Museum of Liverpool
“It’ll be like this for a while, then it’ll settle down,” - haversacked man on stairs with toddler twins, a pregnant wife, a mother-in-law and a map.
When I visited the new Museum of Liverpool the whole of Liverpool was there. Sitting at the top of the spiral staircase in the light, airy concourse, I watched the parade arriving and leaving, emerging and disappearing: all ages, all ethnicities; carried along with curious enthusiasm and civic pride.
“There is a great love and unity in this city, there’s a great feeling of togetherness which materialises in the Kop, where one thought spreads among the crowd…it’s not just going there to watch a football match it’s really a form of worship of a great city by the people.” Arthur Dooley, sculptor 1972.
And that’s what it felt like. Now perhaps it was the sheer novelty and the presence of so many interactive kids but that is what it did feel like.
Because not all exhibitions are in place I could make no judgments about balance and inclusivity. Nor will I raise any health and safety issues. I have confined my observations to the exhibitions on the top floor. One of these was Wondrous Place: a celebration of the famously creative people of Liverpool, dynamically introduced by an installation of five head-swivelling screens which caused congestion at the (rather narrow) entrance. And inside, there was heavy traffic and if you wanted to play the pop quiz machines there was no chance. Fortunately there was a tiny island of tranquillity: the Tent of Stories. It needed to be a marquee.
What makes an exhibition live and communicate is all in the reverberative details, in my opinion. Disembodied Beatles’ suits look rather stale - preposterous even - until you remember that half the wearers are gone forever. There’s a painting by Adrian Henri (Death of a bird in the city, 1962) that stopped me in my tracks. It’s one of a series dedicated to “Dylan Thomas and heroes of mine who died in isolation in big cities” originally used in Happenings in Hope Hall. This shocking, poignant image looks like a real bird, painted white and stuck on a black background with a pool of blood. It is out of step with the cheerful celebratory material nearby. The same with the letter Astrid sent to Stuart Sutcliffe’s mother after his death in 1962, written in a strange, rather poetic English: “why is it not rain that is more like my little heart”. There’s another letter from an evacuee with the request, “Send me Rover and Wizard every week” and a telegram from Billy J Kramer telling his mother that Halfway to Paradise had reached number eight in the NME charts. It’s the eighth-ness that gets you. I know this is blasphemous but the culturally significant John and Yoko bed-in quilt made by artist Christine Kemp isn’t half as interesting as Lita Rosa’s frock – so redolent of the faraway Fifties.
“Liverpool is a busker, deep down,” it says on the karaoke cubicle. I looked at the large window where people were press-nosed at the view of the Tate, the Maritime Museum, the Albert Dock, the Ferris wheel and the mighty Mersey. There was a busker down by the railings.
Liverpool’s crucial part in the pop explosion of the Sixties is also addressed: “from 1949 on in the 50s…I and a hell of a lot of other lads – seamen in this city – were bringing to Liverpool what was essentially Black music, Rhythm and blues, jazz, doo wop, gospel all fused into what was later called rock ‘n’ roll.” Ritchie Barton “Cunard Yank” 2008. As if to prove it there’s a poster advertising Buddy Holly and The Crickets at the Philharmonic Hall on Thursday 20th March 1958.
But just look at this shrine to working class fastfood: a beautifully preserved coal fryer used in a chippy at 147 Rice Lane in Walton 1925-82. The tiles are hand-painted and there’s copper edging and unendurable nostalgia…
It’s the same in the other exhibition, The People’s Republic: those excruciatingly human details. Seeing the photograph of an Edwardian family on the beach at New Brighton on the eve of the Great War you wonder what the war would do to them. In the screening of combat footage combined with stills and accompanied by a voice recounting eye- witness reports, the scale of it makes you feel as if you are about to walk into the shelling. Strangely, it was two objects in glass cases that gave me the most vivid sensations. It’s not so much the German Mauser Karabiner 98AZ rifle itself that impresses; it’s the terrifying length of its bayonet - at least a foot of steel to be screwed into someone’s intestines as you look them in the eye. They’d do the same to you. Yet you were both victims of the system. And then the most terrifying image of them all: a livid gas mask like something from the stinking centre of a mediaeval plague – a fearful apparition rising from the horror of war; at the same time its horrified witness.
And it’s not David Jacques’ mural of Irish Immigrants Entering Liverpool (1990) that grabs you so much as the collaborative quilt which reflects the diaspora of emigrant Liverpudlians. This work of many hands, from many lands, produced to commemorate the Millennium homecoming by expatriates, was sewn together by Barbara Mager in Canada. We concentrate so much on immigrants that we tend to forget the experiences of the emigrant.
Another collective piece is the Liverpool Map (2010) by Inge Paneels and Jeffrey Sarmiento, a work in six glass panels defining the city in terms of culture and heritage rather than geography and politics. Hand-written contributions from local people have been embedded in the multi-layered glass.
Mrs Fung Ping Chan came to Liverpool from China in 1987. The only thing she brought was a musical ornament of white and pink chrysanthemums with fans and birds and butterflies. She carried it like a child in her arms from mainland China by train, and by plane to the city of Liverpool. Now she has donated it to the Museum of Liverpool. This touches the heart, doesn’t it? Perhaps Mrs Fung Ping Chan felt that her new home gave her enough to make her feel she no longer needed to cling to her ornament; perhaps Mrs Fung Ping Chan wanted to give something of her heritage to Liverpool.
Another hands-on moment.
The Museum of Liverpool: modern, light and centrally spacious was full of the people and the voices and the images of the city - present and past. Whether, once all the exhibitions are in place it will have the breadth and depth to satisfy all its citizens, to testify to all contributions and celebrate the uniqueness of everyone, remains to be seen. Liverpool is “very aware of its own myth and eager to project it,” said George Melly, in1970. The question is, is there a myth for 2011?
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