From coal to code – telling the North’s story 

May 3, 2017

In October 2016, the Government announced that Newcastle Gateshead had been selected to host the Great Exhibition of the North, a major free cultural event in the summer 2018.

Carol Bell was involved in the successful bid as director of culture and events at Newcastle Gateshead Initiative. She reveals that competition to tell the ‘Story of the North’ was particularly strong among the 12 cities and major towns that applied: “Everyone could see that hosting the Great Exhibition of the North would bring a global profile and position the winning location at the very heart of the Northern Powerhouse.”

After the result was announced, Carol was appointed the Great Exhibition of the North’s executive director and was joined by Maria Bota, who previously delivered the Ageas Salisbury International Festival, as its creative producer.

Supported by Sarah Munro, the Baltic’s director, who has been appointed creative spokesperson, as well as a core creative team that includes Iain Watson, director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Abigail Pogson, managing director of Sage Gateshead and Prof. Roy Sandbach, director of the National Innovate Centre for Ageing at Newcastle University, Carol and Maria are now charged with delivering the major exhibition that will take place across Newcastle Gateshead from June 22 to September 2018 and attract an expected global audience of millions.

While this will be the first Great Exhibition of the North, there is a long legacy of similar international exhibitions, such as the London Great Exhibition in 1851 and the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona.

Maria reflects: “These are events usually held once in a generation and have a long-lasting impact. My 102-year-old grandmother, who is Catalan, can still remember the Barcelona Exposition.”

While previous great exhibitions have been marked by buildings or structures (The Crystal Palace in London and the Barcelona Pavilion, for example), there will be no permanent landmark erected for the Great Exhibition of the North.

Instead, the production team has been working with Newcastle and Gateshead’s existing cultural venues to host different elements of the exhibition.

“It is a practical decision,” Carol explains. “Maria and I have both been involved in capital projects and they take a lot of time. Due to the relatively short time frame we have, we must be fleet of foot.

Newcastle Gateshead has had more than £250 million of investment in its cultural facilities so it just makes sense to use these.

The concept of the Great Exhibition of the North is to celebrate the industrial heritage of the North East – and the wider northern region – and show how this influences and impacts on the innovation and new inventions that continue to be developed in the North today.

“It’s that journey from coal to code,” says Maria. “Historically, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants in terms of that was achieved during the Industrial Revolution. We want to spend time celebrating that ambition and combine it with present day by showing the innovations that are currently happening and will change the future.

There are some amazing innovations happening in science, technology, the arts and in design today,” Maria continues, “but they are often more difficult to see than the large industrial inventions of the past. We want to make these more modern innovations more transparent and shine a light on them.

The exhibition is set to showcase how the North has – and continues to – make a global impact on who we are, where we live, what we eat, what we wear, how we are entertained, how we travel, how long we’ll live and how we can live sustainably, through a range of art installations, exhibits, performances, talks, demonstrations and other interactive activities.

For example, Carol explains: “We are currently in talks with the British Science Museum about borrowing The Rocket for the exhibition as well as speaking to Hitachi Rail Europe to show the current innovative work in train design taking place in Newton Aycliffe.”

The team has launched a creative call out on line for Northern based or born performers, visual artists, architects, musicians, scientists, engineers, inventors, writers and designers to get involved in the project (submission deadline is May 22) and is in talks with organisations such as Tech North, Innovate UK, the North’s Chambers of Commerce, the Design Council, NESTA and the BBC to further get the message out about the exhibition. Carol has also met representatives from the 11 other cities and town that bid, who, she reports, are keen to support the project: “We want to work with people across the North, as well as those from the North East, and people are being very receptive to that.”

The Great Exhibition of the North will be based on a number routes (innovation, art or design) that will snake across Newcastle and Gateshead, taking visitors from the exhibition hub of the Great North Museum down to the Gateshead quayside and to the Sage Gateshead and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, presenting them with points of interest and interactive activities on route.

Plans are also in development for spectacular opening and closing events as well as a business expo and a summer camp for children. Crucially, the whole of the exhibition will be free to attend.

While the organisers are expecting a large influx of visitors to Newcastle Gateshead over the exhibition period – good news for the region’s hotels, bars, shops and restaurants – around half of the expected three million-plus audience will be via digital means and the feasibility of creating a virtual reality experience of the Newcastle Gateshead routes for people to download is currently being explored.

It is hoped that the whole of the North East gets behind the exhibition and a volunteers’ programme (similar to other successful initiatives during the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002 and the London 2012 Olympics) is planned, as is an extensive schools engagement programme.

“Inspiring young people is a key driver for the exhibition and our ambition is that every child in England will connect with the Great Exhibition through the curriculum,” Maria explains.

The cost of putting on such a major event is expected to be £10 million. The Government has committed £5 million to the venture leaving a £5 million of further investment to be sourced.

While the team is in the process of applying for a heritage lottery grant, it is recognised that the main bulk of the outstanding amount will come from corporate support.

Representatives of the Great Exhibition of the North recently visited 10 Downing Street to meet with key businesses that have interests across the North to discuss ways they can give support. Of course, exhibition organisers are also keen to engage with businesses of all sizes that are based in the North East and are developing a variety of ways that local businesses may make an impact.

Carol is also keen to stress that all contracted work associated with the exhibition will go to businesses based in the North.

“It’s been one of our policy decisions from the start,” she says. “We want the benefit of all the investment – including the Government funding – to come to the North.”

As for the legacy of the Great Exhibition of the North, Carol and Maria speak of building a more “connected” region, while helping to change perceptions of the area and inspiring young people.

“We want to create a beautiful and impactful experience that brings people together and lays down some unforgettable experiences,” says Maria.

Carol concludes: “This exhibition is all about showing what the creative and inventive people are doing in the North. At the end of the day, this is their showcase and the benefit will last generations.”

Great Exhibition of the North
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