04/04/15 - Election! at the People's History Museum

With the UK general election looming at the beginning of May, there has been a lot of talk recently about voting and its relevance or lack thereof.  The People's History Museum's latest exhibition is tackling this issue head on and demystifying the political system in the process, which is something incredibly useful regardless of how politically aware you are.  Election! Britain Votes is an exhibition of two halves: the left hand side of the room details clearly the voting system, answering questions such as why we vote, moving all the way through to the exact details of forming a government; the right is a timeline covering the history of elections from the start of the twentieth century to the present day.  The beauty of such an exhibition and the reason it's so important is that it's a totally unbiased political lesson - the only 'agenda' it pushes is the importance of voting and of democracy.  

I'm not the world's most political person but, particularly in recent years, I feel like I've developed enough knowledge to know what I believe in and to hold my own in a general discussion of the current political situation.  With so much surrounding the upcoming election on TV (particularly Channel 4's dramatisation of the outcome of 2010's election Coalition and ITV's Leaders Debate that was on only the other night) and all over social media, it's refreshing to have an experience of politics that isn't about the people or the policies - it's purely about the process.  I'll admit that walking into the museum, I didn't have the clearest understanding of the ins and outs of how a government is created, and some of the statistics about who has the right to vote and the breakdown of politicians by gender, race and schooling were particularly interesting.  It's definitely worth a visit, even if you don't have a particular interest in politics - you may come away feeling differently, or at least you'll have a clearer idea of why you're not interested.

Each party was represented, not just the 'big three' and there were lots of well-placed questions for debate around the exhibition.  There was even a polling booth and ballot box with a chance to 'cast your vote' on issues such as whether to keep the current first-past-the-post system and if there should be quotas to correct the gender bias within government.  It's clear that the main aim here is to inspire discussion, not just pile on information.  Not only were the displays and infographics particularly accessible in their bright colours and clear concise explanations, the exhibition features a lot of interactive elements which included the chance to put together a campaign poster using magnets, a classic dressing-up opportunity and political Guess Who?  Simply genius.

There has been a recent upswing in talk of whether casting your vote is worth the time it takes, and Russell Brand has a lot to answer for in his encouragement of such political apathy, particularly in young people - which is particularly highlighted by the fact that his image is used on the first display of the exhibition.  Many would argue that this disengagement is due to politicians' lack of interest in our issues and therefore there is no incentive for us to vote.  Thinking this way is a vicious cycle.  Politicians will always pander to the people who are most likely to vote for them, hence why the priorities of an older demographic have dominated recent political promises.  Of course, it is everyone's right to vote or not as they see fit but it's my opinion that once you forfeit your vote, you also forfeit the right to complain about whichever political party ultimately wins.   

For that reason, the most important aspect of the exhibition - more than the educational elements, more than the fun activities - is the iPad mounted to the wall which displays the voter registration page so that visitors can join the electoral roll.  No leaflets reminding you to register which would get lost at the bottom of your bag for the next three weeks before being binned, more than just a note on the wall beseeching you to go away and do the right thing; the PHM provide you with the tools to do it right there and then, showing how quick and easy it is.  

First impressions may fool you into thinking that the exhibition may not take long to look around but I was surprised by how much there was to see, read and engage with.  Make sure you give yourself chance to really take it all in!  On my visit, I found myself taking so much interest in one side of the exhibition that I ran out of time for exploring the other half before a museum attendant politely informed me they would be closing soon...although they were nice enough to encourage me to finish my game of political Guess Who? first!  A second trip is definitely on the cards for me, but the bits I did see were enough to make a lasting impression.  

The exhibition can be found at the People's History Museum, Manchester until 28th June 2015 and you can find out more information here.  The deadline on registering to vote is 20th April 2015 and can be done online here.  If you have any thoughts or comments you'd like to share, please do so on Twitter!  

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