The return of the National Football Museum
5 June ~ The National Football Museum reopens on July 6. After a bumpy start, the collection has completed its 40 mile journey from Preston to its new home in Manchester's Urbis building. The numbers attached to the venture are impressive, as are the claims for its exhibits. There are over 140,000 objects and, with material gathered by FIFA at its core, there are good grounds for the publicity material claiming that it is "the greatest collection of football memorabilia ever assembled". But to be worthwhile, there has to be more to the museum than boots, balls, shirts and cups.
Museum director Kevin Moore – an academic and Tranmere Rovers fan who has led the project since its inception in 1997 – is keen to emphasise that the museum does not seek to tell a single authorised story of football, but to tell multiple stories.
It tries to recognise that the story attached to a supporter's rosette, handed down through a family of Preston North End fans for over 80 years and worn at each of the club's FA Cup finals, is as important as that attached to the UEFA Cup-Winners Cup. Or, in a quite different way, to that told by a scarf found on the pitch at Hillsborough in 1989.
Just as much, there is a place in the museum for the mundane – the sticker collections, cigarette cards and league ladders that formed, for many people, their first engagement with the game. Moore captures that sentiment in the phrase: "The ordinary is extraordinary."
The idea of using artefacts to link to a wider story is a constant theme – from a silver foil crown given to Manchester City legend Colin Bell, through to a ball made from a condom that illustrates the universal nature of the game. The most viewed item when the museum was at Preston was Diego Maradona's shirt from the 1986 "Hand of God" match. The shirt is a reminder of Maradona's part in the match as the scorer of two contrasting goals and it illustrates the rituals of shirt swapping in the tensest of situations.
That match generated strong emotions beyond its immediate importance as a World Cup quarter-final, coming just four years after the end of the Falklands War and as the latest step in a long-term football rivalry. For Moore, it is the way exhibits have significance in football terms, and can resonate in profound ways beyond the game that give them their full meaning.
The museum faces the challenge of illustrating that football did not begin with the formation of the Premier League in 1992. Although happy to accept that the museum can act as "the perfect antidote" to this version of football history, Moore is keen to emphasise that its role is wider.
Its obligation is to the whole history of English football (there are collections in Scotland and Wales) rather than to take a position that addresses an agenda created by any particular organisation or section of the media. This point is illustrated by the great names of the game. Moore hopes that, at the end of a visit, Dixie Dean and Len Shackleton will be as well known to visitors as any current Premier League stars.
Clearly, moving to a bigger audience in Manchester is part of an ambition to make the museum a more significant part of the game. Issues such as race or club ownership can, to an extent, be dealt with through exhibits. However, the museum's programme of events and discussions will provide an opportunity to look at topics in a different way, with a perspective informed by the sport's history and with issues detached from current personalities.
The hope is to attract 350,000 visitors a year. Free admission and plenty of visitor attractions will help make it a good day out. So far, the omens are good for the museum's reopening. It will be a welcome addition to the game. Brian Simpson
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