Wednesday, 16 November 2011

M Shed

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be taken on a behind the scenes guided tour of M Shed, Bristol’s new museum which has gained a great deal of attention lately.

It has a remarkable number of parallels with Birmingham’s Think Tank and I thought it might me interesting to share here my thoughts about the place.

M Shed replaced the old Bristol Industrial Museum, a much loved attraction on the City’s dockside but one which was not particularly well known to visitors. It’s fair to say that the Industrial Museum had become rather “worn”, although this always begs the question of who allowed that to happen in the first place?

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Think Tank and miss Birmingham’s old Museum of Science and Industry very much. I don’t like over-reliance on interactive displays, nor a tendency to concentrate only on younger visitors. So it’s fair to say that hearing a lot of buzz-words used in conjunction with M Shed didn’t fill me with optimism.

First impressions were good, though. The new museum takes full advantage of its position on the docks, with huge picture windows giving a truly panoramic view of Bristol’s skyline.

The second Big Thing is that admission is still FREE. There are the usual donations elicited and nominal charges for things like guided tours but otherwise, people can come and go as they wish. Not an easy thing to achieve in this day and age and Bristol City Council is to be applauded for it.

We were led first to the Museum’s store, where objects not currently on display are held. As with most museums, M Shed can only show s relatively small part of its collection at any given time but they’ve approached this “problem” in an innovative way, undertaking to change a proportion of their displays every year. In this way, things don’t languish out of sight for ever and people are given something new to come and explore each year, encouraging return visits. The store was very reminiscent of Birmingham’s Museum Store in Nechells, although it’s much more regularly accessible and the labelling was especially good so that even though things were stacked everywhere, you could easily see what they were.

Then it was into the Museum proper, which is arranged thematically rather than chronologically. As a chronological sort of person, I found this quite difficult, at least at first. But there’s no denying that it’s a though provoking approach and it does encourage looking at things from a different angle. There are three permanent galleries, looking at “Bristol Places”, “Bristol People” and “Bristol Life”.

But this juxtaposing of related but different subjects does work to some extent. For example, in “Bristol People”, the section dealing with the difficult subject of the slave trade is cheek by jowl with sections looking at Bristol’s race relations and the famous (in Bristol anyway) bus boycott in the sixties, prompted by the local bus company refusing to employ non-white staff.

Talking of buses, bus building was a big Bristol industry and they have, as one of the most prominent exhibits in “Bristol Places”, a complete Bristol bus (an FLF Lodekka, for the cognoscenti!). This was used as a sort of “gateway” to exploring transport in the City generally, looking at waterways, roads, housing and factories.

The interactive displays weren’t overdone. Indeed, I found those examining the topography of the City to be the most effective way of telling that story. However, they had loudspeakers, not microphones and when two (or three or four) are being used simultaneously I could imagine it might be jolly difficult to concentrate or even hear your “own”.

The “Bristol Life” gallery was a bit too left of field for me (oh Museum traditionalist that I am!) but might well work in bringing the place to the attention and interest of those who don’t normally visit museums. And in any case, out on the dockside there’s plenty more stuff to keep me enthralled with the cranes (a real feature of the city) boats and dockside railway all integral parts of the Museum.

So, M Shed gets a pretty reasonable thumbs up from me; 7/10 for the statistically minded. Go and take a look.

(While you’re there, by the way, don’t miss out on the City’s many other attractions not least the splendid City Museum & Art Gallery up the hill near the University. This too is free and is felt to compliment M Shed. I rather liked the ethos that “M Shed shows Bristol to the World, while the City Museum & Art Gallery shows the world to Bristol.”)

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