Monday 13 June 2011

Casting The Gallery's View on The M Shed Bristol's Newest Attraction

After nearly 5 years in development at a cost close to £25 million the much anticipated M Shed (previously known as the Museum of Bristol) will open it's doors to the public on Friday 17th June 2011. For those who are not aware, the new museum, designed to showcase exhibits and pieces charting the history of living in Bristol, sits within the framework of what used to be the Bristol Industrial Museum located on the city's historic, working docklands. I was privileged to be invited to M Shed for a sneak preview of some of the exhibits and features on show.

The new museum has a distinctively modern feel overall, with any traces of the old industrial museum completely absent. The staircase in the centre of the main hall as you enter seems to almost be suspended in mid air which can be both quite daunting and fascinating.

Here is what M Shed's website has to say about the new museum;
M Shed will explore the city’s history from prehistoric times to the 21st century. Stories about the city and its people have been discovered through working with experts and communities across the city – a process that will continue for the life of the museum.
So essentially this is the story of Bristol through the eyes of the people. What  I was not expecting was the emotional connection I would feel as I made my way from one display to another. The picture below is a display of old notices and literature of local events which might seem like just a collection of trivial memorabilia, especially to those not familiar with the city. The stand out piece for me is the poster advertising the Bristol Harbour Regatta, which took place in July 1980 and what makes this exhibit so special is that I remember attending this particular event.

I was ten years old and the day was an absolute scorcher when my parents brought me down to the harbour. I would stand as close to the edge of the dock as possible to watch the speedboat racing, before getting an Adam Ant style white line across my face and playing on the trampolines. I went home very hot, very tired but so excited I never wanted the day to the end. The regatta, better known today as the Bristol Harbourside Festival, was just as much of an exciting international event back then as it is today. To get a real "then and now" feeling of significant events in the city, made all the more real by personal memories was exciting and surreal.

For many Bristolians like me who have lived much of their lives in the city the M Shed promises a veritable trip down memory lane, such as the one I have recited. Other displays include memorabilia from Wills' Tobacco and Leaf UK (manufacturers of Elizabeth Shaw chocolates and one of my former employers). It examines Bristol life at every aspect from trade (including the city's darker aspects such as the slave trade), to everyday working life. It also looks at Bristolians leisure activities, passions and interests. Whether you love the cinema, music or sports there is something for everyone to peruse.

The M Shed's goal however is as much about celebrating as well as examining life in Bristol. There is plenty of focus on the diverse population that has enriched the city's cultural face, which it displays with a seamless flow. There are stories told by people and accompanying exhibits hailing from different races, nations and religions yet they all blend together as one.

As mentioned earlier the M Shed is also about the city's history of which there is an abundance. Glimpses of exhibits which highlight the city's marine history and innovative aviation influences grace the gallery (look out for a Concorde exhaust) but what is most fascinating is a look at Bristol's history of protest.  A montage of images depicting demonstrations and protests through the ages can be viewed featuring the nobility's protest against the slave trade by boycotting sugar to the birth of the women's suffrage movement, gay rights activism and so on.

There are many other displays, features, interactive panels all of which help to engage and inform any visitor about our amazing city. Some highlights include the Bristol Postcard Project, the affectionately named Bristologon, and many quality photographic portraits and models of the city's landmarks. If there is one slight drawback is that M Shed might mean more to those who have lived in the city for a time than passing visitors. Those who remember the old industrial museum might feel a sense of loss as they enter the now unrecogniseable M Shed but could also experience a new wave of nostalgia. For me it has at times been as much a personal journey as a glimpse of the city's past.

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