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									CAMOC’s Constituent Conference Moscow April 2005 Presentation by Ian Jones, Chadwick Jones Associates, London projects@cja-arts.com

A new museum of the city
And yet, what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere never-ending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past. From Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe by Chateaubriand, quoted in the German writer W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, 2002

According to the UN Economic and Social Council within two years 50% of the world’s population will be living in cities, cities like London, Moscow, Sao Paulo, Lagos, Beijing, Bangkok. In 1950 only 2 cities had a population of 10 million or more. Now there are 20. In the USA 87% of people live in cities, in Latin America and the Caribbean 78%. Across Europe, a majority of us live in cities although most, at least in Britain, would prefer to live elsewhere, preferably in the countryside. In the developing world cities are a magnet for the rural poor and they grow at alarming rates. The matters for debate on the city are almost endless: poverty, pollution, regeneration, sustainable development, public transport, the private car, population density. Then there is the increasing sameness of cities the world over, with chain stores spreading relentlessly across continents reassuring, or perhaps depressing, the visitor that Moscow or Tokyo are just like home. Before long cities will not be exciting places to visit, they will not be different and, at this rate, they will have lost their souls and that intangible quality which makes them unique. Again, in so many cities the centre, the heart of the city, is disappearing as people flee to the suburbs, places without civic landmarks and centres of activity. Cities can be beautiful, they can be ugly, noisy and dirty, but without them we would have nowhere to focus our energies, and without cities, without large concentrations of people there would be no emptiness, no wilderness, no countryside. Cities, in short, matter and we have yet to come up with a worthwhile alternative. Books on the city get written, governments propose measures to improve the urban environment, yet most our museums of cities have little to say about our present condition, and even less about our possible futures. My colleagues and I were commissioned to carry out a study of a proposal by the city of Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, to establish a museum about the city. Cardiff is a young th city, the product of the industrial revolution. Until around the middle of the 19 century it was a small, rather obscure town with a modest, unremarkable history. Then growth, built on the nearby coalfields, was spectacular and by the end of the century it was the world’s largest coal-exporting port. To put it simply, its history started not much more than 150 years ago. In those years no-one had systematically collected artefacts on this young city, certainly not the city council. Our research yielded up plenty of old photographs and films and a visual history of the city would be easy to compile. There were some objects collected by local people or held in various museums, such as a few old buses, a tram, some vintage cars, old police uniforms and oddments. That was just about it, and it soon became clear to us that a well-balanced museum of the city’s history could not be created, at least not one that would get people flocking in through the doors day in day out. What could be done? In our view, the best solution would be to start with the city as it is now and work back in time as interesting and relevant artefacts became available, but also to look forward to the future: in short Cardiff today, yesterday and tomorrow. We visited all the museums of cities in Britain and quite a few abroad. Museums dedicated exclusively and comprehensively to their city and its history are fairly rare in Britain. Some specialise in a significant part of the city’s history like the Manchester Jewish Museum, or explore the history of the city’s working people like The People’s Story in Edinburgh, or deal

with the city’s transport like the London Transport Museum. They are first-rate places, but do not, naturally, give the whole picture. Some, like the Museum of London, the world’s largest, examine and interpret the whole city, but few, however, deal with the present and future of the city as well as the past. Effectively they are city history museums, working their way through th the centuries. Strikingly, as the middle of the 20 century approaches material tends to peter out. The past – before 1950 – may be another country to be explored; yesterday and today are perhaps too close for comfort and too familiar. Contemporary, or near contemporary, items may well be in store, but they are not given prominence because the museum is presenting history. The result can be a feeling of disconnection with the city around the visitor, which is a living organism worthy of attention. Matters are rather different on the European mainland where museums of cities like Stockholm or Amsterdam deal with the city today as a matter of course. The model we eventually chose for the Museum of Cardiff was the Arsenal in Paris, which is not a museum strictly, but near enough. The Pavillon de l’Arsenal, to give it its full title, was set up in 1988. Owned by the City of Paris, it aims to broaden understanding of the evolution of Paris, explaining the architecture and texture of the city and how it has developed over the years, its condition today and its prospects for the future. The Arsenal deals essentially with urbanism: with buildings and streets, not people, except in so far as their lives are shaped by the built environment around them. Yet, it is a forum for explanation and debate and has helped Parisians to get a better understanding of their city and contribute actively to its development. The ethos is “it’s your city, not ours, we need your involvement.” It is where the Mayor places the Paris Plan Local for discussion and where major proposals are displayed before action is taken to implement them. The Arsenal is also a big tourist draw, not least because of its ability to explain the city and its development to the visitor. We proposed that the Museum of Cardiff Life should be an Arsenal, but about people as well as bricks, mortar and concrete. It would be a reference point for the city,reflecting its social and urban development with a collection highlighting the city’s identity, not a collection which could relate to any city, but one which would draw attention to the uniqueness of Cardiff. What would it be like in practice? We proposed creating a dramatic impact at the entrance to the Museum to draw people in: a large interactive arial map of Cardiff showing the city at various stages in its development: say, 1840, 1880, 1920,1960, 2005 - there is an admirable example at the Amsterdam Historical Museum. Inside the Museum visitors would be able to compare and contrast old and new Cardiff, via a web-cam which would be placed on a high building in the city so that visitors could pin-point particular areas to compare on screen the area today with photographs of what it was like, say, a hundred years ago. Permanent exhibitions would cover     the early 19 century - the effective starting point of the city as it is today th mid-late 19 century - the rapid growth of the city 1900-1945 - continued growth, the city during the second world war 1945 to 2000 – industrial and post industrial Cardiff

Traditional narrative displays, perhaps, but then the Museum would move on to:  Cardiff today and tomorrow, illustrating how today and tomorrow are built on the foundations of the past.

There would be short commissioned films and videos on specific city topics, and recorded reminiscences would feature strongly. Themes would cover city people, work, religion, sport, culture and city buildings. All quite conventional perhaps, apart from the emphasis given to the past and future. What will be needed in practice of course will be imagination, flair and originality of presentation: not always easy to achieve. Lectures, talks and seminars on all aspects of the city, past, present and future would be a regular feature, and the Museum would be the place where the city council would deposit plans for the city for discussion, as is done in Paris’s Arsenal.

The Museum would also move outside the walls and we proposed large photographs of the old city placed at strategic points, showing the immediate area as it was. If suitable objects relating to the city’s industrial heritage were available these would also be placed in appropriate places across the city to link the past with the present. Significant buildings would carry a plaque detailing their architect and their history. The Museum would inform visitors not only of the city’s history, but also its development, its character, what it is now and how it could be. It would reflect the human artefact which is the city, where the past is continually being reordered to serve the needs of the present. Above all, it would aim to capture the essence of the city, the intangible quality which gives the city its uniqueness. The Museum would be where people could debate matters of current concern and exchange ideas, but within the context of the city and its history. It would be a repository of city memories which connect past and present and look to the future. As Nichola Johnson, one of the few people to have written about museums of cities, put it: “The best city museums act as a starting point for the discovery of the city, which can lead people to look with fresh, more informed and tolerant eyes at the richness of the present urban environment and to imagine 1 beyond it to past and possible future histories.” Of course it is all make believe. There are other priorities for spending public money. Yet, there is no good reason, on paper, if nowhere else, why an existing museum of the city should not extend its brief into the present and future, linking both to the past seamlessly. It can do so without compromising its scholarly function. As Max Hebditch, the former Director of the Museum of London once put it: “Museums about cities need to interpret and explain 2 urban society and the processes of change at work within it.” This museum of the city might help spare us some of the more unfortunate aspects of urban living we are familiar with, not least by making us more aware of the richness which can be found in the most unlikely of environments, and those features and singularities that add up to create the distinctiveness of places. Awareness, after all, is the first step to improvement.


Discovering the city in Museum International, Unesco, Paris July-September 1995 Museums about cities, ibid

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