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Rochdale Pioneers museum reopens
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published by the Guardian's Social Enterprise website, 2012
The nearest that the international cooperative movement has to a place of pilgrimage has reopened its doors. The original building where the Rochdale Pioneers started their cooperative grocery store in 1844 has been a museum for over eighty years, but has recently been closed for major building works and a complete facelift. The scaffolding and hoardings have now come down and the museum reopened on October 29 th , just in time to welcome several bus loads of international visitors who made the short trip to Rochdale from the Co-operatives United conference and exhibition in Manchester .
Dame Pauline Green, President of the International Co-operative Alliance , was there for the informal tea-and-cakes opening ceremony. Describing the building as “the spiritual source of cooperation throughout the world”, she recounted a recent visit she had made to Argentina, where children at the ‘Pioneros de Rochdale' primary school had performed a play for her about the story of the 28 Rochdale men who, tired of being overcharged and sold poor quality goods, had decided to contribute a pound apiece and start their own cooperatively run business. “The Rochdale Pioneers story has an enormous impact around the world. The Pioneers set in train the principles of cooperation which are used across the world today,” Pauline Green said.
Indeed, the Pioneers museum in Toad Lane is arguably better known abroad than in Britain . Somewhat to the town's surprise, Rochdale was formally declared by the ICA at its World Congress last year in Mexico to be the World Capital of Co-operatives following a proposal put forward by Latin American delegates. The town – not precisely a conventional tourist destination - is now slowly coming to terms with its celebrity status in cooperative circles and has erected new welcome signs, commemorating 2012 as the International Year of Co-operatives, on the main roads into the town centre.
The museum's facelift has been overseen by the Co-operative Heritage Trust which is also responsible for the National Co-operative Archives , housed in Holyoake House in the cooperative quarter of Manchester . The Trust successfully attracted a £1.5m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund towards total project costs of about £2.3m, most of it used to construct a side extension to the Toad Lane building to accommodate stairs and a lift, to create a new top floor education and resources room, and to commission new exhibition materials and displays. Additional support came from, among others, Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council (which provided the necessary land for the extension) and the Co-operative Group .
What has not changed during the facelift is the front ground-floor room which visitors enter when they arrive at the museum. “The project has retained the unique experience of stepping into the original shop, just as the first members would have on December 21 st 1844,” said Stephen Yeo, chair of the Co-operative Heritage Trust. There is, therefore, the disorientating effect of moving straight from a modern town centre back into a sparsely-stocked nineteenth century shop with little more than butter and sugar on display.
Beyond, the remainder of the ground floor and all of the first floor are given over to display materials, recounting the developing story of cooperation in Britain and abroad. The first floor displays are perhaps the highlight of the new museum, packing a great deal of information into a relatively small physical space.
According to Stephen Yeo, it is too easy to get the wrong idea of the Rochdale Pioneers. The famous photograph of thirteen of the original members, looking be-whiskered and middle-aged, was in fact taken in 1865, twenty-one years after the cooperative had been started. As Stephen Yeo told his audience at the opening event, most of the Pioneers in 1844 were young men. William Cooper, the society's first cashier and executive officer, was only in his early twenties, for example.
The main funder for the museum facelift, the Heritage Lottery Fund, is clearly pleased with the result of its contribution. “This is an iconic monument. It is truly humbling thought that this is where the global cooperative movement started. It shows how ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” Sara Hilton, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund North West, told her audience at the opening. “The development of the cooperative movement is an important part of our social history, both for local communities and for people across the world.”
Interestingly, Rochdale 's Toad Lane museum is not the only cooperative museum to have just reopened with new exhibition materials. The former home of Alphonse Desjardins , who together with his wife Dorimène established and built the network of credit unions which have become the major Canadian cooperative federation Desjardins, now offers a fascinating account of the early days of cooperation in Québec and beyond. The house is in the historic town of Lévis , across the St Lawrence river from Québec city.
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