It's a story that takes in the arrival of the talkies, wartime refugees, strike action, Radio 1 DJs and Status Quo. The history of the Musicians' Union may not be as well-known as that of the National Union of Mineworkers, but it has a long and rich history behind it as a new exhibition opening at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow in January reveals.

The exhibition, Musicians' Union: A Social History, has been curated by Professor Martin Cloonan and Doctor John Williamson of Glasgow University who have spent the last four years researching the union's archive which is housed at Stirling University. It will reflect on its long and turbulent history.

The union's story began in 1893 with the establishment of the Amalgamated Musicians' Union in Manchester and Birmingham, followed by branches in Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle. It would become the Musicians' Union in 1921.

In the early years it was concerned with the number of musicians from Europe and America getting jobs in the UK. "When Belgian refugees from the war were arriving in Glasgow in 1915 or thereabouts, the reaction of musicians fearful of them putting local musicians out of work is a narrative that's still playing out 100 years later in all professions," points out Dr Williamson.

At the start of the 1930s the union opposed the arrival of the "talkies" because of the threat they posed to musicians playing along to silent films in cinemas. This resistance to new technology was to become a common theme in the 20th century. By the 1960s and 1970s Radio One DJs, including Kenny Everett and John Peel, were complaining against the MU-negotiated policy of "needle time" which limited the number of records that could be played.

By 1980, however, with the union on strike over the threat of five BBC orchestras, including the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, being axed as part of cost-cutting measures, Everett even joined the union on the picket lines.

The relationship between the union and pop musicians was for a long time difficult, Doctor Williamson explains. "It has historically always been seen primarily for full-time orchestral musicians. The only reason pop musicians joined the union was because they had to in order to appear on television or tour America.

"I think more recently, though, the union's outlook has changed massively and legal and contractual advice is something that makes it quite appealing to younger musicians at the start of their career. It also provides services like instrument insurance. It is quite prosaic stuff. It is not campaigning for more pay. But it is things that make musician's lives better."

As well as photographs and illustrations from the union magazine, the Mitchell Library exhibition will also contain MU memorabilia. One of the items on show will be the band Status Quo's membership cards from the 1980s – around the time, Dr Williamson points out, that the band was breaking the Union's ban on members going to South Africa during the Apartheid era.

Along with the exhibition, The Mitchell will also host a two-day conference this month and a book by Professor Cloonan and Dr Williamson will be published in the spring. A website dedicated to their research is already up and running.

Musicians' Union: A Social History opens at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow on January 11 and continues until January 31. For more information visit