It’s been a difficult, protracted and eventful gestation. But now, after delays, wrangles with not one but two sets of architects, out of court settlements for blocking the view from the Port of Liverpool building (poor show, Downing), is the new Museum of Liverpool – which opened today – worth the wait?
In short, yes.
With two of its three exhibition floors open, the museum offers a guided tour that’s kaleidoscopic, cinematic and (in the main) celebratory. Slavery, strife and suffering, save for a vivid and harrowing reconstruction of an airless court dwelling, is largely eschewed in favour of Chinese dragons, musical memories and animated social history tableaux.
At times the sheer sensory overload of it all leaves you breathless – exhibition floors are choc-a-block with memorabilia, posters, architect’s models, gleaming cabinets crammed with relics, glittering booty and Meccano.
It’s a head rush of history that captures, brilliantly, the chaos, culture and creativity of this city – and, yes, at times the cliches too.
Spend a couple of hours here and we doubt, even when the Central Library emerges from its cocoon of tarpaulin and scaffolding, you’ll find a more engrossing set of short stories. Yes, they’re all about us. But, wow, what a tale.
The museum’s strident ski-slope silhouette, clad in creamy limestone, is a last hurrah for set-piece public realm arts buildings, of that there can be little doubt. And it’s not to everyone’s taste, but we think it fits the site successfully, bridging the gap between the angular geometry of the Pier Head and the hunkered down warehouses of Albert Dock. Its low-slung profile isn’t about architectural bandstanding (take note, Mann Island), nor is it a building that tries to steal the show – but, rather, with its huge windows allowing for stunning views over the waterfront and docks, it responds cohesively and graciously to its context. Well, almost. But today’s not a day to be churlish.
The Phase One opening features a colourful and scholarly celebration of the city’s links with China, East Meets West, in the ground floor Global City gallery. Its powerful centrepiece, a 1:16th wooden model of a Shanghai trader junk, is surrounded by delicate porcelain (including a Liver Bird bowl dating to 1770), lacquer sewing tables and silk kimonos. If you were in any doubt that the Museum would be full of the usual suspects, this is a convincing argument to the contrary: and an encouraging sign that the curators can play fast and loose with the theme, and get away with it.
Ascend the helter-skelter staircase and you’ll reach the Skylight gallery – home to a ho-hum collection of Mike McCartney photographs. They singularly fail to shed any light on the city and look, at best, like the competent snap-shots of a cruise line day tripper.
Wonderous Place spotlights the city’s creative and sporting personalities – and feels, in spirit, like a continuation of the World Museum’s excellent survey of the city’s musical landscape, The Beat Goes On. The usual suspects – Levi Tafari, Jegsy Dodd, a jowly and scowly Phil Redmond – greet visitors with their stock-in-trade lines of doggerel, and platitudes, but away from the tall poppies, there’s a nice video of real Scousers admitting that, no, they don’t say ‘kidder’ all that much. There’s some great archive material courtesy of Probe records, a karaoke booth and the lovely Frank Cottrell Boyce trying his best to say something intimate about the inner turmoil of writing, but struggling somewhat to be heard against Elvis Costello’s Pump It Up, and a phalanx of competing blinking video installations.
Here, too, are two mini theatres, offering 360 degree immersive shows exploring the legacy of the city’s two religions: The Beatles and football. And boxing, too, gets a good billing, with a section devoted to Conteh, the Stadium and the city’s pugilistic tendencies. At least, of the licensed variety.
On the opposing cross hatch of the museum’s X-shaped layout the People’s Republic is, perhaps, the most successful – and engrossing – of all the spaces. Here, amid the models of Gerard Gardens’ tenement blocks, Lutyen’s ghost Cathedral (complete with remote control cameras allowing a peek inside its shadowy recesses), beautiful time-lapse videos showing the changing shape of the city over the past century, and explorations of religion, ethnicity and politics, you get the sense that, finally, the city’s character – our character – is fleshed out, made visceral. Blood and passion is pumping through these diaoramas – taking in everything from the silver service dishes of William Rathbone to a gorgeous, glazed, coal-fired fryer from a 1920s fish and chip shop.
Give us a Rice Lane chippy over the magazine spreads featuring Amanda Harrington and dressed up Barbie Dolls across the landing any day, but by giving us both, the Museum of Liverpool attempts to present an unabridged, honest and unblinking portrait of our place in the world.
And that’s a tale we’re unlikely ever to tire of.
The Museum of Liverpool
Liverpool, L3 4AQ
0151 478 4499