Distance brings a degree of objectivity and sobriety. Urbis closed just over two years ago and with the replacement National Football Museum now opened, this seems as good a time as any to reflect.
Urbis belonged to a long list of Blair-era millennial projects. These were cultural venues typically built with form over content, architectural style over inner substance and often forming the gild-edge of an urban regeneration project. Most of these venues faced unstable futures and have either fundamentally changed their purpose of folded into obscurity. The Millennium Dome is now the O2 Arena. The National Centre for Popular Music is now the Sheffield Hallam University Student’s Union. The Public struggled to ever open and the Earth Centre is an abandoned site. The National Football Museum’s near bankruptcy in Preston led directly to Urbis’ own closure. While it would be going too far to say that Urbis’ closure was inevitable, it certainly wasn’t unique.
A friend and former Urbis co-worker, Steve Hanson, recently mentioned that over the years Urbis acted as a sort of barometer for the UK’s political landscape. It opened in 2002, during the height of New Labour and Tony Blair. It’s first significant change – from being a set of permanent exhibitions as the ‘Museum of City Life’ to becoming a temporary exhibition space reflecting urban and popular culture – ran parallel with the premiership of Gordon Brown. Its closure in 2010 coincided with the election of the conservative led Coalition and the new National Football Museum has opened with the same Coalition in a fragile state. It’s closure, and the staggered sacking of its staff, also occurred during the greatest recession since the 1930s. This is only a loose mapping, but it’s nonetheless interesting and provides an entry into Urbis’ wider backdrop.
If this background of failed millennial projects and recession-era closures casts a shadow, it’s not one that reflects my own experience of working there. Without trying to romanticise the place, working at Urbis became a formative experience for me. It was at once a learning curve and an opportunity to work in creative and necessarily experimental surroundings. The shift from holding staid, permanent exhibitions to becoming a temporary space was a monumental undertaking as the original exhibits were part of the very fabric of the building. It also meant the staff had to negotiate an ephemeral cultural space – somewhere between museum, art gallery, community centre and corporate venue, yet always none-of-the-above. This shift also opened up the possibility for a wide ranging set of exhibitions. Among my personal favourites were Sex, Seditionaries and the Sex Pistols, Arrivals and Departures: New Art Perspectives on Hong Kong, Reality Hack: Hidden Manchester and Black Panther: Emory Douglas and the Art of Revolution.  It was during this time that the Visitor Programmes team established Urbis City Tours. Over the three years that the tours operated we had taken over 14,000 visitors around our exhibitions and the wider city, eventually receiving Enjoy England accreditation. The tours were a chance to explore and experience local politics, history, geography and, perhaps importantly, it added an external facing element to the venue. It was this sort of exteriority that helped make Urbis unique in some ways.
Urbis certainly wasn’t without criticism, but I was devastated by its closure. Unfortunately, the closure became a drawn-out process with some bitter absurdities attached to it. While the Museums Journal was declaring Black Panther: Emory Douglas and the Art of Revolution to be a marker for future exhibitions, Manchester City Council was announcing Urbis’ closure in the local media. Added to this was the David Brent-esque performances of local councillors: “You’ll be losing your jobs, but the National Football Museum’s going to be great!”.
It’s testament to the staff and environment at Urbis that many of its projects continued on. The Reclaim Project continues to mentor and work with disadvantaged teenagers across Manchester.  The Urbis Research Forum relocated to the University of Manchester and continued to run seminars for a further year.  The Language Sofa is still offering language lessons and the creative production company Curated Place can trace some of its lineage back to Urbis. [5,6]
I don’t like to hold grudges and think nostalgia can be poison, so I paid a visit to the National Football Museum shortly after it opened. This isn’t the place to review it, nor do I ever intend to, but it is far improved from its days in Preston. That said, it wasn’t without a certain sense of disappointment that I walked through the new museum. It was like returning to a former family home, with new occupants, new walls and strange furniture.
 ‘Black Panther: Emory Douglas and the Art of Revolution, Urbis, Manchester’ (2009) Museums Journal, Issue 109/3, 44-47. March.