National Football Museum, Urbis Building, Cathedral Gardens, Manchester, M4 3BG – Visit Now
Football’s coming home… to Manchester. Kate gets a first look at the city’s newest museum.
Every city has one. New York has the Empire State, Paris has its Eiffel Tower and Manchester has the Urbis building, more cartooonishly recognisable and more iconic than the blunt backhand of Beetham Tower, which is mostly just taller than everything else. The city’s skyline may be forever represented by Ian Simpson’s glass and steel swoop, but under that sleek surface Manchester’s most distinctive building has been quiet for two years. Back in 2010, when the eponymous museum of urban life and popular culture closed after 8 years to make way for the council-favoured National Football Museum, opinions were strongly divided about whether it was a good thing for the city. All this history was floating in the background when NFM opened its doors with a swanky launch do last week.
But the doors are open, and whatever you thought of Urbis, or think of football, it’s good to see the building in use as a cultural venue once again. It’s an interesting one: The National Football Museum, in Preston since pretty much forever, has its own history, identity and community – and the Urbis building comes with its own baggage. It’s one of those unlikely marriages where maybe you can’t really imagine how it’s going to work at first, but things soon settle down into a new pattern. For the moment the place is still half-wearing its old name; ‘The National Football Museum in the Urbis building’, but the day we all just know it as the Football Museum can’t be far off.
Upon entering you understand why they needed so much time (and £8 million) to prepare the museum for its new life as a temple to sport. The whole interior has been redone, walls have disappeared and the current incarnation seems to me to make better use of the space. I like what they’ve done with the old place, but some people will undoubtedly hate it; visually it’s a lot busier and they’ve added go-faster stripes to everything. A scrolling text bar wraps around the main hall, with names from the Hall of Fame on a loop, while a wall of monitors show a collage of sacred football footage, famous quotes and images of players from across the ages. It’s kind of like walking into a church, albeit a church that resembles an unusually fancy branch of JD Sports.
It’s fair to say that I’m not massively into football, a game I liked playing as a youngster in the States and maintain a polite conversational interest in. But lots of visitors will be similarly interested more in the unique role football plays in British culture than the game itself. It’s a big ask for a museum to serve people like me along with footy-mad kids happy to spend all day practicing penalty shots, anoraks there to genuflect before the actual 1863 rules, armchair athletes keen to sound-off around the table with Gary Lineker, and older fans who want to introduce the game of their youth to incredulous youngsters (rules about where players could smoke should do nicely for starters.) Still, I think the museum achieves this. An impressive array of lovingly-curated artefacts, archived media, up-to-date interactive installations and engaging activities work together to create a well-rounded visitor experience, with something for all ages and interests. My only complaint about the installations is that it would have been nice to see more images of women, but I understand women’s football just doesn’t have the prominence here in the UK that it does elsewhere (sigh).
The temporary exhibition space on the top floor opens with not one but two worthwhile installations: a series of frankly wonderful photographs from Stuart Roy Clarke and a group show of interesting football-themed works from West African artists linked to We Face Forward (more about these exhibitions later in the summer). Above it in the tip of the triangle is Kaleido, a fine dining restaurant that has just opened in the space once occupied by The Modern, an unfortunate casualty of Urbis’ closure, along with The Social, a lovely café sorely missed by casual lunchers and families in search of kid-friendly meeting places (the new NFM café wasn’t open during my visit). The museum changeover also has a bearing on the character and feel of one of our city centre’s few public green spaces, Cathedral Gardens, which has also had a brush and polish. One of the things Urbis did very well was work hard with the teenagers who hang out there and try to engage them with the whole place, inside and out. Let’s hope NFM is as willing to invite them in.
Sounds good? Don’t take our word for it. Visit the National Football Museum yourself, and take part in events and activities including family-friendly workshops, tours, performances and talks.
National Football Museum, Cathedral Gardens M4 3BG. Admission free (suggested donation £4), but there is a charge of £2 a go on each of the seven Football Plus activities. nationalfootballmuseum.com
Images: (from top) young visitor by Jason Lock courtesy of National Football Museum; the museum formerly known as Urbis; Going to the Match, 1928, by LS Lowry; interactive displays by Jason Lock courtesy of National Football Museum; Stuart Roy Clarke, from The Homes of Football, courtesy of National Football Museum.
Services and FacilitiesCollection, temporary exhibitions, family events and activities, cafe, restaurant, bar, cloakroom, lockers
AccessibilityWheelchair access to all public areas
Commercial and hire servicesAvailable to hire for private functions and corporate events