Great Exhibition of the North: the story of a successful bid


A blog by Professor Eric Cross, Dean of Cultural Affairs, Newcastle University.

No one listening to BBC Breakfast or Radio 4’s Today Programme early this week could fail to notice that Newcastle-Gateshead’s bid to host the 2018 Great Exhibition of the North had been successful.

One of the final ‘Northern Powerhouse’ initiatives of former Chancellor, George Osborne, this “unique opportunity to celebrate the creativity of northern England” has occupied several cities this summer. The original list of nine entrants was whittled down to a shortlist of four: Blackpool, Bradford, Sheffield and Newcastle-Gateshead. The government is contributing £5m towards the exhibition and a further £15m into a legacy fund, which will be open to cultural organisations across the north.

So what was it about the winning bid that caught the judge’s imagination and what might the role of the universities be in delivering the end product?

The Blazing World – The Fires of Invention

This title for the exhibition refers to the traditional heavy industries on which the North East’s economy was based for much of the last two centuries, while also reflecting the importance of new forms of innovation and creativity that have forged the new economy of the 21st century. In the words of the bid, “inspired by the trailblazers of the North, the exhibition will have several cross-cutting themes for all to respond to, showing how the North’s fires of invention continue to transform our world.”

“Crucially, we will connect artists with scientists and inventors to work closely together, to create new artworks and respond to the great innovations of our time. Arts will meet industry in powerful and memorable ways.”

The strength of the bid reflects one of the key assets of the North East – its joined up nature. Not only is there a coming together of the city of Newcastle with the town of Gateshead, but a combination of arts and industry, of Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside, and indeed of the region’s universities.

The bid was endorsed by the North East Culture Partnership, an innovative grouping of the 12 local authorities, some of the region’s leading cultural institutions and businesses, and the five universities – a partnership that was hailed as a model for other regions in the recent Culture White Paper. Thus, although Newcastle and Northumbria are most closely involved, so too are the universities of Durham, Sunderland and Teesside. And while the main geographical focus of the exhibition lies on Tyneside, there will be opportunities to reflect the wider North and seek contributions from other N8 partners.

From Coal to Code

Like many exhibitions there will be a nod to the heritage of the past, in particular the 1929 North East Coast Exhibition which attracted more than four million visitors, but the real thrust will be looking forward. This is where the universities have a particularly significant contribution to make. They help stoke the new Fires of Invention, with their focus on innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity.

Their physical resources, such as Newcastle’s Open Lab and Culture Lab and Northumbria’s Northern Design Centre, provide fertile spaces for knowledge exchange, particularly in the latest digital applications, with external partners. Virtual reality technologies were one of the elements of the Newcastle-Gateshead presentation that impressed the judges, and they will form an important part of the exhibition experience.

The combination of digital and creative skills is at the heart of a major regional research project funded in part by the Arts & Humanities Research Council. Creative Fuse North East brings together the regional universities and the creative, cultural and digital sectors, to map the regional’s creative economy and to develop new models of innovation in which academics work with small and large businesses – both within and outside the creative industries – to promote the fusion of digital and creative skills. This project will feed into the exhibition in a variety of ways as an example of the North’s potential in innovative research and practice.

Creative spaces

A challenge of the exhibition brief presented by DCMS was the requirement for a physical focus in the form of a traditional exhibition space yet the need to attract high numbers of visitors. Newcastle-Gateshead’s solution was to use the Great North Museum: Hancock as a focal point and connect it to other iconic buildings in the city, such as the BALTIC gallery and Sage Gateshead, via three different walking circuits around Tyneside focusing on arts, design and innovation. This offers a clever solution to the competition’s fundamental challenge. Tyneside’s Metro also offers an effective transport system with excellent connectivity to the East Coast Main Line and Newcastle Airport.

There will be an extensive programme of new artistic commissions, offering opportunities to the wide range of university-based creative practitioners as well as to other regional, national and international artists. Indeed, the international dimension provides a further area for Higher Education to contribute.


Carol Bell, Culture and Major Events Director at destination marketing agency Newcastle-Gateshead Initiative, which led the development of Newcastle-Gateshead’s bid together with Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, said: ‘Together we will develop and stage an event that the whole of the north can be proud of and which we hope will have far-reaching benefits for culture, communities, tourism and businesses in 2018 and beyond.’

It will be important to ensure that the whole of the North is indeed represented, and it is here that the next 18 months offers an opportunity for the N8 to contribute its unique expertise to this important national and international platform.