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Urbis boss 'bitter sweet' over its future in Manchester
Vaughan Allen in Urbis
'Bitter sweet' - Vaughan Allen on the end of an era at Urbis

On 27 February 2010, Urbis shuts its doors before it reopens next year as home of the National Football Museum.

Opened in 2002 as a new £30m 'museum of the city' it closes with exhibitions on UK hip hop, North West television and Rusholme's Curry Mile.

However, Urbis' offerings on pop culture have failed to earn it a reputation as a premiere attraction.

Richard Turner spoke to chief executive Vaughan Allen about Urbis' past, present and football future.

Q: How do you feel about this new chapter for Urbis?

"Bitter sweet to be honest. We've had a very successful year. In the last two years, we've really hit our stride in terms of exhibitions, in terms of where we are commercially, we're exactly where we want to be. But the decision's been made [to turn Urbis into the National Football Museum] and I can see the strategic logic in that."

Q: Do you agree with that decision?

opened 27 June 2002
set up cost £30m plus £2m a year from Manchester City Council
2002 - 2004: Museum of the City
2004 - 2010: Exhibitions on popular culture eg. Peter Saville Show, Emory Douglas, How Manga Took Over the World
2011: to re-open as National Football Museum

"If you're a high up member of the council in Manchester, a city associated with football globally, and someone offers you the National Football Museum, you've only got one sort of decision! However, if you look at the museum and gallery sector across Britain and the world, there's a massive squeeze going on. Art galleries [in Manchester] are talking about selling off artworks to fund things, people are going on short time, and basically, we don't know where we're going to be in two or three years time.

"The assumption is that football will bring in more visitors than we do currently, which I'm sure it probably will. But also, the commercial and sponsorship opportunities are just on a different level."

Q: Is there room for football AND popular culture in Urbis?

"We looked very early on about whether we could do say, football on one floor and music or whatever on another. Which seems like a nice idea until you think: when Urbis started, nobody knew what it was. One of its real problems was that people walked in and just went: well what is it? And basically recreating that because you're not using the benefit of the name National Football Museum, sticking it in huge letters on the side of the building, which is what it needs if you really want to make 350,000 visitors a year.

"So we said, if you're going to do football, make it the best football museum in the world, do it properly. do it with the Urbis spirit... and get it right. So no it will have to be somewhere else in the city. Or nowhere and be a set of exhibitions that just moves around."

Q: So where did Urbis get it right or wrong?

When Urbis started, nobody knew what it was. One of its real problems was that people walked in and just went: well what is it?
Vaughan Allen, Urbis chief executive

"Over the last two years, we've put together a programme that is really, really strong. Basically, there are two ways of doing popular culture: the traditional museum way is looking at all the detritus of what people did 30 - 40 years ago. What we did was to say 'right, when we look at something like hip-hop. we throw ourselves into it and give an experience that is very vibrant, very visceral.' So that, whether you're a fan or not, you really understand what it's like to be a fan of hip hop.

"I think we made mistakes. I think where we struggled was in terms of visual arts and how do you deal with something that has a huge fan base or is continually changing. For example, at the Manga exhibition, we had to tackle a lot of people who knew a lot more about Manga than we did."

Q: So, what are you most proud of?

"I'm proud of our role in supporting Manchester creatives. For example, it was wonderful when we had Holly Russell winning the Best of Manchester Fashion this year and six weeks later, the dress that was on exhibit here, was being worn by Lady GaGa for a premiere. I'm proud that we've done stuff that no-one else would think to do. For example, urban gardening was the quirkiest exhibition we did. And of course, The Emory Douglas exhibition [named exhibition of the decade]."

Q: If you could start all over again with Urbis, what would you change?

Emory Douglas image
Highlight: The Emory Douglas exhibition

"The idea of being the 'museum of the city' just didn't work. The major change would have been making sure the building works better than it does for exhibitions. The famous £2m a year that we get from the council, probably 75% of that goes on running the building. So, though it's a beautiful building that fits absolutely with what we want to do, it's pretty difficult to manage and it's hard to work within it."

Q: Why have you chosen to finish with a 'best of Urbis' retrospective?

"I think it was important. I didn't want to go through a process where we spent three, four, five months sobbing our hearts out about what we could have had. There is a bright future for the building. I also think it's really important exercise to sum stuff up and say, 'yeah we should be bloody proud of what we've done and what brought to Manchester and do what is very Mancunian thing to do."

Q: What we can expect of the new National Football Museum?

"I think the most important element will be that it will be using football to tell other stories: you can basically tell the social history of Britain from 1850 or 1860 onwards through football. You will be still getting great temporary exhibitions out of it. And probably more, to be honest, for a family audience as well.

"In terms of what it brings to Manchester it's going to be a major attraction and I'm sure it will bring in the visitor numbers that people say it will."

Current exhibitions 'Urbis Has Left the Building'; 'The Story of UK Hip Hop'; 'Ghosts of Winter Hill' and 'Curry Mile' all close on 27 February 2010


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