- since 2011 -

'Of the city, by the city, for the city'

Monday, 18 July 2011

Exclusive: what you need to know about the new Museum of Liverpool, from the man in charge

With a name like Matthew Sweet [sic], you'd think that the presenter of BBC Radio 3 show Night Waves might take a shine to Liverpool. He begins his piece about its new museum with this line: "The city has a reputation for its uneasy relationship with the rest of Britain, its political separatism and its intense pride - and for talking about its uneasy relationship with the rest of Britain, its political separatism and its intense pride."

The new museum in context, next to the Graces

The new museum in context, next to the Graces

On a guided tour of the building, he makes obligatory reference to the Guggenheim Bilbao and poses three questions: "Does Liverpool need validation?" "Is Liverpool all mouth?" "To whom is this statement being made?" Then he ends by morphing into Alan Partridge and saying: "It all 'kicks off' at the Museum of Liverpool next week [and] 'you'll never walk alone' if you remember that you can always download four of these programmes from our website and our 'well-hard' arts and ideas podcast..."

'Kicks off'? 'Well-hard'? It kind of begs the question: who exactly does perpetuate preconceptions about Liverpool - the city itself, or the journalists who report upon it?

David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool

David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool

Friday morning, four days before the grand opening, and the director of National Museums Liverpool (NML) kindly spares a good half-hour to spell things out. David Fleming has held the post for a decade, having previously run Tyne & Wear Museums, Hull Museums and the Yorkshire Museum of Farming. In 1997 he was awarded the OBE for services to museums.

He's in charge of nine venues that make up the greatest collection of artefacts, paintings and specimens collectively held under single ownership in Britain. They are: the Conservation Centre, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool World Museum, Merseyside Maritime Museum and HM Customs & Excise National Museum, International Museum of Slavery, Sudley House, Walker Art Gallery, and (new) Museum of Liverpool. Overall they (www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk) attracted in excess of 2.5 million visitors in 2010.

I first interviewed Fleming in December 2005, when the International Museum of Slavery and Museum of Liverpool were still twinkles in NML's eye. He defined the former as "a sign of confidence and great statement about the capacity of Liverpool to see itself as more than just another regional city" and the latter as "almost unarguable in heritage circles [and which] will be one of the world's great museums." He also called it "a very exciting time to be running museums."

Back then the world was a simpler place. Nobody heeded whispers about false property booms and dangerous speculative bubbles. There was no credit crunch, no arts funding crisis, and seemingly no limits. After the 'Fourth Grace fiasco' about which I've blogged, NML picked up the pieces by announcing its intention to build a brand new museum at this sensitive waterfront location in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Appropriately, excavation work in 2007 revealed a 200-year-old dock with lock gates for vessels to load and unload whatever the tide, along with sandstone walls, cobbled surfaces and brick foundations of warehouses, all in excellent states of preservation.

Excavations in 2007 revealed 200-year-old dock gates

Excavations in 2007 revealed 200-year-old dock gates

At £72 million, the Museum of Liverpool is the final major fling of a construction boom that, along with all those ubiquitous flat-pack tower blocks, produced the massive Liverpool One retail and leisure complex, striking Echo Arena & BT Convention Centre and scenic Lime Street Gateway - unless you count Peel Holdings' ambitious but unimaginative plans either side of river.

There has been criticism, and the usual jangling in the press. The museum is part of a broader Mann Island mixed development that The Architectural Review has branded 'a missed opportunity that typifies Liverpool's muddled urban thinking'. Others insist that the age of self-consciously standout cultural buildings in this country has come and gone.

Heaven forbid they might have missed a keener point. From Zaha Hadid's Riverside Museum in Glasgow via The Hepworth in Wakefield to the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate, today's provincial museums and galleries are more than destinations or the sum of their parts - including their shiny exteriors. They are catalysts for civic pride and 'retention'. A reason for people to stay.

So, Mr Fleming, six years on...

On the grand opening of the Museum of Liverpool, what's your overriding emotion?

Excitement. You spend a long time living with a construction site, then an empty building with a lot of wiring and things like that going in, and it's amazing how close to the opening you get before the collections start going in. And it's not just collections, it's displays - you're devising a walk-through experience that is both entertaining and educational.

You don't get that anywhere else in the world. Disney, for example, are fantastically successful and do entertainment brilliantly, but they're not really educational. Museums have got a different role because we're trying to get across to people something more substantial - but if you do it in a dull way, you'll fail. You're always trying to think of ways that will engage people, from three-year-olds to 93-year-olds, so it's a big challenge and easy to get wrong. We've had this in our minds and on screen and paper for a long time, and now the real thing has taken shape.

On his sneak preview, Night Waves presenter Matthew Sweet said he expected "happy clapping" but "got a lot of discomfort and ambiguity" - your reaction?

I couldn't look at myself in the mirror if we just tried to entertain people. But if I go to a 15-year-old and say, 'Do you want to know why Liverpool is like it is?' he'll probably tell me to **** off. There are ways and means of getting people engaged with big messages. We're trying to explain why this city is like it is. Why is the most magnificent neo-classical building in this city? Why did Liverpudlians try to build the biggest church in the world in the 1920s? Why are Liverpool football fans so fanatical - because if you go to Sheffield, for instance, it's not like that.

When you're involved in the tourist industry like we are - we're part of what brings people to this city - if you're not careful you'll end up saying the sun shines all of the time, we've all got smiles on our faces, you'll find a friendly welcome and so on. We've all heard that and we know that nowhere is quite like that. I remember an interview on Yorkshire Television with a councillor from Scarborough who said you didn't need to go to Monte Carlo or Nice or San Tropez because Scarborough had it all. Then at the end, with the camera still rolling and the sound on, he smiled and said, 'If you believe that, you'll bloody well believe anything'. There's a serious point because you might well be happy and clapping when you come here, but you will also be moved by some of these stories.

The view across Canning Half-Tide Dock

The view across Canning Half-Tide Dock

People still talk about cities looking for their own 'Bilbao effect', but isn't it true that Liverpool was doing culturally-led regeneration - at the Albert Dock, for instance - long before the Guggenheim came along?

What they've got in Bilbao is a genuinely iconic piece of architecture that they plonked in the middle of a rough part of town. It's a modern art gallery with works shipped in from New York or whichever Guggenheim gallery it is, and changed every now and again. To me, it isn't part of the fabric of the city - you could be in Tokyo for all that you're conscious of being in Bilbao. That's not what we've got here. The only similarities are that both big new cultural buildings are next to the river, and they're both outstanding examples of modern architecture. What we've got is a museum, and it's the inside that makes the museum. It's of the city, by the city, for the city. There are extra dimensions to having a startling building in a fantastic setting. That's why people mention Bilbao in the same breath, but scratch the surface and they're completely different.

Could you clarify the situation with regard to the original architects, 3XN?

I can't say too much because we're still involved in legal activity. But what I will say is that we've ended up with a marvellous piece of modern architecture. That doesn't mean to say I was happy with everything, and obviously the fact that we fired the architects suggests that not all was well, and in time our version of events will emerge.

How would you characterise the press coverage - positive and negative - of the whole process?

For the last four years a lot of the emphasis has been upon the building. That gets frustrating eventually because, as I say, what we're really about is people going in. The outside will be of interest to many people, and they'll love it or loathe it. I think a lot will love it actually. But when the inside started to take shape, the fact that we were doing the Overhead Railway, looking at football and different communities etcetera, began to get an airing. And the local press took an interest in the fact that we've involved maybe 10,000 Liverpudlians in working out what displays to do, how to do them and where to put them.

Before the nearby International Museum of Slavery opened, like a lot of people I was ambivalent about its purpose, but one visit changed all that...

Again it's an example of a story that people need to know about - not just because it happened once but because it still has consequences now in shaping the modern world. If you don't understand the transatlantic slave trade, you won't have a clue how people of African descent have ended up in the Caribbean, how people like Jesse Jackson and Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell have governed America at the highest levels. And that's before we start talking about anything in this country. It's a terrifically serious subject with which we've worked very hard to engage people. People go there in very large numbers: a million-and-a-half people have been to that museum and it's only been open four years. It's also a different audience: 63% of visitors to the World Museum live in or around Liverpool, whereas it's 25% for the Slavery Museum with the largest group from Britain outside the North West. Different subjects have different audiences.

Hence the name, National Museums Liverpool...

Every single person that lives in the UK pays taxes to fund the museums in Liverpool, and we take that responsibility seriously. We can't just talk about Liverpool all the time. Theoretically and morally we are responsible to people who live in Grimsby and Hull and Bridlington, the other side of the country as it were. We're conscious that we need to have a national and international impact.

On that fiscal note and given this age of austerity, how would you react to a remark by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, from an interview in the FT Weekend, that 'the senses can be dulled by affluence' and there can be 'innovation through poverty'?

I recognise what he's getting at, and I can sense some truth in it. But I don't think there's much virtue in poverty. 'Oh well, you know, it makes people get off their backsides and do this and that'. It's an easy thing to say, and it would be easy for me to say that notwithstanding all the cuts in our budgets it's business as usual. It's not. But in the cultural sector there's never loads of money, it comes and it goes. Opportunities crop up and you compete for them.

The main way to put Liverpool at the front of the queue is to have great ideas. In the space of four years we've created two brand new museums that are world-class - and I can defend that statement on a global stage because I see the museums in Australia and the United States and France and Germany. If we're good at what we do in Liverpool, we can compete internationally with the best and raise money to spend on our educational impact. If there's no cash, you fall back on your strongest resource, which is your staff. I say to our staff: let's see through these lean times because better days will come again because they always do. History works in cycles.

On the NML website it says: 'We believe in the power of museums to help promote good and active citizenship, and to act as agents of social change'. That's some declaration...

You've got to stake your claim. It's a competitive world and if nobody's bothered about what you're doing, you're not going to do very well. My approach to museums has always been that they can be so significant, they can change the way people think. It's not, 'Here's a dinosaur with big teeth, weren't they scary?' It's about inspiring people to explore the wonderful world that dinosaurs were part of, and why they disappeared. It's the same with slavery, the same with the Museum of Liverpool. And particularly I think that we can get people from a poorer educational background to realise that the world has a lot of things to offer. That's why we've got that statement on our website. We can be 'agents of social change'.

Recently we've been working with Claire House, the children's hospice (www.claire-house.org.uk). Our joint promotional events bring more people to our museums and huge audiences that might not have known that Claire House was there. It's a beautiful partnership, and the point is that a good museum service is integrated with its area. It's got partners and friends and supporters all over the place, and together we can change the world. I don't know how else the world gets changed. Museums are part of that, and so are libraries. It's easy for them to get hit when the cuts are flying around. These are not luxuries that we can't afford, these are essential parts of life.

With that in mind, how do modern museums chime with today's digital obsession - why bother visiting in person when you can experience it virtually?

It's like watching TV compared with going to the theatre - not the same. In-person experiences can be life-changing. Why not just watch Disney or Pixar on the TV or online? Because it's an awful lot better to go to Disneyland and be part of it - and that's how museums work too.

'At £72 million, the Museum of Liverpool is the final major fling of a construction boom that, along with all those ubiquitous flat-pack tower blocks, produced the massive Liverpool One retail and leisure complex, striking Echo Arena & BT Convention Centre and scenic Lime Street Gateway'


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The Liverpolitan
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