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Rediscovering Liverpool through films and maps

When visitors to the Museum of Liverpool touch The Merseyside Map, an interactive map in the History Detectives’ Gallery, they are in fact accessing a database that lets the public access the museum’s collections including a number of rare films made about various districts of Merseyside going back to the 1890s. To date the map has been accessed by more than a million visitors. As the Museum’s website notes in response to how people might delve into Liverpool’s history, ‘answers can be found in the interactive Merseyside Map and the huge Timeline, which forms the backbone of the gallery.’

Traditionally, the public have had no means of accessing a museum’s catalogue. Following a series of workshops in 2009-2010 led by the University of Liverpool AHRC-funded Mapping the City in Film project (2008 – 2010) that introduced museum staff to new mapping technologies and methodologies, curators at the new Museum of Liverpool expressed an interest in working with the researchers to develop public access to their collections through the use of an interactive map with digitised artefacts. The map was launched at the opening of the museum by Queen Elizabeth II in December 2011.

Screenshot of City in Film interactive map. Credit: Julia Hallam.

The film catalogue database, on which the interactive map builds, was created by a team of researchers led by Professor Julia Hallam as part of the AHRC-funded City in Film (2006-2008) and Mapping the City in Film (2008-2010) projects and involved collaboration with the British Film Institute, Tate Liverpool, the BBC, the University of Sheffield and others. It holds information on more than 1700 films made in and about Liverpool and its historic landscape from 1897 to the present day - from the earliest factual films, newsreels and amateur films to more recent features, television dramas and documentaries. The research team worked with amateur filmmakers and cine societies all over Merseyside discovering rare and previously unknown or unseen heritage films that are now preserved for posterity thanks to this research project. The films enabled the research team to explore the evolution of film and how Liverpool's urban landscape has been used in film over the past century. The resource also allows film makers, researchers and the public to locate historical footage of the city; the oldest examples include one of the first known tracking shots captured from Liverpool’s Overhead Railway in 1897 by French film makers the Lumière Brothers.

The project held a number of public screenings, exhibitions and lectures as part Liverpool’s 2008 Capital of Culture celebrations, making this unique film heritage available to a wide range of audiences; the film catalogue, along with an interactive map of Liverpool in film, continues to be publicly available on the City in Film website. The project, in partnership with the North West Film Archive and others contributed to the Liverpool section of the British Film Institute’s (BFI) Screenonline resource with over 45,000 visitors at March 2013 to the Liverpool section. More recent follow-on activity involves the design of a locative media app developed in partnership with the Museum of Liverpool and a Liverpool-based technology company. The app, called Reel Stories: Liverpool and the Silver Screen, has been produced to coincide with an exhibition of the same name that opened in 2016.

The project’s international research extends to Italy and Austria, where a member of the Liverpool City in Film project team has advised on similar City in Film projects subsequently set up in Bologna and Vienna to examine how public space has changed over time.

For more information on the project visit: City in Film Project Website

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Written by: Anne-Mette Olesen