The Museum of Liverpool Without Life

The Beaubourg Effect

Jean Baudrillard devotes a chapter of his text Simulacra and Simulation to a phenomenon he dubs the Beaubourg Effect. Baudrillard maintains that the mass-media spectacle of The Pompidou Centre (the largest museum for modern art in Europe, located in Beaubourg, Paris), exerts such an aggressive influence on culture, that it destroys it. Rather than to display artworks, the purpose of the centre is to impose an idea of western culture… to shape western society’s culture and identity.

He further describes Beaubourg as ‘an incinerator, absorbing cultural energy and devouring it’ and ‘a machine for creating emptiness’. He uses the analogy of a black hole to convey its effect. Formed when a star’s gravity becomes so great that even light cannot escape, a black hole implodes under the strain of it’s own mass, constantly falling in on itself. It continues to grow by absorbing additional matter. This is the primary process through which supermassive black holes seem to have grown. The Pompidou Centre is a black hole, a self-reinforcing machine with a cultural gravity so strong that it widely shapes western culture. The Centre continuously absorbs the culture it has shaped, continuously imploding under the weight of it’s own significance.

Baudrillard concludes that although the French government designed the Centre to make modern art accessible to the general populace, it instead neutralises and domesticates the creative and political power of modern art itself.

The Pompidou Centre

The Neutralising of Art at The New National Gallery, Berlin

I recently visited the New National Gallery (Neues Nationalgalerie) in Berlin. During my visit I heard many loud alarms from various corners of the gallery. I quickly realised by looking ‘too closely’ at one painting, that a visitor will trigger the alarm from as much as 2 feet away. This leads to a vaguely uneasy feeling, not from public chastisement, as alarms are seemingly triggered by almost every visitor. Reflecting on my experience later, I came to realise that an effort was being made to discourage visitors from showing too much interest in the artwork. Visitors should maintain a distance from the works, literally and figuratively. This policy appeared so at odds with the supposed purpose of the building, that it didn’t seem to make sense.

The gallery’s ‘Divided Heaven’ exhibition used the political standpoints of artists such as Otto Dix or George Grosz as curatorial themes and yet it was hard to see how the gallery could value their political ideas beyond their function as a curatorial device. The political ideas in their work were so contrary to the feel of the building, that it didn’t seem possible the Gallery valued the artistic component of the work. As a result the intention of the art is either completely lost or devalued. The gallery destroys or neutralises the creative and political power of the art. It’s hard not to imagine this as a victory of capitalism over the ideals of the artists. How can the owner value this work, other than by price-tag? The screech of the alarm serves as a continuous reminder of who’s art it is. The exaggerated distance emphasises the price-tag and actively discourages the visitor from interacting emotionally with the artworks. All the while playing in the background to this exhibition was a tape loop of The Beatles ‘All You Need is Love’… apparently it isn’t.

Museum of Liverpool, a Wikipedia Entry Made Flesh

So what about the Museum of Liverpool? The authenticity of artefacts doesn’t compare to The New National Gallery. ‘Impressionistic displays of the city’s history and culture – the Beatles (of course), football, Brookside, trade, wealth and poverty – that are light on original artefacts and big on videos and blown-up pictures.’ Perhaps most damningly The Guardian described the exhibition as ‘a Wikipedia entry made flesh, a warm gloop of unchallenging information’. During the 30 year interlude between construction of The Pompidou Centre and The Museum of Liverpool, it is apparent that a steady process of implosion has resulted in Wikification and that self-referencing artefact-lite Wikibitions have become acceptable. Heavily edited second-generation assumptions take the place of cultural objects. Meaning is pre-analysed, summarised and spoon-fed. This must surely accelerate the shaping of culture and the neutralising of artistic and cultural energy.

The Museum of Liverpool claims to tell the story of Liverpool. At least the museum’s own website steers clear of any direct claims to show you the real Liverpool. Perhaps that is not going far enough. The effect of building a Museum of Liverpool is to destroy the very culture it is exhibiting. Where in Liverpool can one now best experience Liverpool- On the streets or in the Museum? If the museum has any ambition at all, then it stands that it must be striving to show people a definitive Liverpool. This concept of Liverpool does not lie outside the Museum except in the world of marketing and ‘nation branding’ yet simultaneously this concept is the prevailing concept of Liverpool.

What constitutes Liverpool has never before been the decision of curators. There has never before been a prevailing idea of authentic Liverpool culture, stated in absolute terms and packaged within a box. There must have been so much cast aside.

The launch of the museum was a bizarre event. Like the reveal at the end of ’10 Years Younger’. Liverpool faced the cameras and said “I can’t wait to see the real me”. Then went out on the streets only to find the public didn’t dig their shiny veneers or hair extensions…The Guardian review called it a ‘godawful mess’ that ‘fails to complement the city’s proud past’. Local reactions to the negative reviews were subdued and seemed to grudgingly nod in agreement, a sort of “you don’t like my new haircut? We’ll that’s a bit rude of you to say, but then I don’t really like it much either”. In an unexpected show of sympathy, Liverpool was not blamed for the poor taste of their makeover experts and seems fairly reluctant to embrace the museum itself. It’s easy to see how a museum ‘light on original artefacts and big on videos and blown-up pictures’ is easier to reject.

Like the artworks at odds with New National Gallery, Berlin, you cannot escape the idea that perhaps the Liverpool artefacts sit awkwardly within the ‘wow factor’ architecture. The objects appear ridiculous in comparison… How can you take a genuinely remarkable chip shop counter (saved from the rubbish dump) seriously, when it’s framed by this £72M attempt at ‘starchitecture’.

Starchitecture & The Bilbao Effect

The construction of the Bilbao Guggenheim (by Starchitect Frank Gehry) in 1997, transformed the fortunes of Bilbao, increasing the annual number of tourist visitors 20 fold, resulting in an annual tourism GDP of €300M for the Biscay region. As New York Times’ Denny Lee states, Bilbao is now ‘synonymous with the ensuing worldwide rush by urbanists to erect trophy buildings, in the hopes of turning second-tier cities into tourist magnets.’ The Bilbao Effect is now a textbook method for repackage cities using “wow-factor” ‘starchitecture’.

The capitalist effect of the building is clear. Less apparent is the effect that the Guggenheim has had on the culture of Bilbao itself. “We don’t know anything about Bilbao besides the Guggenheim,” said Luigi Fattore, 28, a financial analyst from Paris “We’ve arrived half an hour ago and went straight to the Guggenheim. Aside from the museum, we don’t have any plans.” The city has been cleaned of soot and graffiti and is sprouting starchitectural buds in the form of new buildings by Álvaro Siza, Cesar Pelli, Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid, Philippe Starck amongst others. A town of steelworkers and engineers, is slowly becoming a ‘city of hotel clerks and art collectors’. The Bilbao Effect is The Beaubourg Effect. The city’s culture absorbed and reshaped by the Guggenheim.

The Riverside Museum, Glasgow

Starchitecture and Riverside Museum, Glasgow

The Guardian review of the Riverside Museum, Glasgow (Starchitect Zaha Hadid) contrasts starkly with that of the Museum of Liverpool. Perhaps a surprise when these 2 projects were executed with similar timeframes and had similar grand architectural visions. The content of Riverside Museum is somewhat more traditional and exhaustive: ‘trams, cars, locomotives, motorbikes, a tube train, a glider, ships, skateboards, prams, shoes and, well, pretty much anything that ever helped Glaswegians to move about.’ This is an exhibition heavy with original artefacts, not so big on videos and blown-up pictures.

Whereas Museum of Liverpool is labelled ‘a restless squiggle’, Riverside ‘blends into the climate and culture of Glasgow and its riverscape, feeling like part of its great flow of architecture and history’ …’Seen from inside, those zigzags look like the keels of ships’. Kim Nielsen one of the chief architects of Museum of Liverpool stated that his “initial idea was to make a very open, very friendly structure. Our idea was that our structure should grow up from the promenade and connect to the canal and connect to the landscape… more like a piece of land art ” Nomination of the building to the Carbuncle Cup 2011 shortlist is a strong indication that the idea has failed to be realised!

I would argue that the building contains several design elements that knowingly nod to the Beaubourg Effect.

The Building Design

Baudrillard amusingly compares the Pompidou Centre to a nuclear power station, requiring a perimeter of control and deterrence ‘All around, the neighbourhood is nothing but a protective zone – remodelling, disinfection’. Walking towards the Museum of Liverpool, visitors experience a strange air of isolation. The museum sits completely separate from the surrounding area and is, in fact, surrounded on 3 sides by water. Indeed like all UK nuclear power stations, the museum is built next to the sea.

Footprint of The Museum of Liverpool

Continuing with Baudrillard’s cultural incinerator analogy, is it by accident or pure satire that Architects 3XN, designed a museum with a footprint that resembles a turbine blade rotating around a central point? Even worse, viewed window on, the building resembles the air intake of a concord engine. This is a really effective visual metaphor for the machine which absorbs and devours all the cultural energy.

Concord Air Intake

Museum of Liverpool

This recurring theme goes even further, also incorporating the black hole analogy into the design. The very heart of the building is a swirling vortex, the singularity within the black hole, emphasised by a central skylight above a space dubbed “public living room” by the designers. How can this possibly be a mistake? At night, light even pours from the central skylight, mimicking the Relativistic Jets of black holes- The building is an incredibly successful metaphor for the intended shaping effect that the building will have on Liverpool’s culture and identity.

Black Hole with Relativistic Jets

Museum of Liverpool Public Living Room

These design elements are not mistakes. The funnel like projections are capped with 8 by 28 metre picture windows, designed (according to the museum website) to offer ‘striking views of the city’… Actually, interior views of the city are incredibly restricted and feel intentionally so. Additional lighting from other skylights is hidden or downplayed. This design emphasises the inward flow of light, symbolising the inward flow of culture as it is absorbed by the space.

Dead Vs Living Museums

It is unusual to have a museum which contains a high proportion of contemporary objects and even higher proportion of Wikibitions. Usually museums contain objects either from a distant age or a far away place. Museums emphasise their importance by containing objects that are rarely be seen anywhere else (for example, the Berlin Naturkundemuseum uses it’s reference specimen of ‘first bird’ Archaeopteryx heavily in it’s promotional material). You can only visit Cheops Pyramid in Egypt (and Las Vegas, the most successful cultural vacuum). Many of artefacts within the Museum of Liverpool are not rare items, but mass produced contemporary objects. Museums traditionally contain rows of glass cabinets which display dead things.

Living museums like Blists Hill Victorian Town in Shropshire and Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex became popular in the 1970s and 80s. They reconstruct particular time periods and are staffed by demonstrators. In some museums, demonstrators talk in the third person, referring to the historical subjects as “they” or “them” (rather than in the first person “I” or “we”, believing that this allows visitors to more effectively compare modern techniques with those re-enacted at the museum. Other museums employ costumes, period speech, and character impersonations while performing the daily tasks and crafts of the period, in an attempt to transport visitors to another age. These museums have found particular popularity in the United States and Canada and in some cases portray gross inaccuracies in an attempt to create a certain idealised image. Wichita’s Old Cowtown Museum has been heavily criticised for using historically inaccurate replicas and building a romanticised Wild West movie set influenced by Hollywood. Living history has been summed up as “antiquarian, idyllic, or downright misleading.” The entertainment value of content is prized above and beyond it’s meaning.

It has been claimed that the purposes of many idealised living museums in the UK are celebrate the Churchillian fantasy of a Great Britain which closely resembles the spirit and values of Ancient Greece. A romantic idea of Great Britain formulated during bleak times. (see Adam Curtis documentary, The Living Dead). Unlike living museums in USA and Canada, the idealised image is based around portrayal of British people as noble, steadfast and pure of spirit.

Some museums present a grittier image, the purposes of which are apparently to make us shudder and thank God we are living today. Despite their less idealised image, such museums are still criticised for considerable inaccuracies within their content. Jorvik Viking Centre (which does not call itself as a museum) has been criticised for its “disney-like” presentation of the past and making the satisfaction of visitor expectations paramount.

The Joy of Simulation

A certain amount of reality, however, appears to be too much. An article in Seven Streets describes the introduction and subsequent removal of simulated smells in a reconstruction of The Cavern Club as part of The Beatles Story (which does not call itself a museum). ‘The Beatles Story opted to remove the smells some years back. Recreating the authentic claustrophobia of the Cavern is one thing. Pumping in a cylinder full of Eau d’Rotten Cabbage is quite another.’ Visitors do not want to experience reality in a museum. The cavern installation was too accurate, contained too much of the real for the visitor, giving them a less romantic false memory of a place they’d never know.

A chief purpose of such museums is to provide a visitor an experience of a filtered and sanitised history. The staff of demonstrators have freshly showered, brushed teeth and applied make-up before coming to work. They provide an amputated and disfigured simulation, free of amputation and disfigurement.

A living museum within Liverpool, of a contemporary Liverpool, is a step too far… A living, breathing parody, a mocking piss-take for the benefit of new city-dwellers and short term tourists alike. The Neanderthal Man waxwork in a diorama, reborn as a scouser to sneer and laugh at, would be too provocative. Inaccuracies that rely on ignorance would be all too embarrassingly apparent. Hence the videos and blown-up pictures. Absorbed, then cropped and edited to fit their distilled and purified notion of a culture.

The Museum of Liverpool Without Life

Is it by mere coincidence that when it moved, the title ‘Museum of Liverpool Life’ was changed to ‘Museum of Liverpool’? The Museum of Liverpool Life closed in June 2006. The Museum of Liverpool opened on 19 July 2011. What happened in this brief period? Did Liverpool die? I would argue that during this period the culture of Liverpool was solidified as a commodity.

The twin events of the 800 year anniversary (2007) and European Capital of Culture (2008) were unprecedented exercises in reflection for the city. Huge focus-grouped exercises aimed to pin down what Liverpool ‘is’. A post-mortem which distilled only the city’s most prominent creative and artistic output, only the city’s most prominent personality traits. These exercises had a huge influence on the curation of the museum. The EU’s stated purpose of Capital of Culture is primarily to ‘highlight the richness and diversity of European cultures’ but as a result of such determined analysis, the richness and diversity of Liverpool’s culture has been grossly simplified. Even with the most narrow research it’s still no surprise that the museum struggles to deal with contradictions.

The EU website continues, ‘studies have shown that the event is a valuable opportunity to regenerate cities and raise their international profile and enhance their image in the eyes of their own inhabitants’. Perhaps the goal of the Museum of Liverpool is not to celebrate the city, but to draw a line in the sand. Governments have been accused of using the term regeneration as a euphemism for ‘class-cleansing’ highlighted in Owen Hatherley’s article on the Urban Splash regeneration of Park Hill, Sheffield. Is the aim for the museum to be the execution ground and final resting place for Liverpool culture? Perhaps the Museum of Liverpool not only resembles a black hole, but also a tomb. The choice of facade (Jura Stone) is a building material regularly used for tombstones and mausolea. If so, then the building is a satirical Tour de Force. A memorial to Liverpool culture and a memorial to itself. A joyous celebration of the Beaubourg Effect made flesh.

The Capital Without the Culture

There are 2 places in contemporary culture where objects are displayed in the same manner as artefacts are displayed in a museum. Shops and Expos. Expos are vehicles for ‘nation branding’. Both environments exist ultimately for the generation for capital.

Addressing the Problems

The failure of the Museum of Liverpool is in the frantic pace and car crash between history and nation branding. Redefinition of the Museum as an Expo building would clarify the building’s role as a control centre for the city’s nation branding. The building would cease to be a museum and become the permanent base of a globally touring exhibition to promote outreach and encourage investment.

If a museum must exist, then it should be purged of all contemporary artefacts and a concerted effort made to reduce the proportion of Wikibitions. It is hard to know if a reversal of the post-mortem can be made, or if the constructed idea of Liverpool culture is stuck with Liverpool forever. I feel I would be more comforted if the destructive power of the Beaubourg Effect emanated from original artefacts and if the museum only claimed to know my city’s past.

Further Reading

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *