On The Waterfront (Merseyside Maritime Museum)

LEE RUDDIN visits the On The Waterfront exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum

Most, if not all, interested local folk are aware that Liverpool was once the “Second City of Empire”. Yet few Merseysiders know how a tiny fishing village became a great maritime city – that was until the unearthing of the world’s first commercial enclosed wet dock, however, and the commencement of tours in May 2010. As guided parties to the Old Dock Experience at Liverpool ONE soon learn, it was this technological wonder – built in 1715 – that put the city on the trading map and which kick-started two centuries of growth and prosperity. (Historian Adrian Jarvis informs readers of his lavishly-illustrated book Liverpool – a history of ‘The Great Port’ that ‘376,000 tons of shipping in 1715 rocketed to 14 million tons by 1905.’)

It is only fitting, then, that such a feat of engineering is commemorated, celebrated even, three hundred years on from its original construction. Yet those who visit On the Waterfront, an exhibition housed at the Merseyside Maritime Museum that charts the changing fortunes of the port, will find it offers much more, opening as it does with the first-known painting of Liverpool dating from c.1680. Equally impressive is the glass lantern view of George’s Dock and Goree Warehouses (1874) which, courtesy of a light box, is enlarged from its original 10x10cm into a richly-detailed 1m square slide. As museum-goers would expect from its billing as a ‘300 year journey’, the display closes with the new Liverpool2 project and some aerial shots – aerial shots that left this reviewer feeling high after the low from footage documenting the port’s decline into a state of disrepair.  

Although perfectly positioned at the entrance of the museum, no exhibition is perfect – and On the Waterfront is certainly no different. The small amount of space accorded to this gallery evidently limits the amount of material on display, but the curator(s) could – perhaps should – have featured more on the docks’ time during the Blitz, what author John Hughes refers to as a Port in a Storm. Worse still, arguably, is the audio and visual equipment employed. While the Merseyside Maritime Museum does not attract the same volume of visitors as, say, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam (530k as opposed to 1.2m in 2015), should it not – given the slogan of Liverpool’s successful bid for Capital of Culture status, “The World in One City” – offer translations of speech in its films or at least employ more up-to-date headsets like those provided at the Museum of the Canals, also in the Dutch capital?

Questions aside, this exhibition (free to enter and which runs until 19 June 2016) is a must-see since – in a section dedicated to the Three Graces at the Pier Head – it contains reproductions of two newly-donated, never-before-seen Stewart Bale images of the Cunard Building under construction during the First World War. What is more, a scale model of the docks’ foundations and huge dock scales used to weigh cargo are sure to fascinate those less fascinated with the itinerary for Prince Albert’s visit to the city to christen the Albert Dock in 1846 or a register of vessels showing the first ship using the revolutionary dock complex. Best of all, though, it wonderfully illustrates that the port of the twenty-first century is able to perform – unlike in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries when it was driven by commerce or in the (late) twentieth when it was reborn through culture – the dual role of both commercial and cultural hotspot.

I wish to thank Ron Jones at Liverpool History Press for kindly forwarding a copy of the above-referenced book by Adrian Jarvis my way.

Photo: Cargo handling, 1936 (Stewart Bale Collection, ©National Museums Liverpool)

For more information on the On The Waterfront exhibition visit the Merseyside Maritime Museum website (click HERE).