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~A Damp Day Out~
For my husband's birthday back in January I decided to use up my one remaining day of holiday from 2011 and take the day off work and go out for the day. Since he was the birthday boy, he got to choose where we went and he chose a trip to Liverpool Tate. We actually went with the intention of nipping into the Tate and then going to see the cathedrals but the weather was so miserable and there was so much to do around Albert Dock that we decided to stay in the area and not venture further afield. Once the Tate had been thoroughly 'done' we grabbed some lunch and then headed to the Museum of Liverpool.
Many readers will not have heard of the Museum or Liverpool or will assume I've got it muddled up with the Museum of Liverpool Life but that's not the case. The Museum of Liverpool Life is no more - I believe it closed in 2006 - and the Museum of Liverpool is the new big, bold building on the Liverpool waterfront which rejoices in and celebrates the uniqueness of Liverpool. It opened last year (2011) and looks set to become a big hit with tourists and locals alike.
My relationship with Liverpool goes back to 1981 - famously the year of the Toxteth Riots. I was one of those nerdy science kids who got involved with going to science conferences (but rarely actually went to the lectures - I wasn't THAT nerdy) and a couple of school friends and I got a bursary to go to Liverpool for the annual British Association for the Advancement of Science conference. We got more than we bargained for. We were southern small town girls and Liverpool was 'full on' in a way you couldn't experience living in Salisbury. I'd never seen a beggar before I went to Liverpool (honest, no kidding), I couldn't understand half the stuff people said to me, and the cherry on the icing on the cake was the night we took the bus back to our accommodation, driving through Toxteth where a block of flats was on fire. But aside from seeing things my small town life hadn't prepared me for, I learned that Liverpudlians were hysterically funny (when I could understand them) and justly proud of their musical and footballing heritage as well as their surplus of cathedrals.
~Old and New~
The museum is housed in an incongruously modern building at Pier Head on the historic Liverpool waterfront. With the Liver Building and Cunard Building representing the grandeur of the city's historic shipping past on one side and the red brick glories of the Albert Dock warehouses to the other side, it looks strange to see a blocky, modern, white 'box' of a building stuck in between even though it's not an unattractive building in its own right - it's just not something that seems to 'fit'. Mind you in comparison with some of the mirror fronted office blocks behind the doc, it looks positively modest and unassuming.
The building has the distinction of being the largest national museum built in over a century and its cleverly engineered construction was designed to create large open spaces inside without the need for lots of pillars or roof supports. The building was designed by Danish architect Kim Neilsen and his company 3XN and cost £72mn to build which sounds like a bit of a bargain to me although I'm obviously glad I didn't have to pay for it. It opened in July 2011 and by the time we got to visit six months later, I think all of the major exhibition spaces had opened fully.
~Meet and Greet~
If it were not Liverpool, my cynical self would have thought that the warm welcome we got from the 'greeter' inside the museum might have been down to the place not being open very long. However, we soon realised that this was no forced jollity or novelty and all the staff we met were full of admiration and enthusiasm for the place where they worked. We were led to the counter and encouraged to get our tickets for the two multimedia shows since these all come with 'timed entry' tickets and they wanted to make sure we wouldn't have to wait too long. We also bought a map to find our way around, not because we particularly wanted or needed one, but to make sure the museum got some money out of us. The same logic was used to justify hot drinks and buns in the cafe afterwards.
A damp drizzly day in January isn't a busy day for any museum so our timed entrance tickets were for about half an hour after we arrived so we dumped our bags in the free lockers and headed up to the top floor with t he intention of watching the shows and then working our way down again. The first thing you'll notice (after the happy smiley people who'll welcome you) is likely to be the staircase which fills the middle of the museum. This is a work of engineering genius that reminded me of the stairs in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It's a giant circular set of stairs lit from above by a giant circular skylight.
~Start at the top - of course~
The multimedia shows live in an area of the top floor called 'A Wondrous Place', a reference to the song by Billy Fury. This is where you'll find tributes to football and the Beatles as well as mementoes of the city's sporting greats such as Sir Chris Boardman, Beth Tweddle and of course plenty of footballers. Our first ticket was for the Beatles' show and whilst we waited we took advantage of the floor to ceiling windows to take photos of the Albert Dock in the rain. You can also see the Anglican cathedral from this part of the museum. A larger than life sculpture of seaside holiday makers leaning against a rail accompanies those people admiring the view. This is also where we found Mandy Mandala Superlambanana, the most valuable of the city's 125 so-called 'mini superlambananas' from the 2008 European City of Culture. Mandy was bought for the museum by Phil Redmond, the creator of such television greats as Grange Hill, Brookside and (God help us) Hollyoaks for £25000 in the post City of Culture auction.
The Beatles Show takes place in a round auditorium with pictures flashing around the circumference of the room. I found it very loud and quite hard to follow despite having known about the Beatles all my life. I can only imagine how confusing it must be for overseas visitors. It's a hanging offence to speak ill of the Fab Four in Liverpool but I didn't think 'The Beatles Show' was really very good. By contrast, 'The Football Show' was fabulous and definitely worth a visit. You can't help but notice the small tribute to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster over the entrance to the show and having noticed it, it did play on my mind during the show, and indeed is addressed during the video. The Football Show was excellent, narrated by two small boys - one a Red, the other a Blue - telling the story of the history of Liverpool's football teams.
Putting 'A Wondrous Place' behind us, we headed to the other end of the top floor to 'The People's Republic', a gallery that focuses on what it's like to live in Liverpool. It also has fabulous views of the Liver Building and the Three Graces, buildings so gorgeous that even the rain can't spoil them. This gallery includes a reconstruction of early 'court' housing in the overcrowded poor areas of the city in Victorian times, a replica of the famous Liver Bird, a Ford Anglia from the Halewood car plant, exhibits about unemployment, art deco sculptures from Gerard Gardens, and most memorably, the scale model of the cathedral that never was.
I think one of the first things people know about Liverpool aside from it having two football teams is that it has two cathedrals. The exhibition we say about the 'Cathedral of Dreams' tells of the aspirations of the Catholic church to build an enormous cathedral and the centrepiece is the model of Sir Edwin Lutyens' design. Due to my love of New Delhi, arguably Lutyens' most famous achievement, I was fascinated to see the model and to read the displays of how the church over-stretched itself in trying to build such a gargantuan edifice. It's all the more ironic to learn how this colossus got cut down to the steel and glass cathedral that's on the site today and known to locals as 'Paddy's Wigwam'.
Back to the central gallery of the top floor and we found one of my favourite exhibits - the Liverpool Cityscape painted by Ben Johnson for the 2008 City of Culture celebrations. This spectacular painting is nearly five meters long and half as high and captures the buildings of Liverpool with the Museum of Liverpool right in the front and in the middle of the view. It took three years to paint and a Johnson and eleven assistants all worked on it. The painting hangs on the City Side of the gallery and you can almost imagine that if the wall was removed, the city would be sitting outside waiting to be seen exactly as it is in the painting.
We headed down to the middle floor and the exhibits about the Liverpool Overhead Railway which was the first elevated railway powered by electricity in the world and was built in the 1890s. There's a carriage you can step into and sit in for a while and lots to read about the railway, how it got built and what went wrong and led to it being pulled down half a century later. I hadn't know such a railway ever existed but it must have been a grand thing to see in its heyday.
Other exhibits on this floor include a rather ordinary gallery of archaeology and history from the ice age to modern times. I have to be honest I skipped this, finding it a bit too typical of every city museum I've ever visited. By contrast the other gallery, 'City Soldiers', is more interesting and tracks the history of the Kings Regiment and is well worth a look.
Much of the space on the ground floor is taken up with the entrance and the cafe but there are still things worth visiting. There's an exhibition on Liverpool's role as the 'second city of the empire' which looks at trade with the rest of the British Empire. This gallery includes a fascinating model of the Empire State Building built out of 'bayko' ( a bit like Lego) and reflecting the influence of the Liverpool architecture on the development of one of the world's most famous buildings. There's also a brass Buddha looted from a Burmese temple which reminds us that the Empire wasn't always a force for good.
Also on the ground floor is 'Little Liverpool', an area for children to play and interact with the exhibits which we skipped and an exhibition about 'The Great Port' which featured a particularly fine old railway locomotive. By this time we'd been walking around museums for most of the day and the call of the cafe was too much for us. We passed quickly through the ground floor galleries before heading for hot drinks and cake.
As we left the museum we stopped to take pictures of the four Superlambananas outside. The superlambananas were part of a flock of 125 highly decorated sculptures which invaded the city for 10 weeks in 2008 during the tenure as European City of Culture. The museum reminded us that 'the Pool' has plenty to be proud of and the Museum of Liverpool is a fine tribute to the city that gave it its name and its home. If you go to Liverpool, especially if you plan a visit to Albert Dock, I recommend to leave enough time for a visit to this superb new museum. The curators have clearly given a lot of thought to what's on show and there should be something for everyone young or old in the Museum of Liverpool.