In the good old days before tax became a dark, centralised and ever-more complex art, (despite politicians always saying that they are going to simplify things), when decisions were transparent and made with local involvement in decision making, the British Parliament in 1852 passed legislation to create a new public library and museum/art gallery in Liverpool and gave the local council the power to levy a penny in the pound on property rates towards the maintenance of the library, art museum and botanic gardens.
The library and museum opened in 1852 but, bursting at the seams, it soon moved to a new building opposite St George’s Hall, built following a competition design by Thomas Allom, amended (and simplified) by the borough surveyor John Weightman. A casualty of war, the building was extensively damaged in the Second World War and it is a credit to the city fathers of Liverpool that they resisted any temptation to demolish and rebuild with a 1960’s concrete block. The library and museum were reconstructed and today, along with the Walker Art Gallery and St George’s Hall, stand as a unique neo-classical cultural quarter in England.
The Museum reopened its first phase of reconstruction in 1966 and then, reading the history of the museum, it seems that the next decades were full of ongoing change with new displays and future phases of building works until the completion of the recent major redevelopment in 2006 and its new role as the Museum of the World, in the meantime surviving a proposal to create a ‘Fourth Grace’ to be designed by Will Alsop.
The £35 million redevelopment by architects Law & Dunbar-Nasmith created a new entrance into a new soaring central atrium space created in an old courtyard, with lifts and staircases connecting to all the main gallery spaces, increasing the size of the museum and creating a new special exhibition gallery which this summer has been taken over by China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors.
It is unfair, but you inevitably make comparisons with the blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum a decade ago, in which there were more of the full-size figures, but perhaps less of the overall history, so Liverpool has more breadth and less fireworks, albeit it ends on a stunning high with the Golden Horse of Maoling.
My one complaint is the introductory video, which feels like a promotion of China by the tourist authority; it would have been much more powerful to have told the story of the discovery of the terracotta warriors, what visitors can see today, and what archaeological work is ongoing.