Thursday, 25 February 2010

Goodbye, URBIS (2002-2010)

“This landlocked building, URBIS, sleek and unexpected, has turned its back on the River Irwell, to face the town and its compact, self-contained centre. Shivering in its glass cladding like a customised iceberg, Urbis belongs to a fleet…[of] boats which do not travel but are themselves the inspiration for travel by others: visitor destinations, attractors, flexible in usage, weather - resistant, brought into being with the death of the industrial process.” Iain Sinclair, London based writer and psychogeographer, who was commissioned to visit and produce a response to Manchester in summer 2009, quoted in the best-of URBIS exhibition URBIS Has Left the Building: Six Years of the Best Exhibitions in Pop Culture.

At 6pm on Saturday 27 Feburary, the museum known as URBIS will shut its doors forever. It will close for a couple of months and, after its exhibitions have been dismantled, it will be refitted before reopening again as the National Football Museum. Read the Manchester Evening News or the City Council website and they’re full of triumph about how the city has won the National Football Museum from Preston, and what a benefit it will be to the city. Manchester is famous world-over for football. The football museum was struggling in Preston and URBIS, a sort of awkward, unwieldy hybrid of popular culture forum and city museum, was failing to attract enough visitors. The idea was simple: quietly close one of Manchester’s flagship post-bomb projects (as Sinclair puts it, ‘an icon for the new theology of capital and regeneration’), which wasn’t doing as well as hoped, and replace it with a sure-fire crowd pleaser.

I, along with many others, was sad about URBIS closing, but didn’t realise the full extent of what the city will be losing until I went to say my final goodbyes by visiting the URBIS Has Left the Building retrospective.

On the sunny Saturday I went, URBIS was packed. Children ran through the displays, teenagers lurked in groups, couples scrutinised displays intently. It was alive with a cross-section of the city. By the message boards, where people could pin their comments, the conversations I overheard expressed shock and dismay. Reading the comments, a theme emerged; ‘We like football, but we like URBIS better’. ‘We like football BUT… there’s more to Manchester than football’. People are interested in football, but we already all know Manchester likes football. The people of Preston were, understandably, upset about losing their museum (facebook groups were formed both to keep the football museum in Preston and URBIS in Manchester), and it seems that even those in Manchester who like football are upset about losing theirs.

Manchester has a great variety of museums, dedicated to all manner of specialist topics — from the police to the Pankhursts, the working classes to transport. But URBIS was separate. Its name means literally ‘from the city’. Museums dedicated to one subject are the type of place you might visit as a one off, out of curiosity, but unless you’re a real enthusiast, you’re unlikely to visit again and again. URBIS, on the other hand, by being so broad, attracted what Sinclair termed ‘casual pilgrims’, from tourists wondering where to start to Mancunians who could discover sides to the city they’d never seen before.

Some of my favourite exhibitions at URBIS were encountered before you even reached the main exhibition space. Aidan O’Rourke’s Manchester epic mega-photo in the foyer challenged you to try to identify a fast-changing city scape. In the corridor space in between the shop and the entrance, photographers documented often underlooked area of city life, with changing displays ranging from portraits of the ‘goth’ and ‘emo’ kids who frequent Cathedral Gardens immediately outside URBIS to affectionately shot greasy spoons and an overview of the of the Curry Mile.

URBIS showcased movements and ideas not usually found in museums, from Urban Exploration — Andrew Paul Brooks’ photographs of hidden Manchester were taken with the help of the secret network of clandestine adventurers — to guerrilla gardening, Manga, computer games, street art and even hip-hop.

In an pessimistic opinion piece on the Culture24 website, however, URBIS’s creative executive Vaughan Allen explores the failures of building a museum to popular culture:

“Attempts to found museums based around still-living, still-developing expressions of popular activity have floundered on one simple issue: if it's already out there, already happening, it can't be captured and can't be (literally) encased.”

To him, the difficulty of capturing popular culture in a museum is “it’s about something that's fleetingly experienced and then passes away”. But surely the point of URBIS wasn’t to be or recreate popular culture. As Sinclair implies in his description of URBIS, it’s merely a vessel to find out what is going on that you may not have heard about, a starting point for other journeys and adventures.

URBIS was drawn from the city, but it also reminded us of the world outside the city. Some exhibitions were backward looking and trading on past glories — celebrating 25 years since the opening of the Hacienda, for example, but at its best URBIS related Manchester to the wider world, showing how we‘ve impacted on global events and they have changed the way we live. An exhibition on Emory Douglas and the often misunderstood Black Panthers, for instance, timed with the election of the first African-American president, Barack Obama, with a link drawn to Manchester‘s radical history and resistance to the slave trade. Similarly, Leon Reid IV’s installation ‘True Yank’ in Lincoln Square, which dressed a sombre statue of Abraham Lincoln in hip-hop clothes, as part of the State of the Art: New York exhibition at URBIS, reminded Mancunians of a part of Manchester and its history that‘s often overlooked — Lincoln Square is so named because there‘s a monument to the sacrifices made by the people of Manchester who boycotted cotton from the southern American states during the civil war.

Like all good museums should, URBIS inspired discussion and debate. It was more than just a place to go and look, to observe culture passively. URBIS held city tours, regular language sessions, adult education programmes, urban research forums and the acclaimed Reclaim mentoring scheme. It hosted events such as festivals, the occasional gig and Manchester zine fest. It acted as a meeting place and a showcase, holding awards, fashion shows and exhibitions of graduate art and design.

As Sinclair notes, Ian Simpson’s towering glass structure is somewhat out of place with the historic buildings around it. But, at a certain time of day, as the sun turns the frosted glass on the upper floors orange and sets over Manchester city centre in all directions, from the cathedral, Chethams library and the dome of the Corn Exchange to the Arndale, Printworks and CIS tower, it seems like the best place to watch Manchester past meet Manchester present and Manchester future.

I won’t reserve judgement on the football museum until I’ve been. Who knows, maybe it will convert me and I will spend hours browsing the nation’s sporting history. But, until then, I’m afraid I think the closure of URBIS is a big mistake.

1 comment:

Vaughan said...

Thank you, that was a lovely piece of writing..
V (Urbis)