It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon in February. On the other side of the Headrow the main shopping streets of Leeds are busy with winter weekend shoppers, but Millennium Square is also busy with visitors to Leeds City Museum. Occupying the former Mechanics’ Institute building that used to house the Civic Theatre, the museum is a recent addition to the square, but its design and integration has already established it as a landmark in the city.
On this wet afternoon, there are many attractions: on the top floor, the Special Exhibitions room is host to Spiceworld, a retrospective of the Spice Girls, whose late 90s heyday is drifting into cultural history. It’s relevance is of course that Mel B, Scary Spice, is a local daughter, born in Burley. Other parts of the building are, however much busier. The map of the city on the floor of the arena around which the musuem is built, is covered with kids pointing out their homes, picking out places or just sliding around. The back end of the Leeds Collectors Gallery is playing host to a storyteller and a small crowd of enraptured children and their equally entertained parents. Downstairs, the Life on Earth gallery also mills with children and places Leeds and the surrounding area in a context in the evolving world.
Standing guard over the Life on Earth exhibition is the Leeds Tiger, a stuffed Bengal who has been in the city for very nearly 150 years. Its story is the usual one of colonial barbarism, twisted slightly by the charming fact that its first few years in this country were spent as a rug. The tiger has become a touchstone for many in Leeds, not least my wife and I, as it was where we went on our first date two years ago.
Leeds hasn’t had a proper city museum since the mid-1960s, when the former museum located in Park Row closed its doors for the last time. A small part of the collection lived in the municipal buildings on Calverley Street until 1999, and other parts of the collection were distributed across the city’s other properties such as Temple Newsam and the Abbey House at Kirkstall.
Towns need their civic collection though, and a city such as Leeds, if any city can be like any other, with such a lot to be proud of, needs one more than most, and the two and a half years since the new museum opened its doors have also seen a improvement in the city’s view of itself.
For many years Leeds was the London of the north, the capital of Yorkshire, a financial centre in a county known for its canny way with brass, a centre of the legal business, and that mythical 24-hour city where, in the Englishman’s view, it was possible to get a drink at any time of the day. There was a near-victorious football team that almost didn’t have to look back to its last glory days of the mid-1970s.
But these things ignored the city’s civic and industrial history, trusting in the future of service. When I arrived in Leeds from London in 2001 it seemed to be lacking a real identity. The Bank of England had closed, leaving only a junction on the Loop as a mark of its passing, and much of the money had gone with it. Leeds United were in the top half of the Premiership but not far from the collapse that saw them drop to Division One. The city was prospering but at the cost of its past. The idea of Leeds was hollow.
When Leeds United were relegated in the disastrous but not unexpected season of 2003-4, the fans sang’We’re not famous any more’ and ‘We’re going down, but we’ll be back’. In 2011, the club is in the top six of the Championship and on the verge of a return to the Premiership, and the city is rediscovering itself through the museum, projects like the Leeds Owl Trail and a grassroots campaign in support of the city centred around the Culture Vultures blog, alongside cheerleaders on Twitter who have driven the discussion and promoted new businesses and ideas in the city.
Millennium Square has been at the heart of this renaissance and the placing of the City Museum there has served to confirm it as the civic centre of the city. The Leeds Tiger is a fond memory for older generations of the city, and its place in the museum has created continuity with the past. Leeds is a place to be proud of again.
Our visit to the museum today was to see the tiger, and show him that we got married in October. Two years ago I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be in this city but my wife, the way that the museum celebrates Leeds and the way that it has been a part in creating pride in it has confirmed that it’s where I want to stay.