What’s gone wrong at the John Rylands Library
As the most opinionated, most confident (and best-researched) writer in Manchester, it’s time to share some critical thoughts with people who will appreciate them. I’ll start with one of Manchester’s best-loved attractions, the John Rylands Library on Deansgate.
This is one of the world’s greatest libraries, with a remarkable collection that includes the personal papers of such luminaries as John Dalton, Elizabeth Gaskell and John Wesley. It is also home to the oldest piece of the New Testament ever found, the St John Fragment. So what a shame that the library is run like a cross between Theresa May’s Brexit deal committee and Man Utd’s transfer target working group. I say this not to mock, but because I’d like to see somebody competent seize control of the institution, shake it up, and make it work properly.
One of the reasons for the decline in the library’s competence is because the owners are Manchester University who are not particularly bothered about anything outside the Chorlton-on-Medlock campus. They’ve let the old UMIST campus go to pot, abrogating responsibility for maintaining such architectural gems as the Renold Building, for instance, and they don’t seem interested in investing properly in Rylands. Even their website takes you to the John Rylands University Campus library, a bland building that’s fine for students but not on anyone’s list for tourism, confusing the visitor.
So here goes. There doesn’t seem to be anybody else, any other tour guide, journalist on the Manchester Evening News (unsurprisingly) or anyone writing for any other publication saying anything interesting. In the old days the Evening News had Andrew Grimes as the voice of thunder. Now there’s no on e like that. I hear people warning not to rock the boat, not to get involved, but how can anything improve without criticism?
Here’s what’s wrong with the John Rylands Library.
When I suggested in a New Manchester Walks Facebook posting a while back that the Library wasn’t being run very well a member of staff whose name I have forgotten alas became upset, understandably, and offered to meet me to discuss my concerns. Perhaps she might get in touch again. However she also mocked me for criticising the exhibitions. Well, let’s look at it this way. I was shocked walking through the library a year ago, during the exhibition on the American 1960s underground movement, to see a huge billboard proclaiming “San Fransisco”. How could one of the world’s leading libraries allow something so ridiculous to see the light of day? When I raised the appalling mis-spelling I was told that no one else had noticed it after a week. Extraordinary. The recent Peterloo exhibition was particularly poor and offered no insight into one of the most fascinating stories in British political history. The explanatory boards were lightweight, as if to suggest that the library visitors wouldn’t be able to handle anything more substantial.
The wrong name in describing the oldest piece of the New Testament
This is the real crux of the problem. Within the Library the boards actually cite the priceless New Testament artefact, the oldest piece of the New Testament ever found, as the St John’s Fragment. No! No! No! It’s the St John Fragment, not the St John’s Fragment. It is not a fragment that belonged to St John. It is a fragment of the Book of St John. It is beyond belief that the Library is getting this wrong.
Lack of explanatory boards
Somebody else online, upset at my criticisms, praised the explanatory boards within the Library. Actually there aren’t any. There could be the most magnificent and revelatory plaques and descriptions upstairs by each statue, explaining the significance of the world famous figures present and their links with Manchester. There aren’t any. Perhaps this is a good thing because it means we can provide this service on our tours. On the other hand I wouldn’t trust the Library these days to get the explanations correct. The amount of work I have put into finding these connections is phenomenal; ideally the Library would invite me to contribute.
Maxine Peake Recital
How we were looking forward to hearing and seeing the great actress read the entire Shelly Peterloo poem, “The Masque of Anarchy”, at the Library last summer. Unfortunately the evening was ruined by the ridiculous organisation and logistics. First we were made to queue needlessly outside the Library. Okay, it wasn’t raining. I know why organisers do this: to make it look to the random passer-by like something important is happening. Then, when we were finally let in, we were invited to “look around” the Library for more than half an hour, with no guides to help us and (as above) no explanatory boards to peruse. When we were finally called into the auditorium, we discovered to our amazement and discomfort that we had to stand now to hear Maxine – after nearly an hour of standing. Given that nearly the entire audience were over the age of 17, all that standing around was most uncomfortable. But why did everyone have to stand at all? Maxine was positioned at the end and people were arranged long wise down the room. There were no chairs. It meant that during the recital people were jostling around for the tiniest bit of comfort: a pillar to lean on, a table to sit on and could not enjoy the show in comfort. No one had thought it through before hand. Had the person in charge sat down and looked at the logistics they would have realised in a flash that it wasn’t going to work.
As Andy Robson might say, this is what should have happened. Once the audience had entered the Library they should have been divided into three groups with qualified guides showing them round the Library. Then, for the recital, there should have been chairs, lined perpendicularly to the length of the room, with Maxine, equipped with a peripatetic mic, walking from side to side, everyone able to see her. Really not difficult to think through in advance.
Lack of café
The John Rylands Library café should be one of the city’s great meeting spots, where scholars, intellectuals, bohemians and free-thinkers discuss over roasted beans Conrad, the Kabbalah, and the appointment of David Moyes. There was a caff until recently and it was a disaster. When we at New Manchester Walks brought in some 40 visitors from Surrey a couple of years the staff almost threw the tea at the customers. They were so shocked at the slipshod service we haven’t been able to entice them back to Manchester since. It was a terrible advert for the Library and the city. Perhaps it’s good in a way that now there’s no café. Or perhaps it proves my points.