It’s more than 60 years since Liverpool’s original pop pioneer, Billy Fury, released his sinuous version of the song Wondrous Place, and its title continues to be a gift to Mersey mythologists in search of a name for their next civic-minded project. Following journalist Paul du Noyer, who named his definitive survey of Liverpool’s music scene after the track, the Museum of Liverpool is the latest to put the phrase up in lights, or large letters at the gallery entrance at least, as it opens its new exhibition celebrating the city’s cultural and sporting prowess.
Wait, did I say ‘new’ exhibition? It’s actually an updated remix of a show that helped launch the distinctive waterfront venue back in 2011, but which was nudged aside by 2018’s blockbusting Double Fantasy: John & Yoko installation. Now though it’s back, and it’s bigger and better than before. And unless you’ve been in a…um…Comer for the last few years, you won’t have any trouble guessing some of the new faces you might see on display.
Indeed, turn left as you enter and one of the first objects you encounter is what looks like some kind of terrifying Grinch/Honey Monster crossbreed experiment, but which turns out to be one of the costumes worn by actress Jodie Comer, currently one of the city’s most beloved screen stars, in the hit TV series Killing Eve. In the show, she famously deploys almost every accent in the world except scouse, so you might say it’s a tangential connection, but this isn’t the place to argue such a point.
From shameless bigging up of Liverpool’s stage and screen credentials through to an unsurprisingly large music zone and on to a world of sport, much more than just football, and a catch-all section dedicated to the city’s ‘creativity’, the exhibition flows through a series of themed areas bursting with objects, images and video installations. From Bill Shankly’s overcoat to an authentic Cavern membership card (sadly, history doesn’t record why this latter specimen features the word ‘carrots’ scrawled in pencil across its surface), visitors who are sensitive to the totemic power of not-so-ancient artefacts will find lots of fascinating items to pore over and enjoy.
Rather than relying solely on Liverpool’s most obvious pop culture triumphs, Wondrous Place takes pains to tell a richer story (though if you want a bit of Beatles, there’s everything from their quartet of early 1960s mohair suits to John and Yoko’s ‘All You Need is Love’ bedspread). There are displays dedicated to the city’s thriving black music scene of the 1960s as well as its jazz and folk clubs, which, by the 1970s, had spawned never-off-the-screen TV stalwarts such as The Spinners – and there’s plenty of space given over to today’s vital cultural contributors such as the Writing on the Wall festival and club nights like Sonic Yootha.
Also new for this iteration of Wondrous Place is a section dedicated to Liverpool’s leading role in the video games industry, focusing on the legendary developer and publisher, Psygnosis. At this point I must declare an interest, as it was a creative writing job at this company that brought me to Liverpool almost 27 years ago, and it’s strange to see the products of one’s wage slavery presented as pixel-powered cultural phenomena on a par with Boys From the Black Stuff and Red Rum winning the Grand National.
But maybe that sensation hints at some of the deeper currents that bubble through Liverpool’s fast-flowing cultural streams and, by extension, through this exhibition. Perhaps it’s the sense that globe-straddling pop culture can, and repeatedly does, spring forth from homes and streets where the likes of us live that gives this city its potency, its swagger and its strength?
Wondrous Place doesn’t come close to attempting such speculation, but it does present its wares with a crowd-pleasing flourish, and in a manner which invites visitors to come in for the Big Stuff, whether that’s Mel C’s spangly stage get-up or a brick from The Cavern, before gifting them something smaller but no less significant too. Want to see the hand-scrawled lyrics to Half Man Half Biscuit’s Joy Division Oven Gloves? Then this, my friends, is the exhibition for you.
From genuine giants of the world stage to those four lads who shook the Wirral, this is clearly a city region that excels at going global but with a distinctively localised twist. And while that might not be a uniquely Liverpool characteristic, it definitely takes a wondrous place to create quite such a huge, Mersey-coloured splash.
By Damon Fairclough, Liverpool Correspondent
Main image: The Beatles case Wondrous Place Museum of Liverpool by Gareth Jones
Wondrous Place is on long-term display at the Museum of Liverpool, Pier Head, Liverpool, L3 1DG.