Last week I finally got the chance to visit the new Museum of Liverpool with my two-year-old son. The museum is featured in the RAI’s 2012 Summer Meetings Report which was compiled by Professor David Breeze and edited by me. It is available to all members of the Royal Archaeological Institute. This was, however, my first opportunity to visit this new museum in person.
It was a beautiful sunny day and we had a pleasant 1hr 10 minute train journey to James Street. We entertained ourselves watching other passengers, looking out the window and my son experimented with the digital camera: taking pictures of our hands.
We changed trains at Bidston, possibly one of the ten worst Network Rail stations in the country. Thankfully it looks like improvements are on the way as they were demolishing some of the station buildings: oblivion has to be better than this.
Deadly Killer SLBs
From James Street, we made our way straight to the museum, housed in a strikingly unpleasant but smart new building on the George’s Pierhead area of Liverpool docks. Outside was a line of four terrifying ‘superlambananas’ (hereafter ‘SLBs’) surely a fitting subject for a Doctor Who episode in which they come to life and wrestle power from the government and try to enforce a new SLB regime of mutton- and banana-free diets across the Merseyside region. These were replicas of the original SLB statue. They pepper the landscape of Liverpool, each daubed in distinctive commemorative themes linked to Liverpool’s heritage. The leading SLB outside the museum had caricatures of Liverpool’s more famous comedians and comic actors from greats like Arthur Askey to the more recent partial comedians who have sullied decades of family TV viewing with their mediocrity. My son enjoyed chasing pigeons away from the them but the SLBs didn’t seem to appreciate it. It wouldn’t surprise me if the grinning clown SLB didn’t eat them for its lunch.
Inside the Museum
Once away from the sinister and threatening presence of the SLBs, inside we got our priorities right. First of all we headed to the cafe which was superb; we gorged on a brunch comprised of a bacon butty, crisps and shortbread washed down by coffee and juice. Not a healthy start, but a good one, and nothing that would incur the wrath of hybrid SLBs.
What was there for me and my two-year-old son to see? I never saw it, but I sensed the disturbance in the Force created by the presence somewhere close by of an exhibit on the Beatles and Football: we instinctively avoided the second floor. On the first floor we encountered a display on a Liverpool-born transexual. Nearly as capacious was a display of military paraphernalia. The dockers and industry somehow found room on the ground floor.
What we did explore was the section that my son wanted to see: TRAINS! These were indeed superb. The overhead railway was represented by section of the metal superstructure with a train perched on top of it. You could go in the train and see mannequins; a drive and passengers more animated than many of the people we had sat next to on the Merseyrail train to get to James Street! Also, there were toy trains for Tobias to play with, and a toy docks where you could unload and load coal from barges to trucks and trains. There was also one of Britain’s oldest steam engines: Lion, a true wonder of the industrial revolution. Choo-choo-tastic.
Archaeology at the Museum of London
So what about the archaeology? From what I could gather, archaeology was dispersed into three areas.
1. Foyer – Prehistory inspires the only curvature in the structure, the spiral on the floor in the main foyer and the spiral staircase rising from it. These I suppose invoke the Calderstones’ Neolithic spiral rock-art.
2. On the ground floor there was a natural history and early prehistory section, also with the Calderstones displayed and some knapped flints.
3. Upstairs on the first floor was the main archaeology exhibit, the early part of the exhibit: ‘History Detectives’. This felt rather like a very cramped and abbreviated chronological run through from earlier prehistory to the Vikings. Such a smart new museum, but what an impoverished space for important archaeological displays! Oddly you encounter the Vikings first by the staircase and have to work forward and back from them. Space is utilised to the full through the fact that many exhibitions were climbing the walls high above us, but sadly well out of reach of young children to observe properly.
In the context of this blog, there were six pieces of mortuary archaeology that deserve note, although I cannot rule out there is more elsewhere in the museum that we missed.
a) the Calderstones derived from a Neolithc passage grave, long since destroyed. No real evidence is provided as to how it may have looked.
b) Collared urn – the Wavertree urn – implied the presence of the cremated dead from the Bronze Age, but they were placed too high to view into them in search of cremains.
c) A single skull was on display, now dated to the Roman period and given a facial reconstruction. It is great to see at least one body mobilised to display an ‘ancestor’ from Liverpool’s past.
d) a Roman tombstone of a woman, a useful balance to the male ancestor of the skull.
e) early medieval sculpture: replicas of the Overchurch ninth-century rune-stone and the West Kirby hogback stone, the latter part of the Viking display.
f) A temporary battlefield cross from the First World War was displayed amidst the military assortment.
So, in broad terms, human remains and mortuary monuments have a small but important part to play in defining the material history of Liverpool from early times within its newest museum. However, these elements werecompressed into an unfairly small space, and not afforded a clear connection to later times. Still, individually and collectively they created a sense of the diverse cultures that left their mark on the region through prehistory and into the historic era.
Death Inside and Out
I also want to point out another observation: while mortuary archaeology is present but modest in the museum itself, the Museum of Liverpool sits within a rich ‘memoryscape’ of memorials, in which the SLBs were but one sinister and tasteless element. This is because outside the museum on all sides are a host of memorials to all manner of groups and individuals linked to the military and industrial heritage of the great city, commemorating migration, the Battle of the Atlantic and the horses that worked in the docklands.
Death is also paramount in neighbouring museums, even if human remains are understandably not a part of the story. The Maritime Museum incorporates displays on the Titanic and other maritime disasters, and the International Slavery Museum inevitably has suffering and death at its core.
Perhaps it was deliberate that the Museum of Liverpool tried to keep death and the dead to a minimum in its galleries given the horrors of its ubiquity elsewhere around the docks memoryscape. Perhaps it is fitting therefore that the most tangible and ‘touching’ trace of an ancient person was not mortuary archaeology at all, but the cast of a Neolithic footprint.
On this optimistic foot note, we left the Museum of Liverpool and headed for the shop and out passed the SLBs to scare away more pigeons and investigate the Albert dock and its other museums. Archaeology was certainly absent from the shop; so instead we bought a Dad’s Army ‘Don’t Panic’ fridge magnet, and another magnet of the superb ‘Lion’ steam engine. In summary: some death, some monuments, lots of memory and a trainload of high-quality railway heritage. A fun dayout and despite the troublesome SLBs, plenty to do for free.