London N7 7AJ
Thursday June 29 2017
At my request we had deferred this visit until after half-term (obviously) and more importantly until after the 2017 Cup Final, in which of course Arsenal beat one of their serious rivals Chelsea – 2-1. I have to declare an interest here as being both the daughter of a now deceased season ticket holder (Highbury) and the mother of two Emirates season ticket holders. However as only having been to one live match in my life it’s more a matter of having lived with the highs and lows of being a football supporter at one remove, than being a true fan. This Museum is clearly aimed at the true fan. Not being such, we opted for the Museum visit only rather than the somewhat pricey Stadium tour combination.
Still, a daytime visit allows the visitor to admire the Stadium, both from afar (we approached along the Holloway Road) and up close as you have to circulate the ground to get to the museum. We started at the South End where the benches are named after various star footballers and the ground is covered with little metal plaques bought by supporters in their own or others’ memory. The family’s younger season ticket holders had commemorated their granddad’s enthusiasm (and he of course introduced them to the game and club) with an engraving though it now looks rather scuffed. The white benches seemed a good idea as you could arrange to meet your mates by the Robert Pires or Dennis Bergkamp before a match.
I’ve always been a sucker for a stadium from the Roman arenas onwards and was pleased to see there was generous circulating space all round before going through security/turnstiles to the seats and grounds. Equally generous is the toilet provision though we found it odd that the Ladies had no mirrors…?
The Museum is in fact the other side of the walkways and is built into the basement of a doubtless quite pricy block of flats which seems to be part of the same development. We did have some issues with the layout of the Museum (last refurbished July 2016) as it has four short dead –end corridors/display areas which does not make for a flowing experience. There were enough visitors today, without it being crowded, to mean there is a certain mound of stepping aside. The displays themselves are well lit and captioned – there are no interactive options which may be a good thing as more often than not these can be and remain frustratingly ‘out of order’, which has been our experience elsewhere. The displays are interspersed with large font captions quoting past or present managers or other commentators which have been well selected to highlight the changing history and fortunes of the club. (If you want the ‘Thomas charging through the midfield … it’s up for grabs now’ moment you need to take a seat in the little cinema at the end… or just look on Youtube )
Arsenal is so firmly rooted in North London that it is easy to forget its origins among the ordnance workers of the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, who decided it might be fun to have a football team, put sixpence into a pot to that end, and eventually found themselves playing on Plumstead marshes. Lest anyone should forget. By 1891 they had been successful enough to turn professional. There is a surprising amount of recognisable memorabilia from this era – team photos, programmes and even a season ticket – all items we tend to think of as more modern. By 1913 the club had moved to North London and there are huge photos of supporters hanging on to all levels of the scaffolding as the Highbury stands go up. Those are the kind of faces you see in all the pictures of soldiers on the front during the First War and it is of course this generation that would have gone off to fight. And here was one of the mysteries of this museum – there was no mention of outside influences or events – that is neither war, the Depression or even the globalisation of football in this century though there is a map showing the origins of many of the recent football stars and the various international supporters’ groups. You might have thought between the teams of fit young men and the predominantly male supporters the wars might have led to some ‘fall-off’ in performance or attendance??
Whatever the situation the club thrived through the Thirties largely thanks to one man – Herbert Chapman who had many innovative ideas that shaped the club – so not only were the Arsenal leaders in England they began to have world fame . In 1931 Chapman introduced one of the most famous kits with the contrasting sleeves and the gun logo – two elements which have persisted in spite of some more florid interpretations along the way… (thankfully mainly confined to away strips) Some of Chapman’s quotes are set alongside panels of his most famous players: Cliff Bastin, Alex James, and Joe Mercer who joined the team at the mature age of 32 playing on till 1954 when he broke his leg.
Football resumed in 1946 with Arsenal gaining their first post war Title in 1947, with Joe Mercer still playing. The History of Arsenal from then on is impressive by any standards – significant wins at successive Cup Finals and then winning the League when it became as prestigious, even if not more so, than the knockout competitions . The managers’ contributions and achievements are analysed and their star players too get panels – this part of the exhibition is of course very colourful as we are well into the era of colour photography and film. Managers featured include Bertie Mee, who managed through the Sixties and early Seventies, on to George Graham and finally of course the present incumbent Arsene Wenger. It has to be said that not many other clubs could have organised their exhibits round managers as not many other clubs stick with their managers to this extent… Additionally there are boots, rosettes, shirts, programmes and trophies from specific and memorable matches plus credit for the team of the Invincibles.
Although you can deduce the sponsors from the text on shirts their role is not looked at considering what a significant contribution they make.
There could be no history of Arsenal without reference to its grounds; Highbury, built as it was through the Thirties had a workaday Art Deco glamour to it and of course an intimacy, as it held comparatively few spectators. With the need for all seater venues and to raise more revenue the move was finally made to the current location in 2006. The listed facades of Highbury were retained and turned into flats and to our delight the centre spot (looking a little desiccated) was preserved and is on display here!
The move took place in 2006 with the final match played and won in May – there are photos of tearful fans – and the 2006-7 season played at the new very splendid venue. The club did well to stay so local (Wimbledon to Milton Keynes anyone?) and continues to be very much part of the community. There are sections (where the four historical ‘wings’ meet) which confirm Arsenal’s place in the world, its world players in Arsenal and the various charities and groups it represents. There has been a women’s team since 1987 and of course junior and outreach services.
We emerged after just under an hour; for me more than Jo some child hood memories evoked by the early matches and names of the Fifties when Saturdays at home were dominated by ‘an early lunch ‘ so my father could drive(!) to the 3PM home fixtures, later triumphs endlessly discussed or debated by our younger fans till they left home, and yes I nearly sent them to bed (it was a school night) before Michael Thomas ran down that pitch… thank goodness for the action replay.
Above all this is a museum for fans and also allows the visitor a glimpse into the stadium – there are stadium tours additionally but we emerged sufficiently more knowledgeable and were impressed to see an Accessibility Cycle scheme in action with a variety of tandems (side by side and regular), adapted bikes, bicycles with wheelchair platforms being well used by the community who were using the broad promenade area to ride in circuits, and seemed to indicate accessibility was more than lip service.