Last summer I was commissioned to research/curate a multimedia exhibit which would immerse the user in the richness and variety of cultural responses to the modern city - how artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers had imagined the city ... covering fictional utopia/dystopia, as well as imaginative photographic recordings of city life, and so on. On the one hand, a daunting task; on the other, one of the most enjoyable pieces of work I've ever had to do.
The physical 'kiosk-based' exhibit would form part of Urbis, a new museum in Manchester, England, focusing of the life of, and life in, the modern city (a Lottery-funded multi-million project with the new Millennium Quarter, new public/commercial spaces totally rebuilt post-bomb).
I saw the finished exhibit for the first time last night, at a low-key launch party for those involved in the museum's creation, and I'm really pleased with the way the "Imagining" exhibit turned out. The credit here is due to Land Design and Ars Electronica for the final realization. Dr. Justin O'Connor (academic advisor to Urbis, and ex-colleage at MIPC) and I had been worried that our (not-so)short list would have all the "good bits" whittled out of it, due to copyright/financial constraints, and the client's worries about intellectual pitch - the eternal 'dumbing down' question, put simply. And indeed, the original selection had a richness, verve, depth, and complexity which the final exhibit only hints at. And yet, experiencing the exhibit for the first time, the range of items which did make it is still extraordinary. I'm delighted that we effectively slipped in a (hopefully) fascinating, serious, demanding yet engaging range of artifacts 'under the radar', unparalleled in the UK certainly. I was thrilled to see the likes of Walter Ruttmann and Charles Ives, Joyce and Woolf, Metropolis and Le Corbusier, alongside Judge Dredd, Akira, Vladislav Delay, Uri Caine, Nobuyoshi Araki, Blade Runner, the Tube Map, Corrie, and SimCity.
It's also bizarre to see fragments of my original supporting texts still remaining post-editing (could still do with a bit more proofing!), scans of my book covers, writ large. As you move through the 'objects' on the touch-screen 'desks' in front of you, projectors beam Archigram-esque impossible cityscapes above your head, entirely composed of the information you're experiencing below - a very nice touch by Land and Ars Electronica, leading to a pleasing 'reveal' at the end of that floor - abstract shapes looming over the exhibits, 'scrapers made out of the Walking City, Steve Reich, or Emil and the Detectives. Aesthetically very strong, though the 'desk-based' graphics are less sophisticated (yet usable).
Here's some hastily-taken, covert pics from last night (click to zoom)
It's a shame that displaying the actual movie clips were too expensive (and that even permission to use stills ruled out a lot of movies; likewise permission to use the more popular music clips was way too expensive - wake up entertainment industry, this is promotion/education about your wares). And indeed that the large list was pretty heavily decimated (in both number and focus). It means there's a lot of obvious, strong contenders which aren't there for 'non-editorial' reasons. But that's the realities of public funding, private copyright and physical displays [I aim to make a version of the minisite I built for the client into a public exhibit/site here, featuring a lot of the items which didn't make it (it's an illustrated compendium of 300+ cultural objects 'to do with' the modern city), hopefully in interactive form (comments, suggestions etc.). Time to get busy with MT again.]
There's still a lot of work to do at Urbis - I'd suggested several times that the exhibit needs to change over time, that we need disclaimers suggesting that it would do so; that the Urbis shop stocks items featured in the exhibit; that the Urbis website provide another view of this database, in a truly interactive form ... There's no sign of this yet. But it's early days.
I'm also not convinced about the 5 entry fee to the museum - the building/exhibit would work better as a place you can return to, drift in and out of. But those economics are beyond me, thankfully.
Similarly, some of the other floors feel a little bit bare compared to "Imagining's" (intentional) overload. Some of this is to do with the awkward shape of the building. Ian Simpson Architects designed a building which is striking but not lovely (much like Manchester itself, so perhaps appropriately?!) but built around a sloping wedge-shape (Flatiron building vs. dry sky slope). The tight apex of the wedge is consequently fairly bereft. Still, the building is only partly museum, with a lively education strand, lecture theatres and b2b spaces, and a restaurant on the top, Georges-style but not quite, and bizarrely (though with typical Mancunian chutzpah come to think of it) called Le Mont. I suggest Le Manc instead.
The large public spaces downstairs are wonderfully light and airy, and the floors bank sharply up the slope, a pleasing connection between spaces. Graphics and type around the building, particularly on these downstairs areas, are heavily-layered, with lots of neon, harsh colour clash and lenticular action. Appropriate, and well-produced, imho.
Of course, as always seems to be the way over here, the official Urbis website leaves a lot to be desired. If only the designers had engaged a little more with Schama's view of how public history media could work e.g. History Wired, American Memory etc. (It irks, 'cos this is my trade, and despite being involved in another bit of the museum, I wasn't able to influence this bit.)
Still, early days again, and as "a new kind of museum exploring life in different cities of the world", Urbis is certainly unique in the UK (and the world, afaik). Well worth a visit. Muchos respect is due to O'Connor, who persistently builds the smart intellectual foundations, and Manchester City Council, for having the courage to build the thing in the first place. It's an important statement in a country which often struggles with the idea of the modern city (ironically, given Manchester's central role in the creation of it) and being serious about culture. Can I totally impartially recommend that the Imagining exhibit alone is worth a fiver of anybody's money ;-)
Urbis opens 27 June 2002.