Our Future Cities Forum 'Cultural Cities' report
Liverpool's Royal Albert Dock looking north towards the Museum of Liverpool.
Leaders from National Museums Liverpool, Birmingham Museums Trust, The Wallace Collection in London, MICA Architects and Stoke on Trent's Cultural Destination Partnership, spoke at Future Cities Forum this week on the issues around encouraging visitors back to museums and city attractions post Covid-19.
There were questions around the value of grants being offered to museums and how these should be deployed, the role of digital, the expansion of the use of public realm to join up museum sites and the future of transport to enable visitors to access heritage.
Director of National Museums Liverpool, Laura Pye, was asked why the time was right now to develop the dockside landscape at Liverpool, in the area between the Royal Albert Dock (designed as the very first non-combustible warehouse group and built in 1846 without structural wood), the Museum of Liverpool (completed in 2011) and Canning Graving Dock next to Mann Island:
'Covid-19 has had some significant impacts but in terms of waterfront plans we had already been working on these for the last three years. There has been an extension of the International Slavery Museum , which has become a museum in its own right but symbolically doesn't have its own front door. We own a huge bit of land and it tells the history of the city in a tangible way. Liverpool this week opened a 'river of light' festival, and many people came to see the large LED rainbow on Canning Graving Dock. Now people are exploring the whole of the quayside, much of which has not been accessible before.. It's a big piece of land that belongs to the people of Liverpool and they need to use it in a different way.'
Laura was then asked how 'Black Lives Matter' will be depicted and represented in the development of the museums and public realm plan:
'The International Slavery Museum has been in existence for 40 years, so Black Lives Matter was not a 'moment' for us. This is a journey we have been on for some time. When The Guardian wrote recently that the UK had 'no slavery museum', we were able to amplify the plans as many people reacted to the Guardian article. The International Slavery Museum is not enough by itself. It is not our 'Black Museum' as we tell that story at The Museum of Liverpool which is the right place to do it. There has been lots of work and discussions on the issue and it's helped to articulate our views, We have set up a forum following the 2007 Understanding Slavery anniversary, so we are talking to Hull, Glasgow, Bristol and London about this. We take inspiration from other international cities that have had to deal with difficult aspects of their history - like Berlin dealing with the Holocaust. We apologised over 10 years ago for our role in transatlantic slavery and we are the only city in UK to do this.'
Gavin Miller of MICA Architects described the practice's involvement on re-shaping how outside and interior spaces around the Museum of Liverpool and Canning Graving Dock might be used:
'MICA is working on part of the waterfront.....this is part of the wider programme which began with FCB Studios working on a master-plan. We have been appointed to look at the potential uses and the relationships between the Pier Master's group of buildings, the pilotage group and the Museum of Liverpool building. There is an upcoming competition for the public realm. How can buildings that are historic and designed for a specific purpose be put to work now? A few years back there was a culture of assuming that you can have food and beverage complementing buildings. But this thinking is under review. That makes it more challenging but it is very much about telling stories over how they relate to the site. What might be the potential of the landscape spaces and the public realm?
'What we are trying to do is work with the buildings, not against them. The Museum of Liverpool building is modern, direct and sculptural but it's fair to say that a lot of the original intentions have not been carried through. There are the issues of shelter and climate on the docks as the weather can be hostile. It's about trying to make the buildings relate better to the landscape space. No one is using the staircases which have great views. The strategy may include opening small bars and cafes on these terraces, helping to knit the whole site together.
Dr Xavier Bray, Director of the Wallace Collection was then asked how the recent award from the Garfield Weston Foundation could be used to solve the challenges of bringing visitors back to the collection:
'Back in July we were keen to re-open but it was not simple with social distancing . There were days when only 30 people came. There is a plan but it is around how to re-open slowly. We have a Rubens exhibition re-uniting two great landscapes which will encourage 'slow looking'. The grant from the Garfield Weston is a gift from heaven. We were trying to fund raise for a bigger exhibition of 14 portraits to go with Frans Hals 'The laughing cavalier' and bring back the public to see him - and his 'friends'. He has never been seen in company before and the Garfield Weston Foundation saw this as a way of re-igniting interest in the Wallace'.
Co-chief executive of Birmingham Museums Trust, Zak Mensah, described how he would deploy his grant from the Garfield Weston Foundation and how Covid-19 had pushed forward the Trust's digital offer:
'There is lots of great stuff that digital has delivered. If it's not too crass to say this, there is the opportunity of not wasting a good crisis and re-setting how we we do things. The public appetite for digital is there but is it a replacement for seeing things in person? No it isn't. The Garfield Weston grant is there to help us generate people's curiosity, upskill staff and experiment about what people want.
'What we have noted is that some people want to dive much more deeply into a subject area and technology allows you to do that. We can also tell amazing stories when objects go elsewhere on loan. We want to mix what we do online with what we do 'in gallery'. Many of us have been a little bit guilty over the last twenty years of doing the minimum that digital requires - a little bit of information online about a physical object or artwork, for instance, and not thinking about it.'
'What we also want is to be able to provide routes round the city related to our sites and collection - much of this is locked away. We may use augmented reality, spoken word or video to explain interesting aspects of the city, outside the actual museums.'
The role of digital was picked up in the discussion by Chair of Stoke-on-Trent's Cultural Destinations Partnership, Paul Williams:
'Like the other organisations on this panel, we in Stoke-on-Trent are finding similar ways in how we can use digital techniques to tell stories to help us engage much more widely with audiences - whether it is for the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Gladstone Pottery Museum, the V&A Wedgwood Collection, or wider cultural attractions. Stoke is unique as it's a polycentric city made up of six towns who have historically competed - on town halls, parks with the potteries scattered between. What we are finding is the transformative effect of working better together. People said we lost the bid but can we celebrate the culture so how can we engage with local residents as well as tourists. Powering up Stoke will be part of this economic and social agenda to attract investment - the partners have formed 'Stoke Creates' which involves the City Council, the two universities (Keele and Staffordshire) as well our national portfolio organisations including the British Ceramics Biennale and the New Vic Theatre. This about increasing the private and philanthropic investment in the city.'
Turning to the important question around post Covid-19, on restaurant and retail provision in museums and galleries to attract visitors, Dr Bray said:
'I installed one of our mounted knights in armour in the restaurant space and one day I would like to see more art works playing into that part of the Wallace - and I hope Rick Mather (who designed the courtyard and garden cover extension at the gallery) is not turning in his grave about that thought! I am also thinking about how we can provide a second entrance to the restaurant so we can improve our commercial offer by keeping its operation independent of the gallery opening times.'
Gavin Miller commented about the change in thinking around retail and restaurant offers in museum quarters:
'There is a comparison with the Southbank in London, as it is waterfront and restaurant provision has been very successful there, although at the time there was scepticism . The key thing now is how we get the right amount of F&B around museums, and for the Liverpool project. There are lots of empty buildings but it may not be sustainable in the current climate to have them all as cafes or restaurants. Instead we are asking the buildings - how can we adapt them and use them to tell the city's story? Old buildings were often designed to be inward looking but it is possible to change how they work.'
The panel considered how the use of sustainable transport infrastructure might also be an important factor in encouraging visitors back to cities and their attractions. Paul Williams responded:
'There are lot of requests - from Stoke to central government - on transport and these include ambitions to develop a tram system, and re-open old Beeching-era rail stations....visitors think they will land in the centre of a city but there is 14 miles between Longden in south and Tunstall in the north.'
Zak Mensah added that what we all think of now as functioning city centres may change significantly in the future:
'We can only second-guess how centres will be used in decades to come. For many people the centre for them is not necessarily the traditional centre. We will have 'area centres' so how do we best respond to that? In Birmingham we don't rely as much on international visitors as say London does. Could it be that electric vehicles and scooters will really help people get around, especially in areas not well served by public transport?'
As the discussion drew to a close, Dr Bray voiced concerns about peoples' appetites for museum-going:
' I am worried that after lock-down it might take a long time for people to return to gallery and museum-going, partly because they have found other things to do with their time. Before the pandemic struck the Wallace was about to reach 500,000 visitors for the year, which is a lot for a relatively small building.'
Laura Pye said:
'It will take time.....hundreds were out for 'river of light' despite restrictions so I expect the weekend will be busy too. We are quite reliant on tourism in Liverpool, similar to London. Our waterfront sites have a 70/30 split for outside Liverpool City region visitors versus local.. The William Brown and the Walker have the opposite split and they did quite well during 2020.
Zak's point about scooters is a good one about getting people around the city so we may see changes in how transport works.'
Zak Mensah added:
'Our models, post-pandemic, will not sustain anything less than 60% visitor capacity, so that asks questions about our food and retail offer as we desperately need that secondary spend.'
Paul Williams concluded the debate by saying:
'There is an element of nervousness so we need to help visitors. Sanitise the site, don't sanitise the experience.'
Future Cities Forum was grateful for the efforts the panel made to discuss these important issues around recovering post pandemic in the museum and tourism sectors. Content from this debate will be published in our forthcoming 'Cultural Cities' report. Watch out for new on our next cultural debate this June with Lord Mendoza, Commissioner for Cultural Regeneration at the DCMS.