Museums devoted to social history make a change from art galleries or country houses, and a number of museums in different parts of the country offer a fascinating window into the lives of generations past. The People's History Museum, Manchester, provides an insight into democratic agitation, trade union activism and protest throughout the centuries, ranging from Peterloo to the Miner's Strike, and has an impressive collection of banners. It also contains exhibits on working-class leisure activities.
Beamish, Northumberland, is a 'living museum' with engaging recreations of North-Eastern life in the 1820s and the Edwardian age. It boasts a working farm, a colliery village, and many other attractions (thanks to Jenny for mentioning it; her photograph of the Beamish fire station adorns the 'cover' of this edition).
Finally, for readers in the London area, the Jewish Museum will reopen later this month (17 March) after undergoing major refurbishment. Among many new installations and exhibits, it will include an evocation of an East End Jewish street, and a seventeenth-century Venetian Ark that was found in Northumberland.
Archive Films from the BFI
Those interested in the way we were might also look at the BFI's channel on YouTube. This treasure trove contains hundreds of rare archive films, some well over a hundred years old. There are films on all subjects, from the serious to the frivolous—I don't think I've ever seen a more convivial performance than that of Victorian comedian Tom Green in the 1897 filmOld Man Drinking a Glass of Beer. The section on Edwardian England contains footage of football and cricket matches, a Boer War propaganda film, and coverage of Preston egg rolling from 1901. There are also many films from the thirties and forties, and Springtime in an English Village(1944) is particularly poignant.
The public information film The Mystery of Marriage (1932) further shrouds its subject in mystique. It enlightens viewers about bees, who act as somewhat inefficient matchmakers between flowers ("Relying on someone else to arrange one's matrimonial affairs is often a depressing business"), comments approvingly on the sensible social habits of mould, which "grows forward, hoping to find a life partner, but if the stranger turns out to be a relation, they don't dream of marrying," and notes that coyness in accepting presents is not confined to the spider world. Priceless.