Monday, 11 July 2011
“She said, There’s something in the M Shed…”
Last month, Bristol’s museum of the people opened – two years late and £8m over budget. We went and checked it out yesterday.
The hype built the M Shed into something spectacular, and the accompanying photos really did indicate this was going to be phenomenal. So expectations were high. Not least because The Daily Telegraph billed the M Shed as “a community attic over two floors, like Bristol’s very own Smithsonian” – which is the most bizarrely over-the-top review I’ve ever read.
I wanted to like the M Shed, I really did. I wanted to leave my cynical head at the door, go in, and embrace all that is great about the city I live in and love. But it just didn’t impress me. The words “missed trick” spring very loudly to mind.
There are three permanent galleries, devoted to the People, Places and Life of Bristolians, plus an exhibition space that (when it opens in August with a Martin Parr show) will house changing exhibitions.
Around the walls of the Places gallery are sections devoted to the different areas of Bristol. But what becomes apparent is that some areas don’t have much to say for themselves – Hartcliffe, I’m largely looking at you! So, while Bedminster is represented by images of the Tobacco Factory and graffiti cans, Hartcliffe is represented by a Morrison’s carrier bag and a tin of own-band peaches. Seriously. What the what?
The biggest draw seemed to be an enormous ariel map of Bristol on the floor, over which people were desperately trying to find their own houses. But it struck me as self-defeating that people had come all the way to a museum to look at a tiny representation of their own home… rather than the wealth of historical (and not so historical) objects gathered here, of which there are around 3,000.
Yet the curators of the M Shed don’t seem to know what to do with the historical objects they’ve been presented with. So you have, for instance, a tiny silk shoe from the 1200s displayed alongside a 1970s cigarette vending machine. With no explanation why. But there is a lack of information throughout: the information that is provided is scant and dumbed-down, and woefully lacking in, well, information.
Walking round the M Shed is a confusing experience. It looks like someone put a load of stuff in a room with no thought regarding logic, and then walked off and brandished their behaviour an exciting new move in the way people interact with museums. I’m all for reinterpreting museums and the way people interact with the past… but this isn’t working, yet.
After our visit, my Northern Irish companion wondered what we were supposed to have taken away from the M Shed. Because with it’s admirable decision to try and mix ‘real’ people’s histories alongside ‘noted’ people’s histories, there’s a sense of confused clutter, and the feeling that not much of importance happened in Bristol. And if that’s the impression that non-Bristolians have after visiting the city’s new museum, then that’s terrible.
It is baffling that the M Shed doesn’t have a few breakaway sections that really explores some of the things the city is best known for in more detail – slavery, pirates, pop culture etc. Bristol is teeming with influential pop culture, yet there was little sense of it here. There were some old cinema seats used to show some film clips (hard to see as the lighting was unsympathetic, but potentially would have been interesting), and as a fan of cinema architecture I was itching to know where they came from. There were no guides to ask and no information on the walls about this, but I learned via Bristol Culture’s blog today they are from the old Broadway Cinema in Knowle (thank you, Bristol Culture). There are a bizarrely chosen handful of tickets to gigs in Bristol, yet the ticket to see the Undertones, for instance, is actually for a reformed gig in 2005, not their 1970s heyday. This is not interesting or historical.
This continued lack of attention to detail, and general lack of information, suggests the whole museum was hastily thrown together with little research, care or thought for what people might take away from it.
The M Shed is a nice (if acoustically noisy) space to visit, and the viewing platforms at the top are obviously a treat (See photo above). The simple exterior and the architectural staircase inside are pleasing, but the exhibition spaces themselves are uninspired. It’s unimpressive that after only a month, around half of the interactive elements have signs saying “Out of Order” on, as do some of the toilets. After a month?!
I hope that these are all just teething problems and the M Shed finds its feet. There is still work to be done for this museum to actually share any information or educate people about Bristol, and I really hope it achieves it – because, right now, the M Shed seems to be functioning only as an inferior extension of @Bristol. Come on, M Shed, justify the £27m spend, and give us some information about Bristol.