Wandering around Urbis has left the building at the weekend, it was hard not admire the achievements of Urbis. Urbis was a proper Manchester museum fully in tune with the confident concept of the original modern city, birthplace of the industrial revolution and now a world centre for the popular culture of the post industrial age.
That was never going to be an easy sell, but there is no doubt that its most recent exhibitions demonstrated that Urbis had found its groove, only for the city council to suffer a sudden crisis of confidence and, without consultation, poach the failing National Football Museum from Preston. (Which really doesn’t want to come to Manchester.)
The National Football Museum is quite a gamble for Manchester. Urbis will close with visitor numbers at a high of 250,000 a year. The National Football Museum attracts just 100,000 to Preston, but is targeted with quadrupling that to 400,000 thanks to its swanky new address. If it doesn’t, the arts throughout Manchester will suffer.
And there are good reasons to suspect that a National Football Museum will fail wherever it is situated. Football is a tribal pursuit. You support your team through thick and thin. You don’t worry about who owns the team or what players get up to off the pitch and quickly forgive them sins on the pitch. You may exhibit as much bias and prejudice as you like. It’s an outlet for all that stuff.
When it comes to artefacts, what’s sacred to one set of fans is less than worthless to another, which is why it makes sense for each club to have its own collection of memorabilia.
This points to the central flaw in a National Football Museum. Museums intellectualise their subjects — that’s what they’re for — but football is not an intellectual pursuit, nor does it aspire to be an intellectual pursuit. Nor should it aspire to be an intellectual pursuit. And that’s why the National Football Museum is doomed to miss its challenging targets.