History is having something of a moment on Merseyside. The Terracotta Warriors at the World Museum might be in the spotlight, but there’s a very different civilisation taking over a short distance up the coast. For the next few months, THE ATKINSON in Southport will be hosting Vikings: Rediscover The Legend, a major exhibition created with the British Museum and Yorkshire Museum that challenges our preconceptions of how the Nordic invaders lived and affected the country we live in more than a thousand years ago. With Merseyside’s significant roots in Norse heritage (which lives on in place names from Aintree to West Kirby) it’s a perfect fit. It’s also no surprise that some of the artefacts going on display will have North West connections – pieces from the Cuerdale Hoard, found next to the River Ribble in Preston, appear alongside more famous finds from the Vale Of York.
Their reputation may have been increasingly rehabilitated in recent years from raping, pillaging aggressors to settling farmers, but the imagery and legends of the Vikings still captures the imagination. Throughout the exhibition The Atkinson will be working to help people uncover more about the Viking heritage all around Southport. “We know there were settlements nearby like Formby and Crosby,” says The Atkinson Museum’s Principal Director Stephen Whittle, “but there were also villages that have since been washed away by the sea like Ravenmeols and Argarmeols. This will be the first chance for people to see Viking artefacts discovered right here and to gain an understanding of the full extent of Viking culture in the region.” As we live through a time where British politics works towards increased separation from our neighbours, Merseyside is playing host to an exhibition which will be encouraging its audience to consider their place in a local, national and global heritage.
Image by Anthony Chappel Ross
Visitors to the exhibition will undoubtedly also enjoy discovering the rest of what The Atkinson has to offer. Its sheer diversity is something to admire: surely few arts centres in the country can boast of being home to a gallery, permanent museum collection, theatre, café, library and bakery, not to mention space for local artists to exhibit their work. Naturally the programme is as diverse as the space, catering to all ages and interests. Works by Andy Warhol and Ancient Egyptian artefacts have sat side by side, while the theatre has played host to the likes of Dr Feelgood and Ed Byrne.
From the outside, surveying its grand stone façade and tower, you’d think of The Atkinson as being a cornerstone of Southport’s history as a Victorian seaside resort, and you’d be right. For the success of the major resorts required not only the pleasures of the pier, but an appeal to aesthetic sensibilities which could culture the mind – and, of course, provide an attraction for when the rain set in. So, the original Atkinson Art Gallery and Library opened in 1878, thanks to a bequest from successful merchant and Southport resident William Atkinson. But when the adjoining Cambridge Hall was restored from dramatic decline in the 1970s – a building which, as an arts school for 300 students, has its own history of developing the arts – the buildings were combined to make one single Southport Arts Centre. After another three years of refurbishment the current incarnation of The Atkinson opened its doors in 2013.
The story of The Atkinson, then, surely contains a moral for any town or city. The great vacant buildings of Liverpool either tend to be turned into student flats and luxury hotels, or are left to degrade in the limbo of planning. Creating a new arts centre doesn’t seem to be high on the agenda, but the success of The Atkinson suggests that it should be. Becoming an established major venue within five years of reopening says something not only of the ambition of the team behind The Atkinson, but also of the public appetite for cultural activities to be within reach. As traditional retail-unit economy slows down, The Atkinson provides people with a reason to visit Southport even in the depths of winter, and plenty to entertain audiences. It’s a venue whose emphasis is on making audiences feel in touch with the building, particularly the youngest visitors. Throughout the venue there are spaces to interest and entertain children of all ages, allowing them to feel from an early age that this is a place ‘for them’ without sacrificing the rigour of the exhibitions. In the corridors, an ‘object of the month’ from the museum collection brings you closer to the stories that even the simplest objects have to tell about a place and time in history.
The Atkinson’s creative patron, Henry Normal, agrees that it’s truly a space for everyone. “I can’t believe anyone couldn’t find something of interest at The Atkinson on any given month. If they had beds I’d want to sleep there as well.” Normal has enjoyed success as a scriptwriter and producer – as Executive Producer of Baby Cow Productions he’s had a hand in everything from Alan Partridge to The Mighty Boosh. But it’s Normal’s career as a poet that brought him to The Atkinson for a performance. Poetry isn’t always the most popular or understood art form, but Normal is very comfortable with its place in the modern arts scene. “There are as many types of poetry as there are poets. If we think of music we would see James Blunt very different from, say, Mozart or Motörhead. My poetry is very much about my everyday life in this modern day which is much like most other people’s lives. It’s about communicating my view of that world, hopefully with a little insight and a few laughs. Perhaps a little bit nearer James Blunt than Motörhead these days.”
When asked to become a patron of The Atkinson it seemed a natural fit for both parties. They not only share a love for and belief in the arts, but a desire, as Audience Development Manager Vicki Rutland puts it, “to do more and provide a safe space for all the community.”
“I think it was the poetry about my autistic son, Johnny, that struck a chord,” Normal says about being invited on board. “They [The Atkinson] were just about to open a new café called A Great Little Place, now run by Autism Initiatives.” More than just a café, it’s a place where organisations meet to put autistic people and their families in touch with information and training. His personal experiences with the condition have made Normal understand the importance of this spread of information. “A lot of what is available to find out about autism is quite dry and academic and I think it’s important to remember the human aspect here and the many families involved.” His new book A Normal Family is intended “to let other parents know about all the things I asked when I was first told about Johnny’s condition,” and The Atkinson’s A Great Little Place is part of the same mission of positive outreach.
As well as serving as an ambassador of the centre’s community-focused programme, Normal is looking forward to Vikings: Rediscover The Legend as much as any of us. “The Vikings are very much part of our heritage, but generally have been miscast. I’m hoping this new exhibition will help us understand the true nature of Vikings in Britain. They loved a bit of poetry so they couldn’t have been all bad.”
Vikings: Rediscover The Legend runs between 31st March and 7th July.