Bristol’s newest museum, the M Shed, which opened on 17 June, attempts to tell the story of the city through not only the thousands of objects one expects of a museum but by letting the people tell their own tales. By displaying artefacts from many ordinary Bristolians’ past, Bristol’s social history is on show too here.
The M Shed’s angle is summed up in its tagline: Bristol’s Museum, Bristol’s Stories. It focuses on three themes, each of which has a dedicated space: Bristol Places, People and Life.
Places is the first stop on the ground floor and kicks off by explaining the city’s origins as a settlement around a bridge using some nice models and interactive computer displays. But causing the greatest interest during PE’s visit was a huge aerial photo of the city on the floor, prompting many visitors to search for their homes.
Around the walls of Places hang photos from several of Bristol’s distinct areas, such as Brislington, Easton and Redcliffe. While these names probably mean little to outsiders, it is all part of the effort to include the details as well as the city’s more familiar narrative. However, inclusion of a pair of fairly ordinary door handles from a suburban cinema, which still stands but has been empty for decades, is perhaps a little too much focus on the micro, rather than the macro.
In People, all the usual faces now associated with Bristol are present, from Brunel to Banksy via captains of industry, social reformers and the ubiquitous Wallace and Gromit. Other spaces here deal with less comfortable territory such as civil unrest and the surprisingly numerous Bristol riots of the past 120 years or so.
An entire room is dedicated to the slave trade, providing a sombre reminder of the city’s role – and its subsequent income – in taking people out of Africa in the most horrific conditions imaginable for a life of slavery.
The third, smaller, Bristol Life hall presents video screens of Bristolians declaring their love for the city, alongside exhibits consisting of what might kindly be called memorabilia. This is where the people’s stories are to the fore; a Teddy Boy jacket dominates one glass case, old sporting equipment another.
Throughout M Shed, everything is well presented, bright and colourful and with a good smattering of touchscreen displays to explain specific subjects. There are items of particular interest for engineers, although the science and engineering section takes equal billing with other local industries and so needs a bit of seeking out. Less easily missed are the many transport-related exhibits: a pair of steam locomotives, a BAC aircraft and a Bristol double-decker bus, all lovingly restored and looking great.
Similarly restored are four dockside cranes sitting outside this former cargo shed – the museum’s name is recognition of its past as one of the many alphabetically named warehouses that stretched the length of the harbour. The cranes are operational and open to the public on certain days.
Beyond these exhibits, there is little emphasis on science and engineering, which seems a shame. For a city with an economy still so dependent on aerospace and defence, it feels a little incongruous that as much space is given to these industries as others, like shoe and chocolate making, that have all but disappeared.
In its defence, by attempting to cover all the bases, the M Shed can’t take an in-depth look at any one subject in particular. However, it seems sadly ironic that the premises hosted the Bristol Industrial Museum until 2006, when the £27 million M Shed build project began.
This gripe aside, there is much to recommend about this bright and lively museum, particularly for younger members of the family.
- The M Shed is free to enter and is open six days a week – closed Mondays, except bank holidays. Rides on boats, trains and cranes are available on certain days. Check the website www.mshed.org for dates.
- Have you been to M Shed? Tell us your thoughts by leaving a comment.