When I visited the Liverpool FC museum back in February 2013, I really liked it. Perhaps too much text, perhaps a little worn-down, perhaps the layout a bit dated. But there was plenty of passion, and there were thick descriptions of Liverpool FC in different decades.
As a Manchester United supporter, it was hard to get through the seventies and eighties without ever even being close to winning the league – and at the same time to see Liverpool win it over and over again. Somehow the exhibition revived my boyhood memories of Liverpool as something special.
I was so fortunate to meet Liverpool curator Stephen Done after my visit in February, and we seemed to be on the same wavelength as to what was fascinating about football museums. So my expectations were quite high, when Stephen not only told me that the Liverpool museum would be relaunched in October 2013, but also send me an invitation to the opening with Brendan Rodgers (Unfortunately, I coudn’t fit in an Engand visit at the time, but managed to make it a few weeks later).
Alas, the new Liverpool museum doesn’t live up to those expectations. The graphics and layout has been modernised, there is a new digital guide, where you can get little stories and comments from Liverpool legend Phil Thompson. But more importantly, the entire structure of the exhibition has been changed.
From being primarily a chronological exhibition, with very long descriptions of football at the start of the 20th century, in the 1950’s and the 1970’s, the museum is now predominantly a ‘hall of fame’. After the first few displays on the story of Liverpool FC being founded to replace Everton, who had moved from Anfield, most of the space in the museum is taken up by huge photostats on great goalkeepers, great defenders, midfielders and strikers, followed by the managers and triumphs in Europe.
There are a few detours to the fans and the ground – and there is a timeline listing the triumphs. Defeats are hardly mentioned in this, almost exclusively wins. Relegations in 1895 and 1904 do not feature, neither does the match fixing scandal in 1914. Whereas the old exhibition featured the 1950 FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal with an entire showcase and elaborately detailed description, it is now barely mentioned in the FA cup section of the new exhibition. The objects on display in the FA Cup section are only from wins.
Moreover, in focusing on heroes and trophies, the new Liverpool museum becomes very ahistorical. Players are only interesting because of their number of games, goals, medals – and particular style of play. They are not seen in their historical context, let alone used to shed light on this.
The Liverpool museum possesses several objects from the early days of the club. The “birth certificate”, a tender for building the first stand, a director’s walking stick with the Liverbird from 1892, a turnstile, crush barrier and a brick from the old Kop, a WWI rattle found under the Anfield Road stand with the inscription “You Will Hear Us Every Saturday”, old scarves and banners, Bill Shankly’s typewriter, one of his broken number plates (proving that he was a notoriously bad driver), and a selection from Bob Paisley’s travelling medical kit.
But the objects are not really used to tell about how Liverpool has developed nor to relate to wider societal developments. Instead the museum tries to distillate a timeless essence of the club.
“A football club is nothing without its supporters and, as it’s been proved on countless occasions in the past, Liverpool FC can genuinely claim to have the best in the business! Since our formation in 1892 you have been the heartbeat of this club, standing by the team through thick and thin, in triumph and tragedy, at home and away. Universally known as the ‘12th man’, there’s an endless supply of stories about how the Liverpool crowd have come to the team’s rescue down the years, roaring the Reds on to victory when defeat seemed inevitable. Famed for their ingenious banners that have set the benchmark for wit and humour, such fanatical backing has often been described as akin to a one-goal lead. Whether from Kirkdale or Kuala Lumpar, you are a special breed and together have ensured that the directors, managers, coaching staff and players of this club have never walked alone.”
Just like in the “old” museum, the text is still long, but instead of giving a ‘thick’ historical description, it delivers a universal branding appraisal. Why not tell the story of the development of terrace songs in the sixties? Or the “ingenious banners”? Or about how the crowd has changed as the supporters of Kuala Lumpar take up more and more seats, leaving the local kids outside the ground? In the old exhibition, showcases about the different decades contained fans’ scarves, banners, rosettes, rattles etc. to show how the consumption of football has developed together with the game – and the rest of society.
Another example is the way the impressive model of Anfield Road 1928-56 is presented. Previously a fantastic series of photos of the ground and the surroundings through the decades were displayed on huge photostats on the walls of the room. For instance, there was a photo from 1893 showing the street life with children playing in the streets – a photo taken to prove that children were being used to fetch beer for their “drunken” parents! The series went on with the stadium plans of Archibald Leach, the story of the Spion kop, the rebuilding in the swinging sixties on to the modern all-seater stadium. In the new museum, this has been replaced by a timeline telling about Liverpool’s wins. There is, admittedly, a new timeline about the stadium in a passage from the section on the Liverpool fans. But this is more a matter-of-fact line about replacement of old stands than a passionate description of what going to Anfield was like in different decades.
It is not that the Liverpool museum shy away from controversy. There is a very moving section marking the Hillsborough and the Heysel tragedies as two equally tragic events – in contrast with the National Museum of Liverpool that only focus on the Hillsborough tragedy.
But overall, the dominant focus on star players’ achievements and trophies without connection to the historical context has changed the place from being a museum of interest for football fans to a hall of fame for Liverpool supporters. And perhaps a branding platform for casual touist visitors who will the impression that you are guaranteed success as a Liverpool supporter.
To me, as a historian and museum professional – as well as a football fan – that is a disappointing direction for one of the best football museums to take.