The city is poised either to build on the legacy of 2013 or miss a once-in-a -lifetime opportunity. It’s about setting out a forward-looking and ambitious vision for the future of the Ebrington site. It’s about an opportunity to connect social, cultural and economic capital, in real terms, in a real place.
Ebrington has unique physical, cultural, heritage and socio-economic capacities to contribute to the next stage of the city’s development. It can create an inclusive context in which people of all classes, creeds, persuasions and ages can fully participate. The future use of Ebrington is central to the legacy issue of 2013 and key to the bigger picture for the city’s role.
However, what’s needed is a clear, overarching vision of the kind that has already been set out in a Feasibility Study, commissioned and accepted by ILEX in 2008. That study shows how Ebrington can succeed as an arts/cultural and heritage cluster, including digital knowledge. It can be about participation, rather than passive consumption.
However, without such a vision for this special place, Ebrington will struggle to communicate a coherent message about its purpose and value, firstly to citizens and secondly to visitors and, also, to possible funders.
Of course, such a total vision for the use of the whole site would take time and resources to realise. It could be developed incrementally, over a planned period, with a clear differentiation between what Ebrington would do and what other providers in the city and the region would do. We should be thinking, anyway, of Ebrington as an innovative regional and transnational resource, as well as a local one.
Ebrington carries a deep history, to which all citizens are already connected. And recent research on tourism tells us that visitors also will want to engage with it. The key to the ‘new tourism’ is authenticity and the opportunity to participate in that authenticity, whether in natural or cultural settings. The important point is that only a cultural offer, of high quality - realised and experienced in a unique setting - will serve both citizens and visitors. That’s a point which has been well proven by UK City of Culture events in 2013.
With that history - and as a key arts/cultural/heritage cluster, with the ‘visual’ at its centre - Ebrington would act as a bridge, not just between communities but also between engaged forms of broadly defined visual culture, the city and the world. That visual culture would include contemporary craft, design, traditional and contemporary art, digital knowledge and technologies.
Serving the visitors and participants, on such an extensive site, would generate a range of related economic activity, using SME models, which would stimulate opportunities for extensive interactions with all levels of education and research.
The learning gained from the move away from conflict, if articulated through the ‘visual’, would connect with some of the key dynamics in culture, nationally and internationally. And so it would connect the local and the international, based on participatory forms of experience and the production of new work, contextualised, in situ, by rich historical material.
That original vision for Ebrington, which should not be easily set aside, brought together key elements.
One was the City Council’s initiative for a Maritime Museum, telling the story of the city’s role in the Battle of the Atlantic and the Second World War. Another was a home for the City Archives, telling the story of the city itself, as well as the specific story of the Ebrington site, from star Fort to Naval and then Military base and, more recently, its transformation to civilian use.
If that is not already a powerful and attractive setting for an art/cultural and heritage cluster, then I do not know what is.