19 June 2011

M-Shed: how to engage the locals

When I heard that the new £27 million M-Shed - a museum that promises to "tell the story of our city" - was opening in Bristol this weekend, I have to say I felt fairly apathetic about it. Standing right on the dockside, facing the floating harbour, the building itself is colossal, box-like and once housed Bristol's "much-loved" industrial museum. Personally, I never felt much affinity with it. So it was with without any high hopes or expectations that I arrived (with Mr Hayley and a friend in tow) outside the museum doors yesterday afternoon.

Within two minutes of stepping inside the building, I'd been greeted by a smiley lady wearing an M-Shed t-shirt, handed a pencil and a piece of paper and agreed to sketch out a design that I was later to transfer onto one of enormous windows in the stair well. The window was, by this point, already adorned with tens or quite possibly hundreds of visitors' impressions of local landmarks, all carefully inked onto the glass. The impressive view from the balcony at the top of the museum seemed to be a source of much inspiration. Upon staring out of the opposite window, however, I caught sight of the distinctive lettering that spells out 'THE LOUISIANA' and decided to pay homage to the legendary music pub - the venue for early gigs of The Libertines, Muse, Kings of Leon, British Sea Power and Mumford & Sons, to name but a few. Artistically, the result wasn't quite as charming as I'd hoped (pictures of the window itself still to come), but I was gratified by the chance to contribute to this gorgeously skewy piece of public art.

Not to linger on this window drawing, but it was, I think, a stroke of genius by the museum staff. Before I'd even set foot inside an exhibition hall, the drawing had stirred up a strong feeling of connection to my home city. A connection to the building and to the people living in it, with whom I had helped to create this artwork. More than that, though, the invitation to make my mark on the very structure of the building had given me a sense of shared ownership. This, combined with the slightly rebellious pleasure obtained from being allowed to scrawl on a shiny new window in a recently renovated building, left me infinitely more positive and open-minded about the exhibits I had yet to see. And, if I'm not mistaken, the window art was a nod to the street art scene that Bristol is famed for - I appreciated that.

As for the exhibits, well, as someone who has lived in or near Bristol their entire life, it's hard to convey quite how I began to feel as we perused cabinets stuffed with artefacts that related directly to my home environment. The curators had defined Bristol not just by a timeline of historical events, but by its culture, encompassing not only 19th century riots, architecture and inventions, but modern day festivals, clothes designers and film makers. The whole experience was steeped in nostalgia for me. One cabinet contained relics from Ashton Court Festival - until 2007, one of the focal points of city's music calendar - including a torn, paint-daubed festival t-shirt. In another, a stunning, gothic-inspired knitted dress designed by a student at the university where I did my postgraduate degree was displayed alongside more conventional clothing designs from centuries past.

Although many of the artefacts were behind glass, the curators had gone to great lengths to liven up the museum's halls with curious and often playful exhibits. Those that attracted attention included a full-size table and chairs (which visitors could sit at) with place settings and menus representing middle class dinner parties for different eras, a piece of street art covering an entire wall and a computerised exhibit that visitors could use to remix tracks originally recorded by Bristol-based musicians.

At the centre of one hall, we stopped to gaze down through a large opening in the floor. Spread out on the floor below was a map of the whole of Bristol. Now, what's the first thing you do when you see a map of your home town? You start looking for your house, or your school, or your local pub. And that's exactly what about 10-15 people at a time were doing, some of them on their hands and knees.

By the time we reached the bottom floor and I had reluctantly given up hope of finding my house - which was at that time located under a large pram - I was feeling quite emotional. As we emerged from the exit to find the concreted area outside had been turned into a giant chalk board, I resolved to visit again very soon. I could easily have spent several more hours at M-Shed, but in all likelihood, I would have been overcome with nostalgia - and pride in the achievements of my home city. So, I guess, I'm a convert to the new museum. I think that it says much about the culture of Bristol that I had thought would be impossible to convey.

I'd be interested to hear what non-Bristolians think of M-Shed. My impression was that most people visiting on the opening weekend were local people, and for that reason, they were feeling the same closeness to all the objects on display as I was. I could be wrong. But I'm sure that the creative way the exhibits have been designed will also interest outsiders... if not quite so intently.

P.S. I'm not sure exactly what this has to do with science communication (sorry sci commers), but there are certainly some fascinating examples of public engagement here.

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