National Football Museum, Manchester


I visited the National Football Museum in Manchester with my wife and two teenage children back in October. We had an hour and a half before closing time – and time just flew by. We were all very disappointed when we were told that the museum was closing and we had to leave. So disappointed, in fact, that my son and I decided to return the following day.

Any museum should pride itself of managing to capture the attention of an entire family (with very different levels of interest in its subject) in this way. My son and I can be labeled football crazy, but you could hardly label my wife that – and certainly not my daughter. So it is really quite an impressive feat that the national football museum managed to keep us all captivated for 1½ hours.
Of course, our experiences were very different. We each went our separate ways through the exhibitions, sometimes converging around an exhibit, before following our own paths again. The thematic structure and open spaces within the galleries with no fixed route certainly facilitated this pursuit of individual interests – and at the same time allowed us to feel part of a group.


The structure
The exhibitions do not set out to tell the story of English football from the early days to the present. There is an introductory section about the early game in the main gallery on the first floor, but the rest of the gallery is thematically structured around the fans, the competitions, the “global game”, the stadiums, the media, and the players. And the second floor deals with the laws, fitness, managers (tactics), technical equipment , games and finally a number of stations where you can test your own skills.

So there is no storyline that you could or should follow, no chronology. The NFM avoids the classical mistake in museums, trying to transform the “great book” on a subject into an exhibition with the texts as the meaning making guideline and objects as illustrations to it. The objects, the photos – and not the least the many interactive stations – are allowed to draw the visitors’ attention freely – and the visitors are allowed to make their own meaning there. There is seemingly no ambition to lead the visitors from one station to the next.
Of course, there is a structure. There is a division between the more “technical” or “internal” structure of the game on the second floor and the more “cultural” or “historical” structure on the first floor. But there is no “direction of reading” you have to follow. This is certainly not the museum as a “temple”, it is rather the museum as a playground or toy shop. An exciting mixture of anticipation (“what is next?”), recognition (“there is Cantona!”), discovery (“women’s football drew big attendances during WW1 and was then banned!”), and playfulness (“what would you do as a referee?”). I find the English mix of culture history and art particularly appealing. In Denmark, cultural history exhibitions are usually devoid of art; but not only are the main galleries sprinkled with paintings like Lowry’s “Going to the match” and Browne’s “The art of the game”, the third floor contained the brilliant photos of Stuart Ray Clarke: “The homes of football” – probably the highlight of the museum.


In this way, the museum is true to the values expressed by director Kevin Moore in his book on Popular Culture and Museums from 1997, where he pleads for museums to focus on the material culture rather than re-mediating books on a certain topic to exhibitions, reducing the objects to illustrations. The freedom of not having to follow a fixed route is instrumental in making the museum so successful at accommodating family groups like ours.
On the other hand, it does make it difficult to create a focus in the exhibition, where you allow the audience to reflect on football at a more abstract or historical level. There is, for instance, not emphasis on the repercussions of the Taylor report and the subsequent transformation of English football. You get impressions of a pre- and post- premier league era in the sections on fans, on stadiums, on media, on players and on clubs. If these sections had been “structured” around the “Stadium disaster” film, each of them had could be split into a pre- and post- display, adding another level of historic reflection to the objects.


As it is, the historical dimension plays a very subdued role in the exhibition. It enables the exhibition to function as an exciting hunting-ground for visitors of all ages and interests – everybody being drawn to objects that catch their imagination. But it reduces the opportunities for visitors to reflect on the development of the game for good and for worse. And having said that, I found both the section on women’s football during WW1 and on Archibald Leitch’s stadium architecture spurring me on to searching for further literature afterwards. Which a good exhibition should do, instead of trying to load the visitors with information that could be acquired in a better way in a book or a film.

The interactivities
For my daughter, the interactivities were the milestones on her route around the museum. And a lot of effort (and money) has been put into them. Some are basically information stations, where you can find information about clubs, stadiums etc., others are a sort of knowledge game (for instance, linking names and crests or you are the referee), others pure entertainment. They are supplemented by the Football Plus activities. Here you can buy tickets to test your football skills by playing one-twos, passing, doing tricks, testing your reactions – or taking a penalty against a digital goalkeeper.


The penalty shoot-out has a lot of appeal. You have to outwit the digital keeper and at the same time you want to demonstrate a powerful shot (the velocity is measured and displayed for everybody to see) – and to add a little spice, the goal is from the old Wembley stadium. Compared to this, the other activities (for which you have to pay) are rather flat, especially the “trick session”. You select, for instance, the Cruyff turn as your trick, you see it on a film – and then you are asked to do it yourself. You may do it rightly or wrongly – and after about a minute, your time is up. I must admit, I found it difficult to see the point in paying for that.
The same applies to some of the information desks. For instance, “Around the grounds” is an activity screen for those – like me – interested in football grounds. It is situated next to a text plate on stadium architect Archibald Leitch and his architectural style from the early 20th century – and a couple of relics from these grounds like a seat from Roker Park and an old floodlight bulb from Bradford Park Avenue.
I would have expected to find information about the transformation of Leitch’s football grounds to the modern stadium in the digital information desk, but all I got was a digital model of Old Trafford’s current appearance, information on founding year (1910), current capacity, record attendance – and a photo of the view from the stands. It felt rather flat and disappointing.

In this case, it seems to me that the NFM has been more concerned with making something digital to activate the visitors than focusing on the experience of the visitor – what are you supposed to get out of it? This is, of course, something that happens quite often in museums, and the NFM in general is certainly making better use of these interactivities than most of them. But I do get the suspicion that the designers have recommended a certain amount of interactive stations around the galleries to make them come alive, and that this may explain why some of them seem a bit pointless. If the strategy, indeed, is to have some sort of activity at any theme around the exhibitions, I think the NFM should have done more to engage the audience and invite them to share their experiences. Why not have an interactive ‘station’ by the football grounds, inviting people to share their stories of their first visit to a football ground? Or their memories of now demolished grounds?
To me, the strength of the NFM is its ability to use objects as memorabilia – to evoke good and bad memories for the passionate fan. Memorabilia in this connection are not just souvenirs made for fans. It is tickets, programmes, players’ shirts from matches and moments you remember. These things activate your memories – and make you want to share them with somebody. To accommodate visitors to share their memories would add another layer to the objects and probably open them to even more visitors.
Perhaps this could be an area for the museum to look into, when they evaluate the exhibitions and assess how to develop them. Having said that, there is no denying that the interactivities in general were the highlight for my daughter – and the penalty shoot-out the highlight for my son. In the overall design, they are probably intended primarily for visitors with little or no memories or experiences to share – and make sure that they also have a good time at the museum. But even if the NFM decides not to cut down on the present interactivities, I would recommend that they were supplemented with some story/memory-sharing layers around the exhibitions.


The objects
To stay with the section on football grounds for a minute, it contained some of the most memorable objects. A turnstyle and a crush barrier. And as mentioned an old, wooden seat from Roker Park. And an invitation for the only wedding ceremony to be performed at Highbury. Some of the other objects in the section are less obvious to link with the theme. Three matchday programmes; one of them from the first match at Old Trafford, another from the last match at the old Wembley. Of course, it is not difficult to see how the curators have linked these objects to the history of famous grounds – and therefore found them appropriate for this section. However, given the use of programmes in their own right in previous sections on fandom, they somehow become a bit distracting here. The same goes for Ian Rush’s shirt from a testimonial match at Anfield. The apparent link to the subject of the section being a quote from a Liverpool supporter, who complains that seating has taken the atmosphere out of football – and longs for the standing Kop. Again – given the number of shirts on display around the museum, this one is more of a distraction from the objects related to football grounds than enhancing the focus on the subject.


You could argue that the NFM in this case actually do use objects as illustrations to the text. We need to put a bit of Anfield, Old Trafford and Wembley into the showcase. What have we got? A shirt and two programmes? Which goes to show that even if you do decide to give objects priority to “grand history”, you still may have some storylines that define your choices and actually take some of the power out of the objects.

Having said that, there are several displays that are highly successful. I particularly enjoyed the “Got! Not got!”, “A pie and a pint” and “Passport to heaven” with a rich range of programmes, collectors cards, tickets, posters, bottles, memorabilia etc. Which, in fact, are not dissimilar to the display on “players”, where you can find all sorts of George Best memorabilia. Once again, you could argue that the NFM is using the same sort of objects to “illustrate” different stories. But that would be rather academic, because both displays work well. They may, however, not draw the attention of the same visitors. My son, for instance, was drawn to the George Best memorabilia because of the “stardust” of George Best, whereas the director of Liverpool Museums David Fleming in his review of the museum in the Museums Journal is rather annoyed by the many Manchester United–related objects; and probably has preferred the “anonymous” memorabilia displays that my son skipped.

This leads me on to one of the main challenges for the NFM – and indeed any football museum. Football is tribal. Our visit to the museum wouldn’t have been quite as successful if it hadn’t been for the many displayed Manchester United objects. Apart from the penalty shootout, my son highlighted the George Best stuff and the Eric Cantona painting; the information on Manchester United and old United shirts. Even my daughter liked the Cantona painting and some of the other things she “recognized”. I wonder how many objects you would have found, if you were, say, a Stoke City supporter? And how that would have reflected on the overall impression?
That leads to the final point – the location and the building. To me, it seems natural to place the museum in Manchester. Manchester is – at least at the moment – the capital of English football, with United and City dominating the premiership (and a year or so ago, I read an article on Greater Manchester having the highest number of clubs/fans in the UK). This, however, does not go down well with people from, say, Liverpool, as you can see from David Fleming’s review.
The location in Manchester adds to the buzz around the museum. When Ajax played City in the Champions league, their players visited the museum prior to the match; stars from both Manchester clubs turn up occasionally, and apparently former stars do guided tours in the museum – we saw Paul Power of Manchester City guiding a group of kids. It adds to Manchester as a central destination for footballing tourism.


The Urbis building may not be ideal for a museum – but I think the NFM has made the most of it, by providing a distinct experience. The entrance through a tunnel (with great photos of footballing fans through the ages) and past a turnstyle leading to the hall of fame works really well. And the museum is boosted by a great shop and a friendly staff. And a good restaurant and bar at the top of the building with a view over Manchester City Centre.

Favourite object:
With the Stuart Clark photos forming a temporary exhibition, I have to go for something else. Being a football fan, it is difficult not to be biased, but I will try and put the George Best memorabilia aside and instead go for the 1890’s women’s football kit that was “shockingly revealing” – just ahead of the radio, where you can tune into “sports report”. The latter evokes memories of all the Saturday afternoons spent by the radio during my youth; but the former is visually striking – and has spurred me on to read about womens’ football up to and under WW1.


So – if the NFM was a footballer, which character would it be? I would probably go for Matthew Le Tissier. A thrilling Saturday afternoon! So much talent, so much skill, so many spectacular moments – not weighed down by defensive responsibilities (such as putting everything in a historical perspective). A source of inspiration that can turn an ordinary team into an exciting spectacle. A brilliant player not in your team that you always looked forward to seeing. A loyal one-club man, sticking to his principles; but in doing that leaving a lot of people wondering what he could have achieved, if he had had a go at the very highest level with the big clubs. My son, however, a bit along the same lines, went for Eric Cantona. Perhaps if the NFM exposes itself through exchanges of opinion with the crowd/audience, I will go for that too. As it is, I will stick with Matt Le Tissier. Which is meant as a compliment – but as he is not in the Hall of Fame, the museum may disagree.

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Posted in Football museum, Football museums

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