Material culture and the making of solidarity
The miners’ strike workshops were developed alongside an ongoing project called Banner Tales, which is a collaboration between geographers and Glasgow Museums staff. This work has encouraged us to reflect on the relationship between material cultures and the makings of solidarity. In both projects we have been involved in using banners and other forms of political ‘material culture’ as part of collective events. These events have aimed to create an environment within which to engage with political memory, but also to record and articulate different experiences of trade unionism, political campaigns, solidarity work and community organizing. Developing the projects in relation to material cultures has offered a way into aspects of political organizing that are often neglected, while also offering possibilities for thinking about the politicized articulation of such histories in the present.
One of the key aspects of the Banner Tales project has been to explore different ways of using the banner collection of Glasgow Museums to actively engage with the knowledge and experiences of communities in the city. These banners come from trade unions, women’s co-operative guilds, the peace and anti-apartheid movements, among others. The project has been oriented towards taking banners into different parts of Glasgow, with events in Nitshill, Castlemilk, Barmulloch and Govan, to draw on the experiences of people involved in trade union, political and other organizing in their own communities. This has been a productive experience, enabling new questions to be asked about the banners. It has made clear that these aren’t static artefacts but have been used, reworked and re-envisioned through different struggles.
At a workshop in Govan in 2015, for example, there were discussions of a Glasgow Shipwrights Banner which had purportedly been made for the 1884 franchise demonstrations. Participants questioned, however, why sections of the banner appeared to have been rewritten and painted over. Analysis by Glasgow Museum staff after the event revealed that the banner had been initially made for demonstrations to repeal the 1871 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which had outlawed picketing and other core trade union activities. This reworking of the banner gives a clear sense of how it was a dynamic artefact used in various campaigns for political and trade union rights in the 1870s and 1880s. It also emphasizes the importance of the role of trade unions in struggles for democratic rights, something Richard Leonard, who spoke about the Banner at the workshop, related to the provisions of the 2015 Trade Union Bill.
Engaging with the banners and broader material cultures has foregrounded a wider consideration of agency – of who matters in solidarity movements and trade union organizing — and drawn out what is often hidden or under-valued labour involved in political campaigns. The most recent Banner Tales event focused on the anti-apartheid movement in Glasgow, and was held in association with Glasgow Caledonian University who hold the archives of the Scottish Anti-Apartheid Movement. Discussion turned at one point to how political activism has changed since the 1970s and 80s. One of the participants talked about the disadvantages of having to do huge amounts of mundane labour such as cutting stencils and writing envelopes for members, giving a sense of the time-consuming work of correspondence to develop connections. And of course, the labour of making the banners themselves. Such material work is easily forgotten in histories which prioritize and analyze political texts or focus on the activities of prominent political figures. It also offers ways of challenging existing accounts of the gendering of trade union work and political activism.
In both projects we have produced illustrated booklets as part of the work, with testimony from the workshops, events and interviews. This is part of us making a small contribution to the material cultures of the left. By distributing the booklets through museums, radical bookshops, heritage events and so on, we hope that these inspiring stories of making solidarity from below reaches a wide and varied audience. Most importantly though, we’ve been able to use these booklets to develop new connections and support ongoing activism, such as the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, which continues to highlight and seek redress for police violence during the miners’ strike. In a context where university impact agendas often depoliticize and individualize relations between academic research and communities beyond the academy, such relationships are a reminder of the salience of the History Workshop tradition of active political engagement and solidarity.
David Featherstone is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Glasgow. His publications include Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism (Zed Books, 2012).