Francis, R.: May 1996


The early years of the 1990s have given rise to a new form of public exhibition in the United Kingdom: the People's Show - an up-front light-hearted celebration of popular culture in all its rich diversity. Its recent success has been nothing less than phenomenal, placing it in the same league as such other popular cultural phenomena as clackers, space-hoppers, skate-boards and Rubik's cubes. Each of these has, at a specific moment in time, captured the public imagination. The essential difference on this occasion is that the enthusiasm engendered by the People's Show has centred on the museum community. Furthermore, only now, after five years, does it appear that interest is finally waning.

Beneath the humour and celebration of the People's Show are to be found other, more complex and radical agendas. Cultural rights are at the forefront of these, manifest in an on-going debate between museums and the public. The issues under discussion include the nature of collectors, collecting, and collections.


The first People's Show was held at Walsall Museum and Art Gallery in May 1990. It was the brainchild of Peter Jenkinson and Jo Digger, conceived in response to the discovery of a private museum of Native American artefacts in the attic of a local resident (Digger 1994). Such, however, are the makings of popular legend. In fact, a project not dissimilar to the People's Show was undertaken the previous year, in 1989, by Stevenage Museum. This exhibition, called Collectamania, displayed the "weird and wonderful collections of fifteen local residents" (Pearce 1992).

Museums and galleries have long maintained close links with private collectors and drawn on their collections for exhibition purposes. Local libraries, archives, and museums have always depended heavily on local historians. And, in the world of high culture, galleries regularly exhibit private collections, most recently a selection of antiquities acquired by the collector George Ortiz and displayed at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1995. Walsall's association with the collector of Native American artefacts continues an established tradition of collaboration.

The first People's Show at Walsall proved to be enormously successful, attracting over 10,000 visitors, the single biggest attendance figure in the Museum's recent history (Mullen 1991). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Show was repeated in 1992 and, on this occasion, Walsall was joined by thirteen other Midland museums. The festival attracted almost 100,000 visitors across the region according to Walsall's press release in 1994. At the same time, Walsall organised a conference, The Politics of Collecting (10th and 11th June 1992), which sought to examine the wider implications of the People's Show and explore the power relationships that exist in and around museums.

A further nation-wide festival was held in 1994, involving fifty museums across the country. This event was launched at the Museum of London on 13 June with the opening of its own exhibition, Carry on Collecting. By the end of the year over one million people were expected to have been attracted to the festival and seen more than half a million objects on loan from five hundred local collectors (Digger 1994).

Cultural Rights and Popular Culture

The publicised aim of the People's Show was to "demonstrate the pleasure of collecting and show the secret world behind people's front doors" (Suggitt 1990). However, beyond this rather pat and superficial goal are other more complex and far-reaching objectives, which have to do with cultural rights and the exercise of power. The People's Show has contributed to and, in itself, been a manifestation of the equal opportunity debate which continues to rage within the museum community (Pearce 1993). In this particular instance, equal opportunities includes such issues as breaking down barriers, accessing museums, de-mystifying the profession, and validating popular culture. Such moves are long overdue; prompted, as Butler has observed, by a sense of guilt and a desire for absolution (Butler 1992).

One can also identify other hidden motives. In times of dwindling resources and increasing competition, the People's Show combines the twin virtues of being cheap and hugely popular. The first exhibition at Walsall was assembled in only two months on a budget of £2,500 (Suggitt 1990). Given its "bums on seats" quotient, the People's Show has obviously proven to be cost-effective, an all-important consideration in times of economic recession.

The issue of cultural rights was first discussed in the context of the People's Show during the conference at Walsall. It was suggested that the power of the museum to assemble, interpret, and display collections is a political one (Windsor 1992). Such power should not be used to represent only high art, but must also serve popular culture in all its diversity. Too often in the past, museums have failed to represent such interests. Steve Newsome, Director of the Smithsonian Institute's Anacostia Museum, argued forcefully that culture is the final frontier - the battleground on which human rights issues will be fought during the 1990s (Windsor 1992).

The People's Show has endeavoured to address the issues of pluralism and equal opportunities, albeit in a very specific way. At Walsall, the criteria for selection included race, age, gender and class. However, as Mullen has observed, the end result was more indicative than representative (Mullen 1991). Carry On Collecting at the Museum of London fared less well in this respect, with a high proportion of thirty-something white professionals amongst its collectors, including a disproportionate number of journalists. The social imbalance reflected here highlights another important aspect of the People's Show: its place and role within the community. The Museum of London does not have a captive local audience, and its exhibition contrasted markedly with that, for example, held by Islington Museum in a rented shop on Upper Street.

The key word in the cultural rights debate is empowerment: recognition, equality, inclusion, and democracy. Newsome told the conference delegates (mainly museum middle management), "I hate to tell you guys, but it's not you who are the arbiters of culture. It's the people" (Windsor 1992).

The People's Show has certainly endeavoured to be democratic: a show by the people, of the people, for the people. The public were invited to make choices, and these were allowed into the museum space and taken seriously - however, the curators did not entirely relinquish their own prerogative to make decisions (Suggitt 1990). People were encouraged, via local press, radio, and leaflet, to offer collections for display, but curators made the final selections, inevitably, for practical reasons. Visits were arranged to view collections in situ and the logistics involved were assessed. Curatorial intervention emerged again at the stage of dressing cases. Very few of the lenders to Carry on Collecting, for instance, were allowed to arrange their own collections.

Pearce has suggested that collections can be viewed as an extension of self, and that they provide a means of organising one's relationship with the external physical world (Pearce 1992). The meaning of a collection to its owner can only be understood fully in the way in which it is used, arranged, displayed, or stored in the home environment. Removing objects to a museum or gallery destroys this relationship. The People's Show has sought to address this difficulty in various ways, but the results have not been entirely satisfactory. The Museum of London asked collectors what their collections meant to them and quoted their replies in the exhibition. Walsall went further: quotes from the collectors were accompanied by photographs of them and their collections at home, in their natural habitat.

The People's Show has enabled the public to participate, to some extent, in the mechanism of "preserving and disseminating established, legitimated cultural knowledge" (Mullen 1991) - a role traditionally assigned to museums and, as a matter of course, associated with high culture. However, the Show has also enabled the public to participate in a much less worthy activity: voyeurism.

Private Collections and Secret Hordes

The People's Show has been criticised for being little better than a freak show - a politically incorrect but, sadly, perennially popular form of entertainment. Collectors are often perceived as being figures of fun: nick-named "anoraks" by Channel Four's Big Breakfast. They have been associated with eccentric and obsessional behaviour. It is unfortunate, in this respect, that Pearce has labelled one mode of collecting, that which probably accounts for most of the collections featured in the People's Show, "fetishistic."

Walsall's press releases have inadvertently contributed to this image of the collector, by emphasising the notion of "private collections," "secret hordes," and "secret obsessions of otherwise normal people" (Walsall press release 1994). The media, needless to say, have had a field day, with headlines such as: "privates on parade" (New Statesman 1992); "secret obsessions on display" (Hello! 1994); "obscure objects of desire" (Daily Telegraph 1994). The People's Show has received enormous press coverage. What is unfortunate is that so much of it has focused on collecting as an unusual, even "kinky," pastime, and therefore good for a laugh. But are we being encouraged to laugh with the collectors or at them?

One must question what part museums are playing in this process. Is the People's Show as egalitarian in practice as in spirit or does it, perhaps, entail an element of exploitation? We know from television game shows that people will readily volunteer themselves for ritual humiliation in front of millions of viewers. Andy Warhol decreed that we should all have our fifteen minutes of fame, and this is exactly what the People's Show has offered the public. Museums have taken advantage of this fact, adopting a popular and populist form of exhibition that involves minimal costs and generates maximum free publicity. In this respect the collectors have been exploited. The fact that they were willing victims does not necessarily absolve museums.

One further aspect of this line of criticism concerns the apparent legitimisation of obsessional behaviour. Some people may well have offered collections in order to validate their personal collecting habits. Certainly, many collectors do pursue their interests very seriously; they consider their collections to be historically significant in quasi-museum terms. Other collectors, however, are driven by less obvious sentimental or obsessional motives. Should all forms of collecting be validated in the same way, without distinction, in the context of a museum environment?

The nature of collecting figures prominently in the People's Show. At one level it demonstrates the pleasures of collecting. More profoundly, and referring back to the theme of equal opportunities, the Show has also served to compare and contrast professional and personal collecting habits. The museum curator is employed to collect, in order to build up a material record on society's behalf. The private collector gathers objects for his/her own personal, but no less valid, reasons. Significantly, the events programmes, which accompanied the exhibitions at Walsall and the Museum of London, included lectures about collections, collecting, and conserving and caring for objects. Sharing experiences may be an important part of democratisation: breaking down barriers, de-mystifying the profession, and empowering the people. However, there is always a risk that condescension on the part of the professionals will undermine this process.

Theories of Collecting>

One of the most fascinating themes addressed by the People's Show has considered why people collect. Collecting is a widespread activity and has gathered momentum this century. Studies have revealed that one in three Americans collect something (Pearce 1992). It is a phenomenon of increased leisure time and resources and is so widespread in the community that it obviously answers to a fundamental need (Pearce 1992). As such it merits serious attention by museums. The People's Show has sought to explore this issue by offering collectors' own explanations. But these, inevitably, have only answered the question at a superficial level. "I prefer the furry ones to the plastic ones" (Mullen 1991), "It's part of my childhood . . . They used to think it was a phase I'd grow out of" (Suggitt 1990); "I will not stop as long as there is room in the house for them" (Digger 1994).

Theories about collecting abound. Digger asserts that it is a playful activity which transcends the scale of consumption (Digger 1994). In the People's Show this delight is clearly evident, from both the comments of the owners and the responses of the visiting public. The comments book at Islington Museum, for example, includes the epithets "fun" (repeatedly) and "beautifully tacky." In contrast to this, Windsor refers to the texts of the Veda of India, supposedly the oldest record of human experience, which state that, in certain states of consciousness, the fulfilment of the individual becomes dependent on objects and the circumstances of the outside world (Windsor 1994). Freud, in his inimitable fashion, speaks of the collector directing his (for, at the time, collectors were usually men) surplus libido onto inanimate objects (Pearce 1992).

Martin Kelner offers a more accessible interpretation:

Life is all about acquiring STUFF, then acquiring more STUFF, maybe changing your STUFF round a little, then acquiring even more STUFF, then getting a bigger place because there's no room for all your STUFF, getting rid of some STUFF, then getting a smaller place because you haven't got as much STUFF. Then you die (Windsor 1994).

Pearce provides the most succinct theory of collecting >(Pearce 1992; Windsor 1994). She defines three basic methodologies: systematic collecting (constructing a collection of objects in order to represent an ideology); souvenir collecting (keeping objects that evoke the past and project it into the future); and fetishistic collecting (taking objects out of their original context and re-defining them in terms of self). Many of the collections presented in the People's Show would appear to fall into the last category. If this is the case, one can draw a direct parallel between these dispossessed collectors and their more revered predecessors, the Medicis and Gettys, whose collections fill many of our most illustrious cultural institutions.


Much of the debate surrounding the People's Show has centred upon the notion of culture and the various constructs that have been placed upon it. Newsome asserted that museums were "machineries of representation, reflecting the people back to the people" (Windsor 1992). However, for too long now, museums have been associated with high culture and the established canons of taste, reflecting only an elitist minority.

During the last fifty years there has been a gradual shift in emphasis. Both museum and public interests have moved away from royal heritage, high church, and landed gentry, towards social, local, and community history and life. Many social history museums now collect popular culture. The Museum of London actively acquires contemporary ephemera - even the Victoria and Albert Museum possesses a collection of Disney icons and mechanical robots. There is a rapport between these new museum collecting initiatives and the private collections that have been exhibited in the People's Show. In its attempt to present popular culture and reflect the tastes, interests, and obsessions of ordinary people, the Show is symptomatic of this change of emphasis.

The People's Show has clearly revealed that the public have strong visual tastes (Suggitt 1990). These tastes may veer toward what Windsor describes as "tat" (Windsor 1994) but the collections can, in their diverse and transient way, constitute an important part of the material evidence of popular culture. They document life at its most commonplace. It is also worth bearing in mind that taste is subjective: one man's electrical wiring diagrams are another man's Jackson Pollocks.

Mullen has written of the People's Show that "this abundant array of cultural artefacts invited viewers to refer to their feelings and understandings of family, friends, special events, vacation trips, gift giving, eating, dressing, and decorating one's home" (Mullen 1991). She goes on to say that, "rather than eschewing associations to that which entertains, these objects revel in being curious, silly, ironic, adorable, sentimental." The Show was created intentionally to celebrate the diverse cultural practices that exist in a modern pluralist society. Museums play an important part in the construction of cultural knowledge and should respond to the potential of popular culture as demonstrated in the People's Show.

So why then, as Butler has pointed out, have museums borrowed these collections for temporary exhibition but not sought them for permanent acquisition? She sees the People's Show as a tokenistic attempt to incorporate the material culture of the dispossessed on dominant-cultural terms (Butler 1992). At a mundane practical level, one might wonder how many of the collectors, if asked, would have been willing to part with their possessions. Photographs of Walsall collectors and collections have been added to the Museum's permanent holdings. However, it can be argued that commissioned photography is more akin to high art than representative of popular culture.

This paper has made no attempt to draw any specific conclusions in defence or otherwise of the People's Show. Instead, it has focused on the various divergent issues that have informed and emerged from the Show. These issues are centred upon the wider agendas of equal opportunities and cultural rights, and, as such, the People's Show has therefore contributed to an on-going and important debate within the museum community. It has challenged the conventional notion of what museums are and it has found a lively and accessible, albeit finite, medium through which to invite cultural participation. The arguments may not yet have been fully explored, and there is undoubtedly a measure of exploitation in this process, but it is at least a step in the right direction.

References and Bibliography

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