When you think of a history festival, what comes to mind? Simon Schama waxing lyrical on 17th century Dutch culture? A walking tour of medieval churches? Or an exhibition showcasing Roman Empire pottery shards? If any of these suggestions ring a bell, then you may think that history isn’t for you.
Enter the Manchester Histories Festival. There’s not a whiff of Schama or any of his ilk in this ten-day extravaganza, nor any fusty musty guides tottering around buildings you couldn’t give two hoots about. But if you want proper history – the stories of Mancunians and their friends – then this could be the moment where history really comes alive. Want to know more about Hulme and Moss Side? It’s here. Interested in LGBT music? They have that. Fancy finding out more about an ancestor who served in World War One? You can do it.
Claire Turner is chief executive of Manchester Histories. She’s lived in Manchester for the past 23 years and has seen the biennial festival grow from a small two-day affair to a Greater Manchester-wide celebration with close to 200 events. This year the team is hoping for in excess of 30,000 visitors.
“In 2009, it was quite a traditional histories festival – talks, walking tours and film screenings, exhibitions – and about 4,000 people came along to that one,” Turner says. “We’ve changed it and turned it into a ten-day celebration. We’re really challenging who can tell history, who can be part of the festival. So we’re very different now. Anyone can put whatever they want on in the festival. We don’t say what theme it should be, we don’t say what the subject is, where you do it, how you do it, and we also don’t ask anyone for their credentials. There’s no vetting process, we just completely trust that people can do what they want to do, and what they think is important and needs to be told, and that they’ve got the skills and the knowledge and the experience to do that. It’s a huge beast to pull together but everyone is so passionate about it and people want to be part of it. We couldn’t do it without our volunteers, there’s absolutely no way.”
Even a cursory glance at the June programme gives you some idea of the work and effort put into the festival. From a communities histories day in Angel Meadow and craft workshops at NOMA to a tribute to Salford’s Ewan MacColl and an audience with the extraordinary activist Betty Tebbs, there’s something for everyone.
Turner says: “One of things I’m really proud about this year is that there’s a much wider diversity of people getting involved. And a lot more of the events are the sorts of things that people can join in and do and are creative rather than simply let’s passively listen. One of the events I think is fantastic is at the Jewish Museum called Photographing Cheetham Hill – Then and Now. Rather than just going and seeing a photography exhibition, you look at old photographs then work with a photographer and then you go out and take your photographs of Cheetham Hill.
“We’ve got such diverse stories to tell in Manchester and Greater Manchester. While the focus has been on things like Factory Records, we’ve got things like Strawberry Studios which is involved in the festival down in Stockport. And the Fusilier Museum in Bury is involved and they’re doing some work on Egypt working with families. There is such diversity of things that gives people real choice in this festival. A lot of our history relates so much to people’s lives, whether it’s about protest, music or meeting people.”
Social impact is important to Turner and her colleagues, and they are making huge strides in attracting a wide range of audiences.
“We reach people who don’t usually engage in history and heritage,” she explains. “So when I speak to traditional venues I say we get anywhere between 35 to 50 per cent who say this is the first time they’ve ever engaged in history and heritage. They’ll ask us how we do that. I can’t give a scientific example but I think it’s part of the tone we have. We don’t tell you what histories are important, we allow everyone to be part of it, and we encourage people to challenge what should be in a histories festival. Often people think that’s re-enactments and famous historians. That’s part of things that we do do but we don’t tell anyone what it should be. We reveal the histories that often don’t get talked about, which people do want talked about, not the histories that we’re all so familiar with about Manchester of football and the Haçienda and cotton.
“People want the moments that were important to their lives, the moments they could connect with. Things like going on a political demo or seeing your first film at Cornerhouse or going dancing at Belle Vue and meeting your partner. For example, there’s lots of music in this year’s festival but none of it is about the 80s. It’s about reggae, ballads, and sound systems in Moss Side and Hulme. It’s about classical music and World War One.”
Like so many arts and heritage initiatives, money is an issue. But Manchester Histories works hard to keep costs down and enjoys widespread support from local businesses, the council, Manchester University and Manchester Metropolitan University, as well as the Heritage Lottery Fund. I suspect much of the backing is due to Turner’s philosophy: history is for everyone.
“My mantra is ‘everybody loves history they just don’t know it yet’ because schools spoil history for a lot of people. I hated history at school yet at the same time I was saying that I was tracing my family tree, I just didn’t think it was history because it wasn’t important to what I perceived to be important history. If you’re interested in something, whether it be cricket or fashion, you can’t not be interested in its past, present and future, which makes you interested in history even if you don’t call it history and you’ve never thought of it as history.”
Main image: Victoria Baths
Manchester Histories Festival runs June 3-12, 2016 across Manchester and Greater Manchester. Many of the events are free but may require booking. For more information, click here.