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Gateway to the world

There's a lot more to Liverpool than four blokes with shaggy hair and a football team, writes Steven Hastings.

Facing out majestically across the water, Liverpool's skyline stands to attention as if in tribute to the Mersey's place in Britain's imperial history.

And on the banks of the river, once a thriving gateway to the Irish Sea and the Atlantic beyond, the redeveloped Albert Dock is testimony to the city's quest for a new identity in changing times. It is next to the Albert, ironically, that a treasure trove of information about the old industrial Liverpool can be found.

The Museum of Liverpool Life follows the city through these changes. Beginning with its wealthy past as one of the world's busiest ports, trading in everything from cotton to slaves, through to its pop-culture buzz of the 1960s and the subsequent decline towards poverty and unemployment, the museum focuses on the lives of Liverpudlians over 300 years.

Recently revamped, as part of a pound;34 million National Lottery project, the museum has chosen to keep the people's stories at its heart. Much of what is on display once had a life in real homes.

Local people, who participated in the design of the new galleries from an early stage, came forward with a wealth of anecdotes and memories. Alongside the high-tech Lottery-funded exhibits, there are colourful display boards produced with the help of local schools. It has proved a popular approach and enthusiastic comments in the visitors' book show just how much the museum means to those around the city.

The museum has six themed galleries, showing diverse aspects of Liverpool. One of the strongest of these deals with the history of the King's Regiment. Rather than the dull presentation of most military museums, the gallery tells the story from the families' viewpoint.

The focus is very much on the domestic, rather than on arms or conflict, with some touching stories of the everyday hardships behind the battle headlines.

The Mersey Culture gallery, is necessarily something of a mixed bag. Pop msic, television, football, horse racing and film all feature in this whizz through 20th- century leisure. There's everything from the skeleton of a Grand National winner to the chance to appear in your own Brookside episode, should you want to. There is a section dedicated to the Beatles of course. It's all great fun but there is still a context: it was Liverpool's status as a transatlantic port that meant American fashions and musical tastes took hold here.

On the edge of the restored Albert Dock, the views from the Museum across the Mersey and towards the civic splendour of Liverpool are a constant reminder of the geography that made the city's history. Home to the National Galleries and Museums on Merseyside, the Albert Dock is something of a cultural oasis. Schools keen to make a full day of it, can find half a dozen museums within walking distance. Entry is free for children in every case.

One obvious companion to the Museum of Liverpool Life is the Maritime Museum which covers the grim history of the slave trade. A recreated slave ship gives a real insight into the terrible conditions which killed many slaves en route to America.

Despite Liverpool's recent bad press, few cities can offer such a rich social fabric. As Britain's gateway to the West, the city was the last port for many emigrants seeking new lives but it was also the arrival point for people from across the world. Britain's first black and chinese communities settled here and the city's identity has been shaped by these settlers as well as huge influxes from Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

So the Museum of Liverpool Life, by being about the people of Liverpool, is also about a much wider, more international, social history.

The Museum of Liverpool Life, Pier Head, Liverpool L3 4AA.

Tel: 0151 478 4080.

Maritime Museum and HM Customs and Excise Museum, Albert Dock, Liverpool L3 4AA.

Tel: 0151 478 4499. Education officer: Caroline Rowley.

Open daily 10am-5pm (except Christmas). Children free; adults pound;3.

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