You’ve heard of the “Northern Powerhouse”. You’ve heard that “it’s grim up north” and that you should never call a Sunderland supporter a Geordie. But there’s a lot more to the North of England than the stereotypes – and this is what the Great Exhibition of the North hopes to propel into the public consciousness this summer.
Beginning on 22nd June and running until 8th September, the exhibition is the biggest event in England this year. And it’s understandable why: the exhibition’s remit is to show how past and present innovation, design and culture from the whole of the North shapes our past and inspires the future. For the purposes of the exhibition, “The North” is loosely defined as anything north of Sheffield but south of Scotland. The name, of course, evokes the “Great Exhibition” of 1851, but unlike its Crystal Palace namesake, this festival is not restricted to one large site but takes over the entire city. Manager of the Great North Museum Caroline McDonald says that the idea is for the city to feel like “a new museum is breaking through in pieces”, and with a multitude of events across so many venues, the exhibition-cum-festival certainly achieves this.
The whole city feels involved, with major performances, interactive exhibits taking place across the whole city in NewcastleGateshead’s myriad museums and cultural venues. Three trails connect these venues thematically, all starting at the Great North Museum and giving visitors a chance to explore more of the city, including some parts that are often overlooked by visitors. The Art trail takes visitors on a tour of the city centre’s public art and new exhibitions, including a remarkable graphene dress which responds to the electrical currents on the wearer’s skin, while the Innovation trail explores medical breakthroughs at Newcastle University and engineering feats at the Discovery Museum and Mining Institute. Finally, the Design trail covers fashion and the design and production of new technology, via Newcastle’s literature centre, Seven Stories, in the undeservedly lesser explored area of Ouseburn. Volunteers are on hand at the main venues and along the trails – I encountered several of these incredibly friendly and knowledgeable people in the main venues, and the famed Geordie hospitality was definitely on show!
All three trails culminate at the beautiful NewcastleGateshead Quayside. This is the hub of the exhibition, with an interactive soundscape walk, pop up container community, family events and performances and the Get North Water Sculpture – the UK’s largest water sculpture that emerges from the River Tyne every hour (at night it has a light display, and soundtrack available to listen to online). This is all overlooked by the BALTIC Art Gallery and Sage Gateshead concert hall, both of which are hosting special concerts, events and installations. The BALTIC hosts a large exhibition celebrating Northern imagination and identity across architecture, music and art, and also plays host to Michael Dean’s new immersive sculptural installation which begins by creating physical forms from his own writing and will grow and develop across the summer.
The three trails mainly serve to connect the exhibition’s main venues, but it is worth downloading the Get North app to make sure you don’t miss any of the smaller interactive activities and installations which pepper the route. If, like me, you were just using a leaflet map and expecting a treasure-trail affair across the city then you may initially be a little disappointed. However, the main sites themselves are creatively repurposed. Their usual attractions or functions are still visible but with the added Get North features superimposed upon them. This is noticeably striking at the Great North Museum, where the Hadrian’s Wall gallery is populated with space travel artifacts including Helen Sharman’s space suit, which is placed in central contrast to the usual display boards showing Roman dress and everyday tools. The contrast between the ancient Northern frontier and the “final frontier” is well-articulated and cleverly executed through the artifacts and items being carefully positioned for maximum impact. Similarly, the natural history and aquatic life gallery is reborn as “An Octopus’s Garden”, inspired by the Beatles’ song, where living and dead underwater specimens mingle with natural stone “treasures” and prizes awarded for great human achievements.
One of the exhibition’s aims is to create a sense of wonder and encourage the visitor to really appreciate and think about items, be they technological marvels or relics of the everyday. This is experienced best at the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society’s headquarters, near the railway station. The Lit and Phil, site of Newcastle’s first museum 225 years ago, becomes the Imaginary Museum of the North, displaying objects from the society’s collections with both real and fictional backstories. These items are positioned all around the society’s impressive Victorian library, much like an old antiquarian museum but with more thought to inciting visitor wonder and curiosity: some items are in traditional display cases, but you have to search for others as they peek out from bookshelves or are suspended from the ceiling. The Imaginary Museum certainly succeeds in its mission “to recreate the sense of excitement, wonder and fascination that must have been felt by people in the region when the original Newcastle Museum opened” in the Nineteenth century. Couple this with the display of local schoolchildren’s artwork answering the question of what they would leave to a museum, and you’d have to have a cold heart and no sense of humour not to enjoy this museum collection.
A final highlight of the exhibition is visiting Rocket, George Stephenson’s early steam engine which travelled at a record-breaking 32 miles per hour at the 1829 Rainhill Trials (back when people worried that moving faster than 30 miles per hour would addle passengers’ brains). Accompanying a display on Rocket’s construction and history is a fantastic virtual reality experience: put on the glasses, and you’re in Rocket, charging through a changing landscape to the rousing sounds of the William Tell Overture. Certainly not an experience to miss!
Despite the festival’s pan-Northern remit, and the fact that NewcastleGateshead beat off tough competition from other Northern cities including Sheffield and Scarborough to host the event, there sadly seems to be little advertising outside of the North East. Indeed, from personal experience, the advertising hasn’t particularly reached York let alone anywhere south of the Humber. This is a great shame, as Get North has created something truly remarkable: a real city-wide festival that lives up to the cliché of having something for everyone. By connecting the past to the present in so many different ways – through highlighting similarities in ground-breaking technology, or the universal human spirit that feels moved to create art – the exhibition makes a uniquely engaging experience that fulfils a visitor’s thirst for knowledge and ignites their sense of wonder, as well as leaving locals fiercely proud of their area’s achievements. This brief article only scratches the surface, and there are more different events changing on a daily basis through until the 7th September. If you’ve never visited NewcastleGateshead, then this is the perfect opportunity to see the city at its finest.
Newcastle is easily accessible up the East Coast mainline for a day trip or short stay.
 “About” promotional leaflet produced by the museum.