Tag Archive | Birmingham history

A Lot of Hot Air

 The gas lights in the Industrial Gallery

The gas lights in the Industrial Gallery

Apart from being one of the most striking architectural features, the gas lights that hang over the Industrial Gallery are an important reminder of the Museum’s roots. They are beautiful to look at and vital to telling the story of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. However, they are also mysterious and we are still trying to find out exactly how they functioned.

The Gas lights above the Industrial Gallery during the 1960s

This picture shows the Gas lights above the Industrial Gallery during the 1960s. During this period they were not visible from the gallery.

The gas lights have a number of different names. The term ‘Gasoliers’ comes from French ‘chandelier’ and is frequently used in literature about the museum. However, my favourite name is ‘Sun-Light Burners’. This was used to describe them in the minutes made at meetings about opening a gallery. Apart from being vaguely poetic I prefer this term because it accurately reflects their job.

The top of one of the lamps in the Industrial Gallery.

This is the top of one of the lamps in the Industrial Gallery.

There are seven gas lights in total. Two in the Edwardian Tea Room, three in the Industrial Gallery, one in the Round Room and one above the Vestibule reception area (in every room of the original gallery). They were manufactured by Messrs. Strode and Company from London for the cost of £488.

The lamp above the Round Room.

This is the lamp above the Round Room. I imagine this lamp in particular would have looked like the sun when lit.

The purpose of having gas lights was revolutionary. It reinforces the argument I made in my previous blog entry about how Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was an institution designed by the people and for the people. In the 1880s Art Galleries were the domain of the middle classes. As well as being a place to see beautiful objects they were also a place to be seen by your peers. Because museums were lit only by sunlight they were only worth visiting during daylight hours. Working class people, generally, did not finish work until the evening and therefore would not be able to see the exhibits.

By providing gas lights Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery enabled these people to view the exhibits too. This explains why the term ‘Sun-Light Burners’ applies so well. The Museum was established specifically to inspire the artisans, therefore it would have been a huge mistake if they could not view the things specifically displayed to inspire them.

When the gallery opened in 1885 it was on top of the newly municipalised city gas offices. Nowadays there are only two things to remind us of this: the Foundation Stone in the main entrance and the gas lamps.

One of the Lamps above the Edwardian Tea Room

This is one of the Lamps above the Edwardian Tea Room.

So the practical considerations: how were these lights lit? Naively, when I first considered this question I imagined a Victorian man leaning over the iron work on the balcony of the Industrial Gallery with a large wooden stick, prodding the lamp from a distance and hoping for the best. Obviously, this was not the case. In the case of the lamps above the Vestibule and Round Room, they were winched down to a gentleman below who would light it, shout up to say it was ready, and then be winched up again very early in the morning. It is clear to see that the entire structure would have moved because today they are hidden away in the ceilings. When stood in the roof space this sort of movement is also evident from the design of the lamps themselves.

The mechanism used to winch the lamps down so they could be lit.

This shows the mechanism used to winch the lamps down so they could be lit.

For the lamps above the Edwardian Tea Room and Industrial Gallery the procedure less obvious. There are winching mechanisms in the roof space but the outer structure of the lamps is clearly static. I am currently waiting to see the original blue prints, which will reveal the procedure but at the moment my best guess is that an internal part was winched down to the floor where it was lit and then brought back up.

Close up of the pipe where the gas came out.

This is a close up taken of the pipe where the gas came out.

The one question we, as Visitor Assistants, always get asked is ‘do they work?’ As the lamps used Town Gas, which is no longer used, it is impossible to tell. Also there are a plethora of conservation issues connected to having gas lamps and oil paintings in immediate proximity so it is probably for the best that we don’t use them today!

So the importance of these architectural features is huge. They remind us of the connection to the gas offices. They are a visual symbol of the equalising effect Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery had on the cities communities when it opened. They also fill everyone who sees them with curiosity and invite questions that we still cannot fully answer.

Olivia Bruton
Visitor Assistant,
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

What was the building before it was a Museum?

This is one of our most frequent questions and the response always fills me with great pride. The simple answer is that it was purpose built as a museum and art gallery, and when it first opened its doors on November 28th 1885 it was as full of art as it is today.

Exterior illustration of Birmingaham Museum and Art Gallery

Perhaps a broader question would be ‘WHY did Birmingham build a Museum and Art Gallery?”

The answer to this question is best understood as a series of steps beginning in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.

STEP 1 – Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham were competing to become England’s ‘second city’. The Middle Classes began to use art galleries as a means of expressing their identity and to raise the civic profile of the cities they lived in. However, in order for public museums and art galleries to be built local councils and governments had to change their attitudes towards the arts – this was a slow process. Groups of Art Reformers sprung up in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. They championed the idea of setting up galleries and had four main aims:

  1. To provide healthy recreation for the Working Classes
  2. To improve workers’ satisfaction in pleasurable labour and industrial design by providing objects of study
  3. To help workers to lead more fulfilling lives by showing them the grace and beauty of the world
  4.  To help audiences see the ugliness created by industrial capitalism and make them change the modern urban environment

STEP 2 – Birmingham School of Design was established in 1843. Those involved with the school wanted an Industrial museum to display objects that would inspire the artisans. They wanted a gallery that would make art accessible to the greatest number of people. Suddenly there was an institution devoted to creating beautiful things but the setting was far from inspiring. The city centre was crowded with filthy slums. Chimneys churned out black smoke and people worked around the clock in unhygienic factories. (For a more fleshed out description of how bad conditions were for the average worker Charles Dickens gives some great descriptions of Birmingham and the Black Country during the 1840s in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’).

This is the ‘long gallery’ in the twentieth century, which is now the Edwardian Tea Room. This photograph reflects well what the Art Reformers were trying to achieve by opening an industrial museum and gallery.

This is the ‘long gallery’ in the twentieth century, which is now the Edwardian Tea Room. This photograph reflects well what the Art Reformers were trying to achieve by opening an industrial museum and gallery.

STEP 3 – Birmingham’s local government had a reputation for ‘penny-pinching narrow-mindedness’ (Stuart Davies, ‘By the Gains of Industry Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 1885-1895’). As evidence of their lack of interest in culture, they failed the Free Libraries and Museums Act when it first came into being in 1845. It was finally passed on the 21st February 1860 and a committee was formed to create a library and Museum and Art Gallery. Around this time leading citizens remade the local government and the city was in a position to embrace some of the ideas advocated by the Art Reformers.

STEP 4 – The Birmingham Midland Institute opened a small exhibition of objects and pictures in 1860. The exhibition included the Bust of David Cox (so I like to think of this as the beginnings of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery!)

The Bust of David Cox

The Bust of David Cox

STEP 5 – Over the next 15 years the collection grew rapidly. There were numerous successful exhibitions including one of amour and jewellery, which attracted 160,000 visitors in 1868. There were huge donations from Philanthropists such as the Tangye Brothers, which amounted to millions of pounds in today’s money. The Public Picture Gallery Fund was launched in 1871 to collect and commission paintings. Frederick Leighton’s ‘A Condottiere’ was the first to be purchased in 1873. Mayor Joseph Chamberlain gave £1000 of his own money for an industrial museum in 1875. All of this interest meant that the council was under pressure to find a site and funds to build a gallery in the centre of the city.

‘A Condottiere’ by Frederick Leighton still hangs in the Round Room

‘A Condottiere’ by Frederick Leighton still hangs in the Round Room.

STEP 6 – Joseph Chamberlain municipalised Birmingham’s failing gas works and made them highly successful.The company grew and had to move out of its offices. The council used the profits from the gas company to build new offices on the land acquired through the Free Libraries and Museums Act and put an art gallery on top.  This is why there are so many stairs in the main entrance to the museum, as most of the galleries are on the second floor. Henry Richard Yeoville Thomason won a competition to design the building and Whitworth Wallis was selected to be the keeper. This meant he was responsible for collecting, displaying and securing the collection.

Whitworth Wallis in his office

Whitworth Wallis in his office at Birmingham Museum and Art Galley

Saturday November 28th 1885 – The permanent Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was opened with a celebration at the Town Hall and an address by the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII). It consisted of the main entrance, the Vestibule and Round Room, the ‘long gallery’, the Wedgewood and Italian galleries (no prizes for guessing what was in those) and the Industrial Hall. Nowadays the Italian gallery is the shop, the Wedgewood gallery is the Buddha gallery and the ‘long gallery’ is the Edwardian Tea Room.

Round Room and old Italian Gallery

This shows the view from the Round Room through the Italian Gallery (now the shop) and into the Industrial Hall in the early twentieth century

I hope this goes somewhere to explaining – in a simplified way – how there came to be such a grand building in the centre of Birmingham and why it is such an important institution to the city and its people. In fact the simple answer to ‘Why did Birmingham build a Museum and Art Gallery?’ is for the people.

Olivia Bruton
Visitor Assistant,
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

For more information about the History of BMAG read the previous blog post: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery History Project.

Talking buttons

We recently acquired a set of button sample books from James Grove & Sons Ltd in Halesowen. James Grove were world famous for making horn buttons. They also made buttons out of casein, polyester, and nylon.

Book of button samples from James Grove & Sons Ltd

As part of the acquisition I arranged to interview Roy Taylor who worked for the company from the 1960s until it closed in 2012.  The first part of the interview we discussed what it was like working at James Grove. I wanted to know what the atmosphere or character of the factory was like (the sights, smells and sounds), how long he trained for, and who worked for there.

Buttons within a sample book from James Grove & Sons Ltd

The second part of the interview Roy came into the museum to look at the button sample books. A button sample book was used in a number of ways. Firstly it was designed to show prospective clients the range of buttons made by the company. Clients would also bring their own button designs for Grove’s to make, therefore this would also go into the book. A duplicate book would be kept in the warehouse as a reference for the machine tool makers, and button makers. Each button sample had a unique reference number. Roy still remembers the reference numbers for each button he designed or made regularly. It was fascinating listening to Roy talk about the buttons, how they were made, as well as how fashions and the materials used to make buttons changed over the decades. I originally assumed many of these buttons were moulded but in this video Roy discusses how most were machine and hand made:

Jo-Ann Curtis
Curator (History)

Nirvana Concert Ticket

The Social History collection contains numerous objects relating to late 20th century popular culture, from 7” singles and CDs to t-shirts and paper ephemera.

20 years ago today, US band Nirvana were due to play at the Aston Villa Centre in Birmingham (30 March 1994). The concert would follow on from the success of their albums Bleach, Nevermind and In Utero, representing a shift in musical style and an aesthetic that downplayed many of the conventions associated with mainstream rock music.

Nirvana concert ticket for the Aston Villa Centre, 30 March 1994

Nirvana had played in Birmingham before, in 1989 and in 1991. The fan who donated this ticket planned to travel to Birmingham from his home town over 200 miles away to see Nirvana for the first time. His ticket remained intact and unused as the concert was postponed following concerns over the health of Nirvana’s lead singer, Kurt Cobain. His suicide on 5 April 1994 meant that a concert at the Aston Villa Centre would never take place.

Adam Jaffer

Curator of World Cultures

International Women’s Day: Birmingham Women who inspired change

Saturday the 8th March is International Women’s Day.

iwd_long

‘International Women’s Day celebrates the social, political and economic achievements of women while focusing world attention on areas requiring further action.’

In this blog we wanted to highlight the stories of some of the Birmingham women featured in the history galleries who have inspired change.

Ann Fuller

Portrait of Ann Fuller, 1786

Portrait of Ann Fuller, 1786

This rare portrait of an18th century businesswoman depicts Ann Fuller who was a pawnbroker in Digbeth during the late 18th century.  Ann took over her father’s business at 53 Digbeth shortly after this portrait was painted.

We know very little about Ann other than she was one of a small number of businesswomen in Birmingham at the time.  Research for the history galleries revealed other women including Catherine Sawyer who ran the Boarding School in The Square, and Mary Lloyd who was the owner of the Hen & Chicken’s Hotel.

You will find Ann’s portrait in the Strangers Guide to 18th Century Birmingham (1700-1830).

Nellie Hall

Nellie Hall’s hunger strike medal, 1913.

Nellie Hall’s hunger strike medal, 1913.

Nellie Hall was a suffragette who lived in Edgbaston.  She became an active campaigner as a teenager, and suffered imprisonment in Winson Green prison in Birmingham.  Later she was sent to prison again in London, went on hunger strike and endured forced feeding.  Birmingham had a very strong suffragette movement, which involved women from prominent local families including the Cadburys and the Rylands.  The equality for which these women risked their freedom, and sometimes their lives, was a long time in coming.  Women over 30 gained the vote in 1918, but full voting equality with men was not granted until 1928.

Nellie Hall wrote to her father from prison in 1914:  ‘No free spirit has ever been wrecked by a mean spirited oppression yet.  And mine won’t be either.’

You will find Nellie’s hunger strike medal in Forward (1830-1909)

Mary Newill

 Sleep after Toile 2

 Sleep after Toile 1Stained glass panel in two parts entitled ‘Sleep after Toile’ by Mary Newill, c.1905.

Mary Newill studied at the Birmingham School of Art.  In the late 19th century the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement was reviving hand crafts, in a reaction against mass production.  The Birmingham School of Art encouraged students to try new techniques, and pioneered art education for women.  Female students were encouraged to work with metal, wood and stained glass as well as textiles and painting.  Mary Newill was one of the women who forged ahead in techniques traditionally practised by men.  Newill also worked as an illustrator and embroiderer, and became a teacher at the School of Art.

You can see Mary Newill’s stained glass panel in Forward (1830-1909)

Lilly Duckham OBE

Lilly Duckham in her Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps uniform c. 1917.

Lilly Duckham in her Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps uniform c. 1917.

Lilly was born in Birmingham on the 14 October 1892.  She left school aged 14 and went into domestic service.  In 1917 she enlisted with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps aged 25.  Lilly was one of 10 women sent to the Western Front to be in charge of the Officer’s catering.  Many disapproved of women working on the Western Front.  In this extract from an interview with Lilly in 1981 she explained why she believed it was important for her, and other women to serve alongside men.

‘When I read of the quantity of boys that were being killed and that they, they wanted more men they wanted more people out there and they were going to try and experiment with girls you see I put my name through […] They asked if I wanted to stay at home or go abroad, well I very much wanted to go abroad there were only about five of us the rest were wanted to stay in England you know but I wanted to get out […] to do what I could […] I felt that was where the help was wanted was needed and that’s why I thought that’s where we should be and I mean the hardships and everything it was no more I felt it was no more for us than it was for the boys’.

Lilly was demobbed 6 months after the end of the war.  Shortly after returning to Birmingham she was awarded an OBE for her war services.

You can listen to extracts from Lilly’s interview as well as other Birmingham women’s first world war stories in An Expanding City (1909-1945) in the Birmingham at War display

Shahin Ashraf

Shahin Ashraf,  fundraiser for Islamic Relief.

Shahin Ashraf, fundraiser for Islamic Relief.

Shahin Ashraf was born in Birmingham in 1971.  She is a fundraiser for Islamic Relief, an international aid organisation which began in Birmingham in 1984.

Shahin began volunteering for Islamic relief in 1989 after the Kashmir earthquake.  In this extract from her interview for the history galleries she recalls what it was like as a volunteer.

‘We were basically going around the country collecting clothes in a big truck, there was a group of us and we were the only women that could drive at that time.  [We then delivered] them back to the warehouse and […] helping […] sorting out clothes, making sure the clothes […] were okay for the country that they were going to. I mean a lot of people gave summer clothes and it was winter there so […] we couldn’t take those clothes’

Islamic Relief [was] in its infancy and then what happened was that […] Central News in Birmingham […] picked it up and suddenly there was an influx of clothes and the warehouse was full to the brim but they had […] hardly any volunteers

So this was the call for volunteers and I was one of the very few volunteers.  In those days there was no texts, there no sms, there was no email, it was just word of mouth and Doctor Hany [the founder of Islamic Relief] had gone to the different colleges within Birmingham and he said I really need your help so if you could come to the warehouse […] and suddenly there was about 4-500 volunteers’.

You can listen to extracts from Shahin’s interview in Your Birmingham (1945-today)

Jo-Ann Curtis and Henrietta Lockhart, Curators – History

Exploring Birmingham’s Medieval Streets

A recent talk I gave for the University of Birmingham’s People, Places and Things series of seminars prompted me to write this latest instalment about medieval Birmingham. In fact, it was a question from a member of the audience after I presented the video of Exploring Medieval Birmingham, 1300 that determined the topic of this blog. The person in question asked if I’d thought about superimposing images or footage of Birmingham’s present-day streets over the medieval depictions illustrated in the video. Nice idea, and yes, I did think of doing exactly that, but budgetary and time constraints prevented me from doing so, but that isn’t to say that this can’t be achieved in the near future. Nevertheless, until then this blog will attempt to fill a ‘void’ in going half way to doing just that.

Model of Medieval Birmingham with St Martin’s Church at the centre of the town

Depiction of medieval Birmingham at the end of the 13th century with St Martin’s Church sitting at the centre of the town.

The 1296 Borough Rental referred to in my previous blogs on medieval Birmingham mentions around ten streets in the 13th-century town. Not a bad number, considering that Birmingham had roughly only thirty streets 400 years later. Moreover, some of Birmingham’s best-known streets today were already in existence by 1296. This included the likes of Egebastonstret (Edgbaston Street), le Parkestrete (Park Street), Overparkstret (now Moor Street) Novus Vicus (New Street) and Super Montem (the later High Street).

Moor Street sign in Birmingham

One of the most recognisable streets in Birmingham with a medieval past.

New Street isn’t as new as we might like to think, but certainly existed by the late 13th century. Perhaps it was only recently new then, but equally it could have been a fixture in the medieval town much before this point. While identifying the streets that framed the town, I started to think about their names especially as they can tell us a lot about an area and its ‘lost’ landscape. It’s easy to forget or simply not realise that the original meaning of street names, much like place names, once ‘said’ a lot about a location.

The many different types of street name can reveal an abundance of information relating to topography or geographical location, natural features, types of industries or even people. It seems that the streets that shaped the medieval town of 1296 were largely ‘signposts’ of topographical features. One example is Super Montem, translating as ‘Upon the Hill’ and this isn’t hard to appreciate when you realise that this part of town really did and does sit at a higher level than the land leading downhill towards St Martin’s and Digbeth, suitably reflected by its current name, High Street. Then there are the convenient indicators of important trading routes such as Edgbaston Street, named after the Anglo-Saxon manor of Edgbaston, meaning Ecgbeald’s Farm. As Edgbaston was seemingly at one time more successful than Birmingham, as indicated by its higher valuation in Domesday Book, it’s perhaps natural that a road should lead to such a neighbouring settlement. After all, it’s very likely that Birmingham’s inhabitants were trading with Edgbaston’s and vice versa and not to forget that Edgbaston Street led to even more important locations like Northfield. Valued at £5 in Domesday, Northfield was one of the more prosperous manors in the wider area, worth five times as much as that of Birmingham. Moreover it was also once owned by the same overlord as Birmingham: William Fitz-Ansculf whose power was centred on Dudley Castle. So perhaps the street also marked the importance of a wider trading route, as well as leading to Edgbaston itself.

The land and goods at Aston were valued at £5 in the Domesday Book

Another important manor also held by William Fitz-Ansculf was Aston, meaning the east estate. Its land and goods were valued at five times that of Birmingham’s at £5 in Domesday Book. (Source: Open Domesday website, images made available by Professor J.J.N. Palmer and George Slater.)

Novus Vicus or New Street is an indicator of Birmingham’s growth and prosperity as new roads were being built presumably to accommodate more inhabitants and trading ventures. Perhaps also, the adjective ‘new’ reflects the age of some of the other streets in the town as they had presumably been in existence for some time to warrant the latest road being called new.

New Street today

New Street looking down towards what was once the heart of the medieval town.

Similarly, other roads reflecting the town’s success are Le Parkestrete and Overparkstret. These locational names refer to the fact that Birmingham’s lord of the manor sold part of his deer park to make way yet again for more burgage plots and room for the expansion of industries. Both roads were named after the area of land and type of recreation it once accommodated. So, without digging too deep, street names can tell us a lot about the types of activities that once took place.

Park Street sign in Birmingham

The name survives as a ‘relic’ of a pastime now long gone.

Judging by the question that prompted this blog, people naturally want to know what Birmingham’s oldest streets look like today. It comes as no surprise either that most reside in what is the oldest part of town; the original planned settlement Peter de Birmingham carved out in 1166. This is still one of the busiest parts of Birmingham today bustling with shoppers and inhabitants, now paying their ‘tolls’ and ‘rents’ to a different ‘lord of the manor’. On account of the scale and size we had to adopt for the model of medieval Birmingham, the likes of New Street isn’t featured, so I’ve simply focussed on the streets that are depicted to illustrate what these medieval route ways look like today.

Map illustrating the early town of Birmingham

This map illustrates the early town that Peter founded. Notice the original triangular shape with four of Birmingham’s earliest roads branching from it: High Street, Edgbaston Street, Molle Street, soon to become Moor Street and Park Street, also at one stage called Little Park Street. (Source: Birmingham: The Building of a City by Joseph McKenna, pg 17)

Map illustrating the early town of Birmingham, 1553

By 1553 the Tudor town had spread down New Street and towards the Priory lands of what is now Bull Street. (Source: Birmingham: The Building of a City by Joseph McKenna, pg 17)

This brings me on to Edgbaston Street, which in the 13th century was home to surely the smelliest industry in town: leather tanning and judging by the archaeological excavations in the area this trade made the greatest mark upon the industrial endeavours of medieval Birmingham. As an essential material in the Middle Ages, leather goods were a staple of everyday life, as were other goods made from horn and bone, which inevitably grew out of the presence of the tanning trade. Today, Edgbaston Street has exchanged tanning for trading of a different sort, but you can still nevertheless find leather goods, minus the noxious smell, that is. This street is now home to Birmingham’s famous Rag Market, amongst many other traders of mixed enterprise.

Model of Medieval Birmingham showing Edgbaston Street

Edgbaston Street in 1296 looking towards St Martin’s Church.

Edgbaston Street today

Edgbaston Street today looking towards St Martin’s Church.

Park Street or le Parkestrete was developed to make way for the many burgeoning industries, thereby cutting into the lord’s deer park, on what was then the edge of town. Although Park Street no longer lines the periphery of Birmingham, it does in many ways mark the edge of its shopping quarter lying adjacent to Selfridges and its attached car park. In this sense, Park Street is still on the fringe of Birmingham for many, particularly the enthusiastic shopper who merely walks this medieval road in pursuit of one of Birmingham’s biggest twenty-first century industries.

Model of Medieval Birmingham showing Park Street

The beginning of Park Street in the 13th-century town around where Selfridges is today.

Park Street today

The extent of Park Street today, which actually begins around Selfridges’ car park stretching to just past this point towards Millennium Point.

Much like Park Street, Overparkstret was also testament to the growth of Birmingham, with the lord once again sacrificing more of his own land for the good of the town, and of course his own pocket. The name is simple and reflects exactly where this new road would lie: ‘over the lord’s park’, or at least part of it. Maybe Overparkstret and Le Parkstret were cut at the same time, maybe they weren’t, but what is clear is that they came into existence to facilitate the expansion of some of Birmingham’s early industries like tanning and pottery making.

Model of Medieval Birmingham showing what was to become Moor Street

The beginning of what was to become Moor Street near the eventual site of Selfridges.

Junction of Park Street and Moor Street today

Junction of Park Street and Moor Street where we think Roger le Moul held just some of his numerous burgage plots in 1296.

Perhaps the word park in two of the town’s roads which also lay very close to one another was slightly confusing for its inhabitants and traders, as Overparkstret was eventually renamed. In 1344 we find the earliest known reference to its new name: le Mulestret or Moulestret, in honour of the richest family in town, after the De Birminghams, at least. As we know, le Moulestret is today’s very own Moor Street, becoming the second of Birmingham’s medieval streets to accommodate a train station. We arguably have Roger le Moul to thank for this name change, and it’s indeed ironic that his surname translates as the small when we know he was a man of great property. Owning most of the land in town after William de Birmingham, he certainly ensured that his name and his family’s legacy would forever be preserved in his hometown.

Last but not least, we finish with Super Montem, now High Street, which is only just visible and the very edge of the scale model. True to its name it still sits on higher ground, which is why I always suggest that people make the effort to stand at the top of High Street and look downhill towards St Martin’s Church. Although the natural topography has been slightly distorted by the most recent Bull Ring developments, you can still get a ‘flavour’ of what the medieval landscape once looked like in terms of its gradient.

Model of Medieval Birmingham showing High Street

Start of Super Montem or High Street in 1296. This was no doubt used by drovers to bring their cattle to market in the town.

High Street today

Almost identical to the previous image in terms of position, High Street today is still bustling with shoppers and in the distance St Martin’s steeple peers up towards the higher ground.

Street names are really an excellent starting point for beginning to understand the physical development and topography of places, and sometimes the most ordinary of names, just like Park Street, lying in the most unassuming parts of town, can with a bit of detective work, really reveal a ‘hidden’ or forgotten history of a place. These muted relics of the past can tell us much more than you’d ever imagine, acting as signposts to a displaced landscape or in some cases subtly pointing to a terrain still very much intact, but obscured by the urbanisation of the modern city. Nevertheless, if we take the time to look hard enough, we can develop these ‘negatives’ in to fully-fledged images and create a colourful depiction of these ‘lost’ landscapes.

Sarah Hayes, Freelance Curator
Follow me @HayesSarah17

Science and history working in perfect motion

During the past six months Birmingham Museums have launched two brand new galleries showcasing the cultural heritage of the city and I’ve had the privilege of being involved in both developments.

The History Galleries, Birmingham: Its People, Its History opened last October at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and We Made It opened at Thinktank as recently as last week. The two exhibitions perfectly complement each other, working in tandem to innovatively explore the manufacturing history of this region. But, what exactly ties these two exhibitions, one about science and the other history, together, if anything? Well, first of all and most obviously, Birmingham. The History Galleries at BMAG explore nearly one thousand years of Birmingham’s history, but it’s the last two hundred years or so, that are really relevant to We Made It.

Entrance to the new History Galleries.

Entrance to the new History Galleries, Birmingham: Its People, Its History.

Introductory area of the new We Made It gallery at Thinktank.

Introductory area of the new We Made It gallery at Thinktank.

While the History Galleries explore Birmingham’s past from the point of the influential and everyday people behind the industrial innovation, We Made It develops this story further by exploring the science and the materials behind the manufacturing. In many ways, We Made It is a science exhibition inspired by history, specifically the manufacturing history of the West Midlands. The two exhibitions even display some identical objects from our shared collections. For example, visitors to the History Galleries are presented with an impressive array of pen nibs made by local manufacturers including Brandauer and Perry & Co. This important Birmingham trade is placed in the social context of the day, even making reference to the fact that three quarters of the world’s handwriting was once produced with a Birmingham-made pen nib.

Pen nibs on display in Birmingham: Its People, Its History.

Just some of the pen nibs on display in Birmingham: Its People, Its History.

We Made It also includes a display of pen nibs produced by the same Birmingham-based companies, but instead it looks at this trade from the point of the materials used, in this case, steel. Steel has long been an important material in Birmingham’s industrial past, and its importance here is explored in the context of its properties. As a strong, flexible and hard-wearing material, it’s suitable for mass production by machines for use in products like pen nibs. So, in one exhibition visitors can learn about how the material was made and why it was used and in another, more about the people and companies who made the products.

Likewise, buttons were once big business in Birmingham and the History Galleries display nearly five hundred cut steel, glass and brass examples.

Buttons on display in Birmingham: Its People, Its History.

Buttons from the James Luckcock collection now on display in Birmingham: Its People, Its History.

Here, we learn about the working conditions in button workshops, the people involved, specifically women and children and how this thriving industry contributed to the fashions of the day. We Made It develops this narrative by taking the story into the age of mass production in its Nuts and Bolts section, where visitors will find a button shank machine from the 1790s. This machine was one of the first to work automatically and could produce enough button shanks in one afternoon to keep a button maker in business for a whole month! This was an age of revolution and We Made It looks at how machines like this enabled the mass production of many products.

Button shank machine from the late 18th century.

Button shank machine from the late 18th century located on the right of the image.

Staying with the theme of mass production, the exhibition also displays one of the first machines used for wrapping chocolates at Cadbury’s. Although, you won’t so much learn about the people who worked at the Bournville factory, but rather how the chocolates were wrapped and why the aluminium wrappers made the perfect packaging.

Cadbury machine from circa 1918.

Cadbury machine from circa 1918 on display in We Made It. Notice the red aluminium foil, which was used to wrap Cadbury’s Roses.

In contrast, the array of Cadbury’s objects on display in the History Galleries are presented in a way that allows you to learn about the daily working lives, education and leisure of the female workers.

Cadbury The Factory in a Garden.

Exploring the social conditions of the Cadbury’s factory in Birmingham: Its People, Its History.

Although some people may think it’s a shame to separate objects that ultimately tell the same story, this is an opportunity to get more objects out of storage and allow them to contribute to a bigger narrative across more sites, in more exhibitions. We have nearly one million objects in our collection and it’s impractical to display all of these at any one time. But in sharing them across our individual sites in different exhibitions, we can ensure that more narratives of the same, or indeed different stories can be told.

Nevertheless, these galleries were designed to stand alone and aren’t dependent on one another to convey their messages. One of the key strengths of both exhibitions is the distinct visitor experiences they offer. One of my favourite aspects of the History Galleries is the powerfully evocative First and Second World War oral testimonies from Birmingham residents, creatively located in an immersive installation (below).

War installation in the History Galleries.

War installation in the Expanding City section of the History Galleries.

We Made It offers something else still, particularly through its interactive approach. The Build a Mini interactive challenges visitors to assemble a car (needless to say it’s a Mini!) by completing tasks on the various interactive stations, such as connecting the circuits or positioning the cams.

The Build a Mini interactive.

Work together to complete all four interactive stations simultaneously and see what happens!

Visitors can also learn how glass is coloured by ‘mixing’ their own minerals and discover how plastic injection moulding works, by ‘making’ a plastic duck! Of course, cars, glass and plastic have all played an important role in this region’s history and the We Made It interactives reinforce this point through participation, to get people thinking about the many materials that make up just one product.

Mould a Duck interactive in We Made It.

Mould a Duck interactive in We Made It.

Science and history really do go hand in hand and have always been natural partners in the industrial endeavours of the West Midlands. In the same way, both exhibitions are natural partners in exploring Birmingham’s contribution to science, technological innovation and history over the past two hundred years or so, and demonstrate just how and why Birmingham became known as the ‘town of a thousand trades.’

Sarah Hayes, Project Curator, We Made It
Thinktank, Birmingham Science Museum

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