might have thought, or said, something entirely not curated or edited – you might feel a stronger connection to what you’re seeing, or reading. That realisation that one voice – the voice of a curator – is not the most important voice in the room is the biggest change that museums have made to exhibitions, for the better.

 Now, of course, working with communities has its challenges. Traditionally, you source your objects, working with the Collections team and Conservation to ensure everything in the collection that we want to use is in a good condition and is able to go on display. Loaning objects might also be part of the process, from other institutions, or sometimes just individuals. A lot of work goes into preparing these loans, so it’s always a relief when they finally make it into the building.

Working with communities, you don’t always get that level of planning. Even if you do plan, things might go awry.  

One of my favourite moments from Represent! was when I spoke to a well-known group of activists, and met them to discuss potentially lending some objects to the exhibition. They turned up to our meeting with a treasure trove of objects – only I was stranded without an entry form or the paperwork.

Sometimes, working with activists and grassroots groups means that proper museum practice can’t always be as black and white as it traditionally is. Flexibility, and to an extent, spontaneity are definitely needed.

That’s the best part of mixing the past and the present, though! Getting a glimpse into the heart of campaigns today, then seeing it reflected back in objects from 100 years ago is what made the exhibition what it was.

That’s the beauty of it! How can you look away? Real people make you feel included, and part of something.

There’s more, though. The raw truth that community groups and individuals are able to deliver – untamed by the voice of the museum – offers a sort of uncomfortable reality whilst also being authentically inspiring.

Honest reflections like these fill the walls of Represent!, with phrases including “The vote was for white women” and “Feminism is about equality and if the values were actually played out, maybe I would believe in it.”  Alongside these quotes, narratives and stories of the continued fight for equality show that it still very much needed.

Platform guests at the Represent! Preview, recreating the Caxton Hall photograph

Right until the end of the process, we kept this community-led focus on the exhibition.

We launched the exhibition by recreating the below photograph, taken at Caxton Hall in 1910, just before this deputation of suffragettes led by Emmeline Pankhurst marched on Parliament and were brutally attacked for hours on end (on the orders of none other than Winston Churchill).

We filled the platform with activists and campaigners of today, and it was a moment where the past and present combined, to commemorate those who had gone before, and to champion those who were carrying on their struggle.

WSPU members, including Emmeline Pankhurst and Sophia Duleep-Singh, on the platform at Caxton Hall

Different, from start to finish. Different, diverse voices. Unique, unsung narratives. Costumes,newspapers, banners, placards, arrest warrants, pink pussy hats, maiden speeches, paintings and pamphlets.

I don’t think Mary-Kate and Ashley would have been bored in this one.

Helen Antrobus is 1/3 of F Yeah History. She’s also a curator (formerly for Manchester’s Peoples History Museum) with a passion for telling the stories of radical women and working class history. 

How does mass remembrance affect history?

In 2014 the Tower of London sparked a revolution of remembrance when it unveiled an enormous work of public art to commemorate 100 years since the start of the First World War.

888,246 handmade ceramic poppies standing in the fortress moat, so many they tumbled out of ramparts and windows. Each one representing a member of the British and Colonies military who’d died in the First World War. It was called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (also known as Poppies at the Tower) and it changed everything.

I was working for Historic Royal Palaces (the organisation that looks after Tower of London) when the Poppies were being planned and believe me; it was a gamble!

The Tower of London is steeped in military history, with its famous Yeoman Warders (beefeaters) all ex military. The Tower was always going to remember those that had fallen, but what would be the public’s reaction? Would people come? Would poppies be ridiculed?

Not to mention that poppies was going to be a very costly endeavour and if it failed, then what did that mean for future projects?

It didn’t fail.

Millions of people came to see the poppies. So many that London Underground had to put in place tannoy announcements advising people to plan alternate routes, as the tube stations by Tower of London were so packed.

Almost 18,000 volunteers worked to plant all of the poppies. At nightfall, a roll-call of the fallen was read out to a silent crowd as The Last Post was played. The Royal Family came, with the Queen planting one of the poppies. The prime minister urged the Tower to keep the poppies for longer. And when the final day of the exhibition came, each poppy was sold to the public, raising millions for military charities.

But the most remarkable thing about the Poppies was the effect it had on everyone who saw it. At first you’d look at one poppy; a particular patch. But it soon became impossible to see that one poppy, as it was eclipsed by the vastness of red. Lost in a sea of the dead.

It was both the individual loss and the mass mourning. It was visceral. You could feel it. And you couldn’t leave and still view the First World War in the same way.

crowds at poppies at the tower
Crowds visiting The Tower of London’s Poppies

Blood Swept Land and Seas made the front pages of newspapers. It was the first story on the news. History… the main news story.

What was normally reserved for 1 day a year, remembrance day, was now the UK’s water cooler talk.

Let’s not understate this, because it’s INCREDIBLE!

But why was this? Well it was because it showed history in a new light.

Kings and Queens are great. The stories of lost empires are great. The nitty gritty of tanks and military plans are great. But this wasn’t that. It was people. Everyday people, their story. And that’s something else entirely.

There was an increase in people looking into their family history, discovering their link to this era.

It built a bridge between a time that seemed far away and showed it as relevant, our ties to the past as strong as ever.

Soon Blood Swept Land and Seas went on tour and everywhere it went to saw increased visitors. And I’m not talking a slight bump, I’m talking an increase of over 1000%.

Poppies at Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Visitors view Blood Swept Land and Seas during its tour stop at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

This new style of mass remembrance didn’t stop with the poppies.

Arts programme, 14-18 Now, devised a series of events, running from 2014-2018, to commentate 100 years since The First World War.

Perhaps the most incredible was 2016s, ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’ which marked 100 years since The Somme. Young men, dressed as WW1 soldiers, each one representing a soldier who died in the battle, descended on Britain’s cities. They sang a trench favourite ‘we’re here because we’re here’, before falling into silence and passing out the individual details of the soldiers they portrayed.

Once more the display created national interest. Once more the individual loss was the focal point.

we're here becuase we're here, in Glasgow
‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’ in Glasgow
one of the we're becuase we're here cards
One of the ‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’ cards given out to the public

So what does this new form of mass remembrance mean for history? 

Well, for one thing it shows that people are really interested in history. Fantastic! 

But more importantly, it shows that we can stretch the boundaries when it comes to telling history. 

During the commemoration of 100 years since the First World War, it was not the conventional history telling that resonated. The template exhibitions, documentaries and books were all there, but they weren’t what captured the imagination.

And this tells us 2 things key things:

1 . People are interested in history, but not always the kind of history we’re selling. This is a great opportunity to take chances! For example we can look to how 14-18 Now and The Tower of London have done an amazing job with merging history. And it doesn’t stop there. This is a chance for us to explore the boundaries of how we tell history!

Exhibitions that blend experience with archival objects, and play with the perimeters of written word and visuals. Books that embrace new narrative and language styles. The expansion of documentary formats into podcasts and YouTube. There is a whole world of opportunity out there, just waiting to be pioneered.

2 . People are interested in people. I know this may seem obvious! But I think the popularity of these projects shows us that there is a lot of room to build upon, when it comes to telling what we may have previously thought of as, everyday mundane stories.

When we look at battles we either tell the story as a whole or pick out one incredibly notable person. A leader, a saviour, a hero. But its clear that people also want to hear about the average Joe. The people with normal lives and jobs, thrown into these unimaginable situations.

If it was a choice between watching an hour long documentary on the Battle of the Somme or an hour long documentary on what happened to 5 different people during that battle… I know the one I’d watch.

What do you think? Will this new form of mass history change the game? Or is it a fad that will die out? Let me know in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter or Facebook

Thank You, David: One ugly woman’s message to David Starkey

This week historian David Starkey, was quoted as saying: ‘

The only chance I have of being on TV again is if I were very ugly. I think only old, ugly women can get on TV. Like Mary Beard,

What a delight!

But it may come as a surprise to many (who have probably heard a few of my feminist rants or seen me light up your tellybox briefly, championing the women’s suffrage movement) to hear that I owe David Starkey, historian and broadcaster, a great debt.

He has been my teacher for many a year, and in the last couple of days I’ve found out that I keep learning valuable lessons from him.

So where to begin? We might as well start with a thirteen-year-old girl, who loved history, and had grown out of Horrible Histories. I found Starkey’s biography on Elizabeth I on a bookshelf in my granddad’s house one day, and although I didn’t understand half of it, I still ploughed through it.

That book sparked a love affair with Elizabethan history that didn’t end.

I used to beg for us to watch his documentaries on the television, used to ask my dad if he’d explain what certain turns of phrase meant. Because Starkey didn’t speak to me, not really. He wasn’t there for a young northerner with a borderline obsession for a Tudor ruff and the six wives of Henry VIII.

He spoke to people who spoke like him who had been educated like him. And it wasn’t until I was older, halfway through my degree, that I realised Starkey had taught me my first big lesson: history is not kind to women.

I spend a lot of time in my job, being angry at how history has treated women. Thanks for that too, David. You started me young there. Whilst you were kind of saying, poor old Anne Boleyn got what she deserved, I was shouting WHAT ABOUT HENRY! into the pages of my books.

It didn’t stop there, evidently. So cheers for that – thanks to you, I’ve successfully made a career out of vindicating forgotten women in history.

And this week, you’ve taught me that it’s not just history books that treats women with disdain – or worse, leaves them out entirely.

We should also be afraid of those who hold the power over history; who can bend it and warp it and change it. Because if you hold authority over the past, it’s quite likely that you hold authority over who gets to talk about it.

And it’s funny, isn’t it, how there’s quite a lot of people who seemed to have listened to David over the years – like I did, once – when he has called books by female historians ‘historic Mills & Boon’, when he launched a scathing attack on what he referred to as ‘feminised history’, stating that female (and female readership, dear reader, let’s not forget that), can reduce great histories – like that of Henry VIII (you know, that guy in history who nobody has heard of, talks about, has a series of biopics…) – to soap operas.

So thanks, David. You’ve spent a good long while reducing female historians to airheads who can’t tell history straight, and I think you might have rubbed off on a few folk.

In the last month alone, Dr Fern Riddell was subjected to abuse after asking to be referred to as Dr rather than Miss, and I myself – a curator and specialist in women’s suffrage – was targeted after appearing on several documentaries about the centenary of the first female voters.

I was told I needed plastic surgery, whilst talking about the suffragettes. Lucy Worsley is attacked constantly for her appearances on TV, despite arguably now being the most famous public historian in the country.

And don’t even get me started on how Goddess of goddesses Mary Beard – the person solely responsibly for my Classics degree – is treated by the public.  

And you’re not stopping yet, are you David? Because we’ve gone from being too pretty to being ugly and old. We’ve gone from feminising and romanticising history, to spoiling it for everybody else by keeping the righteous men off the screens.

There is a consistent problem here, that however women are telling the stories –  they are not telling it right. And its thanks to you, David, that experts like Dr Riddell, and young, early-career women like myself, are being subjected to the abuse.

And you’ve been fanning the flames for so long, it’s about time you got a burn yourself.

So thanks, David. From your elitist, misogynistic drivel, I learnt that women empower other women, and they are on screen not because of how they look, but because they say things right.

Thanks, David, because growing  up with you on the telly has taught me that diversifying public and exposing people to experts who aren’t white middle-class men is crucial

Growing up, I always loved history, but history didn’t seem to be for me. History wasn’t for a young northerner who didn’t apply for Oxbridge. It was for wars, kings, and men talking about men.

And now? History is about the home, the streets, BAME people, women, working classes, middle classes, kids, grown ups. There are silly songs, but there are also moments of passion and vibrancy, coming from different accents, genders. When you make history for men alone, it stops being relevant.

So thanks, David, for putting yet another nail in the coffin of your career. Blame women all you like.

Blame Beard, Worsley, Ramirez.  The only thing that’s keeping you off our screens is your branch of patriarchal, dominating history simply isn’t the history the world wants to see anymore.

I’ve spent this year shouting loudly about women who were bullied and abused in their question for representation, so I’m not afraid to carry on their fight.

The only person hurting your career, David, is you. History is for women – not to be feminised, but to explore new, diverse and forgotten narratives. When women are the best for the job, despite how they look, what they wear, how they speak, then they’ll get the job.  And you, my friend, and the elitist, misogynist tales you have so long been allowed to tell, will be over. 

Now go and sit in the corner with Richard Dawkins and think about what you’ve done.

Helen Antrobus is a curator and expert in suffrage. You can find Helen at The Manchester Peoples Museum and on Twitter.

Why are we so awful to female historians?

Recently there has been yet another spate of female history experts being undermined.

F Yeah History writer and curator extraordinaire, Helen Antrobus appeared on BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are.

She was there to talk about suffrage, and she did her job perfectly; explaining the suffrage movement and the 1911 census boycott in an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and understandable way . So of course, after doing her job so well, the comments rolled in:

comments 1

comment 2

*By the way because I’m nice I’ve removed these peoples usernames

Helen immediately shut this down and wrote a quick reminder that she’d been there to chat about an era of history she is an expert in, which seemed to have been forgotten… Helen tweet
But of course, Helen isn’t the only woman who has spent the last few days fighting to be recognised for her history expertise.

The very talented historian, Fern Riddell was also undermined, after a fellow historian ‘skimmed’ her recent book on Suffragette Kitty Marion and felt she’d put emotion over fact, which he believed was invective of the clear ‘gendered methods’ between male and female historians

This of course quickly descended into people tearing apart Ferns’ career, right to expertise and questioning whether she truly had the PHD she ‘claimed’ to have.

Just like Helen, Fern immediately clapped back: Screen Shot 2018-06-14 at 19.11.07

Both women we’re immediately joined by many others supporting them, and both proved themselves to be brave as well as  more than capable of rising above the bullshit that’s been thrown at them. And that’s a really great skill to have, because right now:

They’re going to get this the rest of their careers

We are AWFUL to women in history. Both in terms of women in history and women who work in history.

If you’re a women in a public facing history role, then chances are you’ve had your entire worth questioned over:

  •  What you look like
  • If your qualifications actually make you an expert.

And this isn’t just the dark corners of the internet. It’s the rising problem of male only history panels. The disparity in pay that is very much still prevalent. That female history experts on TV are given way more stipulations over what they wear than their male counterparts.

Highly intelligent women being stripped of their passion, knowledge and hard work; instead simply boiled down to their looks and perceived educational legitimacy.

I think we can all agree that this is bullshit of the highest order. 

To change this for good we all need to work together. Take the amazing new initiative in America, Women Also Know History. A project started by female history experts to promote women working in history, and make it easy for people to find a female expert; ending the all male guest panels and talks because of the lame excuse that nobody could find a relevant female expert. HERE THEY ARE FOR YOU!

Projects like this are incredible, and they are changing the history landscape for good! But these projects are also really rare. And that’s  because it takes everyone putting aside differences to work together as one.

A united front. Differences aside, grudges on the back burner, judgement not welcome. It’s a big ask. But its the only way to make meaningful change.

So, here are 3 small ways we can start uniting as a community

1.Stop Tearing Each Other Apart

Sounds simple right? But women tearing down other women is still a huge problem. Now don’t get me wrong, in general history is a wonderful supportive place to be, it’s a world full of hybrid Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws, it’s truly a beautiful thing.  

BUT the stakes in history can be high, because its often not just years of work at stake, but livelihoods too.

So it’s understandable then, that when people feel they’ve been overlooked, belittled or smeared, that they lash out.

But no matter how carthatic it may be, it’s doing SO MUCH HARM.

Whether it’s bitching to a friend that someone only got a TV gig because they can ‘bat their eyes for the camera’, rolling your eyes and undermining someone researching the same era as you, or even going so far as to tell people to straight up never work with someone – it’s hurting not just that person but you too.

In a field where women already have to work twice as hard for less chance at a job, we need more of us, not less. 

Putting each other down doesn’t do anything other than create less opportunity, and make it ok for other people to bash women in history.

2. So let’s talk!

If you don’t agree with someone’s research conclusions or have an issue with something they’ve said or done, then talk to them.

And I don’t mean by @ing them in a public message.

Slide on into those DMs, send an email and create a meaningful conversation. Because if you’ve written a 15,000 word dissertation, a 30,000 word thesis or a 60,000 word book, then I believe in your ability to write a 50 word email.

And don’t just stop at that little email!

Get on social media and discover new people, new work, new ways of telling history. Things you like and things you don’t. Expand your personal bubble and say hi to people, start conversations with history experts and lovers both big and small.

You’ll be not only creating your own positive community but also inadvertently building bonds and bridges outside your personal circle.


3. Start working to build a better tomorrow. 

Yes. I know. It’s cheesy. But it’s true. 

It doesn’t have to be big, it can be small and take next to no effort! Start by doing more to  celebrate the achievements of others in your field. Recommend their latest book, retweet their project, just tell people about the cool stuff they’re up to. Spreading each others work makes everyone more visible.

But most of all, don’t forget to leave the door open for the people behind you. 

Campsite rules people. Leave things in a better state than you found them. That means working to make it easier for others to work in history.

So, say no when everyone on a history panel is a white middle aged man. Stand with your colleagues when they need support. Check in and make sure people are ok when they’re getting battered with abuse.

And make more opportunities for people just starting out. Just because you got in by one route doesn’t mean everyone else can or should. PHD’s are great, but not everyone has one or the ability and privilege to be able to do one. Unpaid internships and apprenticeships were once the only road, but relying on them has meant we’re losing so many amazing voices.

Remember: The more we stand together, the more we grow. The more we grow, the more unstoppable we become. And so we can change what history holds for the women that come after us. 

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