How to present 19th century Birmingham in a nutshell?

The new Birmingham history galleries cover 900 years of history.  One of the biggest challenges was deciding what to put in, and what to leave out.  When designing a display like this you have to decide what your themes are going to be, and then ruthlessly stick to them.

So how did we go about selecting our 19th century displays?  First of all, we had to identify the most significant stories.  What made Birmingham stand out from other towns?  Secondly, the strengths of our collection had to be considered.  What objects did we have that could tell those stories?  Thirdly, we had to think about the displays in the context of the architectural space.  The area designated for the 1830-1909 period was split into three spaces – the spectacular domed gallery, with smaller and rather awkward spaces before and after it. 

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The abolition of slavery is our first 19th century theme and our portrait of Joseph Sturge provides the centrepiece.  We faced a challenge, however, when trying to tell the story of women’s anti-slavery campaigning and the contribution of black campaigners who visited Birmingham.  We had no objects to represent either of these groups, so we approached them in different ways.  An object made during a recent project on female abolitionists makes a great link between past and present.  A joint project with George Dixon J&I School resulted in some inspiring artwork and creative writing about black abolitionists.

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We wanted to use the domed gallery in a theatrical way, and decided to aim for the atmosphere of a trade exhibition.  This enabled us to focus on particular companies or industries, rather than showing ‘a bit of everything’.  We incorporated aspects of Birmingham’s cultural life into this space as well.  Keeping to our theme in this section meant that some objects were interpreted in interesting ways.  We selected costume made in Birmingham so that it could be tied into the ‘trade exhibition’ theme.  If an item was simply owned by a Birmingham person it had to be excluded.  Similarly we could include the poignant child’s hearse and coffin as part of the trade exhibition because of the importance of Birmingham’s coffin industry. 

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Our third theme has the overall title of ‘Unequal Birmingham’, and looks at poverty and reform.  Many different topics had to be brought together here, in quite a small space.  One of the challenges of representing the poor is that very few objects survive, so we had to make the most of what we did have.  The spectacular objects from the workhouse chapel provided a good starting point.  Famous Birmingham reformers make their appearance here, including the political campaigner Thomas Attwood, and most famous of all, Joseph Chamberlain. 

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Choosing the themes and the objects is not, of course, the end of the process.  One of the key elements of designing any display is to decide what messages you want to put across.  We hoped to enable our visitors to make links between past and present – hence the screens in Unequal Birmingham which compare conditions in 19th century Birmingham  with those in the 21st century.  And we wanted to question some common assumptions, for instance by pointing out the negative aspects of Chamberlain’s improvement scheme.  Consulting with our community action panel and with experts on Birmingham  history helped us not only with the historical facts but also with our approach to emotive issues such as enslavement.

The displays can only scratch the surface of 19th century Birmingham. We hope they inspire people to find out more.

Henrietta Lockhart
Curator of History

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