Urbis sent off: Manchester cultural hub to become football museum

Preston sport archive to be set up in popular exhibition centre that drew 250,000 visitors a year

It has been innovative, eclectic and that rare thing: a post-millennium project success story. But now the finishing touches are being put to the final ­popular culture show at Manchester's Urbis – for the centre is about to be booted out for football.

Redundancy notices have gone out to two-thirds of the staff at the Manchester exhibition centre and the outgoing chief executive, Vaughan Allen, says the ­process has been akin to grieving.

"The thing is we haven't failed," Allen said. "Commercially, our current year will probably be our best ever ­trading year. It's very hard to say to people you've been a great success but we're going to make you redundant, we hope there will be a job for you in 12 to 18 months' time."

Urbis, it was generally felt, had found its feet. With 250,000 visitors a year coming to see its ever-changing self-curated shows on subjects ranging from Manga to video games to urban gardening, it was a success story.

That was not always the case. Urbis (Latin for "of the city") was built in 2002 and is easily one of the most ­visually striking buildings in Manchester, ­resembling a glass ski slope with an indoor funicular.

The original idea was for Urbis to be a museum of the city but few really knew what that meant. It became, like so many post-millennium projects, something of a white elephant. Four years ago, with the arrival of Allen, a former style journalist, that changed. "We banned the word museum. The word museum does mean things in cabinets, and we didn't have any," Allen said.

The focus shifted towards representing popular culture in all its forms – fashion, music, television, gardening and so on – and having lots of ­changing shows that would be "zeitgeisty" and surprising. "We got to a point after a couple of years where we suddenly ­realised what we had created was a ­Sunday ­supplement," said Allen.

It seemed to be working: visitor numbers rose steadily and the place was popular with a young demographic group.

Then football came along. The National Museum of Football in Preston was in serious financial trouble and on the verge of closure. Its trustees approached Manchester city council, the main funders of Urbis, in the summer, and things moved quickly. After its final exhibition, the building will close to reopen as the new football museum in the summer 2011.

Urbis was working, its reputation was growing, people said, but times were tough and, in terms of public spending, would get tougher. Wouldn't football, in the long run, be more bankable?

There were arguments. Ken Hudson, leader at Preston city council, said the football museum trustees had "given two fingers" to the people of Preston and Lancashire. Artists and people working in the creative industries in Manchester also complained, setting up Facebook campaigns against it. But the lure of football won.

It will not be a case of just transplanting the Preston exhibits to Manchester in the hope more people will be interested in seeing them; lessons must "be learned", drawing on the way Urbis ­handled popular culture, said Allen.

However, he is rueful. He hopes a property developer will consider a new version of Urbis elsewhere in the city. Or even in other places in the UK.

"The real victory would be, in two or three years, eight, 10, 12 galleries in Britain looking at popular culture … it is ludicrous that there are no other ­galleries really supporting or showing it," said Allen. "We shied away from ­taking an academic approach to a ­subject and we liked doing stuff that was still alive and still happening, and I think that's an attitude that will go over to football." The new football museum will certainly have enough subjects, Preston being home to both the Fifa and  FA collections.

Meanwhile, in the centre's main ­galleries, Urbis' head of creative programmes, Pollyanna Clayton-Stamm, is leading the mad rush to prepare the final show, a display on the "best of Urbis". Downstairs the hip-hop show continues, and upstairs a nostalgic look at ­Manchester TV is busy with people lounging on sofas watching Shameless, and Coronation Street.

Clayton-Stamm and her team will be working at the football museum. "I do have mixed feelings," she said. "But I am looking ­forward to it. There is a huge potential with football and we'll be bringing an Urbis take to it. We're going out on a high. Walking in to Urbis this morning and seeing all the galleries filled with exhibitions is an immense feeling, I'm so proud of what we have achieved."

In his notes for the final exhibition Allen refers to the best popular culture being "of the moment and short". He said: "You should always end with the public wanting more. The Jesus and Mary Chain got it right, they never played for more than 30 minutes."


Mark Brown

The GuardianTramp

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