Diana proudly stands in front of the museum at night

Preserving Somers Town’s heritage was a mission for Diana. Through the People’s Museum: A Space for Us, she’s doing that and more.

Diana Foster, People’s Museum: A Space for Us, Somers Town, London, UK
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Somers Town is Diana’s home.

Its culture, history and people are an integral part of who she is. But Somers Town was losing its identity and voice. Caught between three stations – Euston, St Pancras International and King’s Cross – and facing major redevelopment, the things Diana loves were endangered.

Diana was determined to preserve Somers Town’s working-class heritage – a London district she’s called home since 1987. Inspired by its radical and reforming past, and present-day festival of cultures, she set out to support a community, and create a space where locals and visitors could celebrate the town’s culture and history.

It wasn’t easy. The People’s Museum: A Space for Us – as it would come to be called – didn’t benefit from government funding, so Diana and the team turned to fundraising to achieve their goals.

Situated on Phoenix Road, the museum has gone from strength to strength. ISG was on hand to help, whether Diana needed day-to-day building and decorating work, or community and corporate engagement advice.

Since opening, the museum has flourished into more than a preservation effort. Diana has provided a social space for the community, restored and brought famous artwork home, and she’s actively unearthing local histories by engaging local artists and performers, giving them a platform to showcase their work.

Diana and the People’s Museum aren’t just protecting the culture of Somers Town – they’re doing so much more – they’re creating a sense of place.

Protecting an area at risk

For some, Somers Town is simply a passage between international and national rail, tube services and bus routes. To Diana, it’s an area of rich culture and community. From Mary Shelley to utopian housing reformers, the area has been home to some of the world’s most creative, influential and forward-thinking individuals. Diana comments: “What’s core to the area is the legacy of innovative housing pioneers and the social housing they created. The stories of radical thinkers, reformers and un-common people make for the area’s rich and diverse history.”

However, recent decades promised an uncertain future for Somers Town and the area’s social housing. Threat of redevelopments gave way to the very real possibility that Somers Town could lose its heritage, its community, its identity. Someone needed to act, so Diana took action.

Diana speaks to a group inside the museum during an event
Diana speaks to a group during an exhibition at the museum

Creating the museum

In 2016 – years before the museum opened – Diana recorded locals speaking about their memories of the area for a film: ‘Spirit!’ Aptly named after the area’s community spirit, the film was created in response to fears that HS2 and other redevelopments would drastically reshape the area. Little did she know then, just how much the team would achieve.

“A lot of commuters come through the area. I want them to notice they’re not just traversing through a corporate corridor. It’s an estate, a community – full of culture and stories.”

Diana Foster, People’s Museum: A Space for Us

During the production of the film, Diana founded Somers Town History Club – a community that would one day become the People’s Museum. The club ran numerous community events, created a children’s book, supported online education, and designed hoarding for outdoor mural displays to keep local spirits up.

It was at this time that Diana and the group also published their first of three books on the area – ‘Spirit! A museum for Somers Town’. The book followed the film and set the tone for future publications – co-curated compilations with local voices and academic contributions.

Diana and the team didn’t stop there – and they needed space. A space to present and preserve the area’s ceramic artwork, showcase the heritage, run events, bring people together, and give the community a voice. Government funding wasn’t on the cards, so they made the most of fundraising. That’s where the name came from. Funded by local, everyday folk, it truly is a “People’s Museum”.

Diana speaks to two ladies at an event. She holds a coffee in one hand. One of the ladies is showing a piece of art.
Diana speaks to two ladies during an event

The museum today

Located in the heart of Somers Town – on Phoenix Road, right next door to King’s Café – the People’s Museum is a mainstay in the local community. While the space is important, it’s more than a building. It’s a collective that harks back to the first days of Somers Town History Club. From creating books to a new, updated film on people’s memories of the area, Diana and the team continue to record and showcase the area’s voice. They’re determined to tell locals’ stories and preserve Somers Town’s working-class heritage.

They aren’t just preserving the area; they’re helping the local community find its voice. Diana and the team support the community and celebrate people’s achievements by providing a platform for local writers, comedians, musicians and artists. A recent exhibition saw disabled artist and activist Keith Armstrong present his work – an assortment of unique art pieces created with a typewriter – to audiences from the local area and beyond. Musical performances from locals include a standout rendition from Tina Swaysey in 2023. Tina is a member of the band Oh! Gunquit, from Somers Town. Other events range from a book launch on 1980s badge culture to a Unity theatre reunion. There’s never a dull day at the People’s Museum!

Locals aren’t the only visitors. The museum attracts everyone from tourists to the Mayor of Islington. Organised walking tours run by Stephen McCarthy, director at the museum, bring tourists to the local area and the museum. Diana explains why they do this: “A lot of commuters come through the area. I want them to notice they’re not just traversing through a corporate corridor. It’s an estate, a community – full of culture and stories.”

An assortment of old, common household items

The museum is home to an assortment of relics from Somers Town's history

ISG’s Amy Cambridge, social value manager, and Danny Bryan, project director, first met Diana when researching how ISG could support community organisations in the area. Amy comments: “It was only after spending a few hours in the People’s Museum that I understood how important this space and Diana’s programmes are. You’ll be talking national politics, then local consultation, then someone will start playing the piano in the background and the conversation moves on. It’s full of life – rarely quiet!” Amy and Danny knew they had to get involved and stayed in contact with Diana – providing guidance on corporate engagement and helping with the occasional building or painting job.

On his experience with the People’s Museum, Danny Bryan comments: “It’s refreshing in so many ways. The People’s Museum’s energy and enthusiasm for what they represent is remarkable. I thoroughly enjoy our engagement with them. We’re only at the beginning of our relationship. Soon, we’ll have many more stories to share.”

Recovering the lost artwork of Somers Town

A celebrated part of Somers Towns social housing is the associated artwork by sculptor Gilbert Bayes. Its unusual to put art in social housing, but the developers of the time wanted to create fairy-tale estates.” They employed Bayes, who created a series of figurines to sit atop washing lines. These sculptures are synonymous with Somers Town, and they belong to the community. However, many, if not most, of these sculptures have disappeared – likely stolen over the years.

In August 2022, while attending a Museum Association event as a finalist for the Radical Changemaker Award, Diana discovered two of the lost sculptures were being sold at an auction house in Florida, US, with an estimated going rate of £6,000 each. Diana reached out to Museum Association peers for help, but with the auction being in a week, there wasn’t enough time to approve funding.

Diana wasn’t about to give up. She turned to people once again, remarkably raising the £13,000 required from locals, the Bayes Trust, Origin Housing, and other donors. One woman even donated her grandmother’s inheritance. “It’s how my grandmother would’ve wanted the money to be spent,” she remarked.

Five statues are lined up on top of a shelf. In the foreground, a group gathers for a conversation.

The museum has now brought five of the statues back to where they rightfully belong

What’s next for Diana and the People’s Museum?

“More room” responds Diana when asked about what she wants for the People’s Museum in the future. She says she also wants to build: “A reputation for interesting events with interesting artists with interesting things to say.” Diana knows she can’t solve the world’s social problems, but we can all make things better by supporting people and initiatives like the People’s Museum. 

As for ISG’s future with the People’s Museum, Amy Cambridge puts it clearly: “We’re keen to work more with the People’s Museum, so Diana can do more for her community. A community that has lived in the very same area for a lifetime."

“It’s refreshing in so many ways. The People’s Museum’s energy and enthusiasm for what they represent is remarkable. I thoroughly enjoy our engagement with them. We’re only at the beginning of our relationship, so in the near future we’ll have many more stories to share.”

Danny Bryan, Project Director, ISG

If it wasn’t for Diana and the team, Somers Town would have long since become unaffordable for the local community. The social housing is still there and will continue to be there. While “change is inevitable” says Diana, she hopes it can be done in a sensitive way – retaining the buildings and function spaces that are important for society.

What started out as an effort to retain history, has flourished into something more. There’s more work to be done, and the area is still endangered, but Diana has given a voice to Somers Town; securing its working-class culture and setting the stage for a stronger, more optimistic community.

Learn more about Diana and the People’s Museum by visiting their website.


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