Tag Archive | 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.

Joseph Chamberlain: a Birmingham icon

July 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of one of Birmingham’s most famous personalities. Joseph Chamberlain transformed Birmingham during the 1870s when he was the town’s Mayor. He later went on to represent Birmingham in Parliament and to serve in the cabinet as Colonial Secretary. He was a controversial figure during his lifetime and continues to be so today. This is a series of snapshots from Chamberlain’s career, based upon objects in our collection.

Ceremonial Trowel

Ceremonial Trowel given to Joseph Chamberlain, 1874

Ceremonial Trowel given to Joseph Chamberlain, 1874

As Mayor of Birmingham, Chamberlain ran the town like a business, taking utilities like gas and water into public control. He improved the health of the population through better sanitation. One of his most controversial acts was the demolition of large swathes of ‘slum’ housing which made way for the commercial centre of Corporation Street; this enhanced the business environment but many people were displaced and not re-housed. On 17 June 1874 Chamberlain laid the foundation stone of the new Council House, which still stands at the heart of Birmingham. This trowel commemorates the event.

Postcard of Joseph and Mrs Chamberlain

Postcard of Joseph and Mrs Chamberlain

Postcard of Joseph and Mrs Chamberlain

Chamberlain’s personal life was beset by tragedy. His first and second wives, cousins Harriet and Florence Kenrick, both died in childbirth. At the age of 52, Chamberlain found happiness with 23 year old American Mary Endicott. Images of Chamberlain usually portray him as looking severe, but in this postcard we get a rare glimpse of him smiling.

Satirical Drawing of Joseph Chamberlain

'Dogs of war', satirical drawing of Joseph Chamberlain by Sir John Tenniel, 1899

‘Dogs of war’, satirical drawing of Joseph Chamberlain by Sir John Tenniel, 1899

In the 1890s the British government was keen to keep South Africa within the British Empire rather than see it become a Boer republic. In 1899 Chamberlain, now Colonial Secretary, was preparing for war against the Boers. In this caricature, Chamberlain pretends to ‘Oom Paul’, the President of the South African Republic, that ‘the dogs of war’ (a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar) are just going for a walk. This cartoon was published in Punch.

Wooden Folder Presented to Joseph Chamberlain

Wooden folder presented to Joseph Chamberlain in Cape Town, South Africa, 1903

Wooden folder presented to Joseph Chamberlain in Cape Town, South Africa, 1903

The Boer War came to an end in 1902, and in the following year Chamberlain toured South Africa to promote reconciliation between the British and the Afrikaners. He was broadly welcomed, and persuaded the Prime Minister John Gordon Sprigg to hold elections. This elaborate wooden blotter was presented to him by the South African Progressive Association. It is lined inside with blotting paper and was used to blot letters to ensure that the ink was dry.

Satirical Postcard of Joseph Chamberlain

Satirical postcard of Joseph Chamberlain, around 1905

Satirical postcard of Joseph Chamberlain, around 1905

In his early career Chamberlain was a radical reformer, but later he became increasingly imperialist. This satirical postcard pokes fun at a variety of policies that Chamberlain ‘juggled’ as Colonial Secretary. One of his last campaigns was for the imposition of tariffs upon trade with countries outside the British Empire, in order to favour imperial trade. He became notorious for using two loaves of bread as visual aids during a speech in Birmingham, arguing that a loaf baked under tariff reform would be no more expensive than one baked under free trade. The phrase ‘Birmingham bred’ is a pun on this.

Souvenir Booklet

Souvenir booklet from Joseph Chamberlain's 70th birthday celebrations, 1906

Souvenir booklet from Joseph Chamberlain’s 70th birthday celebrations, 1906

Despite his mixed fortunes as a national politician, Chamberlain was always a popular figure in Birmingham. Throughout his career he used a monocle and wore an orchid in his buttonhole, and his instantly recognisable image was reproduced on countless souvenirs. His 70th birthday in 1906 was marked by huge celebrations and a parade through the city centre was attended by thousands. This souvenir programme cost threepence.

To see more objects from our Chamberlain collections, visit ‘Birmingham: its people, its history’ on the third floor of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, or see our Chamberlain Flickr page.


Henrietta Lockhart
Curator (History)

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

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery History Project

My name is Olivia and I work as a Visitor Assistant at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG). It is impossible to work in such a beautiful building without being curious about its history.

In May 2012 three colleagues and I began to research specific areas of interest as part of an ongoing project to discover, and make available, more information about an institution that is over 127 years old.

Rachael Yardley focuses primarily on the architecture of the building, Helen Roberts researches the people who were of vital importance to BMAG and Tomasz Kolisko’s area of interest is the collection itself. I have been engaged in the social and political history behind the museum’s foundation and development.

In this blog I intend to share the process of research we went through to get to the stage we are currently at, as well as keeping you up to date with any further developments.

Gallery News publication front cover, 1980

This photo is a front cover of a BMAG publication that held information about up and coming events in the Gallery, from 1980. It shows a drawing of the Museum from the outside in the nineteenth century when it first opened – before the bridge extension was built.

‘The History of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’ is such a huge subject that even after splitting it into sections it still took the better part of a year to get to a stage where we all felt we had a good enough grasp of the topic to give a presentation to other departments in the museum. When the four of us first sat down to discuss the project, over copious cups of coffee, we had no idea of how consuming the research would be.

The first problem we encountered was where to start. We decided to simply wander around the museum asking colleagues for anecdotes or just quizzing them on everything they knew about the place they worked. However, this method proved incredibly problematic because all too often one of us would run to another with an interesting revelation only to be told “That’s not what I heard.” Clearly this wasn’t working. Too many ‘facts’ we got told were ‘certain’ directly contradicted others.

It would be impossible to undertake the project without first consulting Stuart Davis’ book “By the Gains of Industry: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 1885-1895”. This was easily accessible in the Museum shop and gave us a much better platform to start from (not least because it has a list of sources). However, in places it was slightly confusing and I found myself with a long list of citations with question marks next to them – a recurring theme. The next stage was obviously to turn to Davis’ sources and finally we felt we were getting somewhere. But books proved few and far between on the topic of the BMAG’s history.

The Inscription Stone dated 19th July 1881

The Inscription (or Foundation) Stone can be seen in the main entrance of the Museum. It is the first stone that was laid in the building on 19th July 1881 by Mayor Richard Chamberlain. It also includes the Museum motto ‘By the gains of Industry we promote Art’.

A few months into the project we realised we had foolishly ignored something very obvious. BMAG is full of plaques revealing the important benefactors and gallery openings. The first two items to enter the collection are still on display; the Bust of David Cox and the Sultangani Buddha. The museum walls gave us yet more dates and names to bounce around the internet.

The internet proved to be the worse source of all. The digital world appeared to be almost a complete void of information regarding the history of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, aside from what was written on BMAG’s website. I even tried university journals to very little avail.

My pet peeve for those first few months was my inability to locate a concise list of previous directors anywhere. On the advice of Martin Ellis (Applied Art Curator) I spent a long and cold afternoon in the archive section of Central Library working my way through the volumes of ‘Who’s Who in Birmingham’ from the 1890s-1997. Usually pages 44-45 held a brief overview of the Museum and Art Gallery with the Keeper or Director’s name and a few details about what departments we had. There were two shelves within the date range I needed and I was reluctant to miss out a year just in case there was a Keeper or Director who only worked there for one year.

I left the library with a scrap of paper listing 6 names, 10 dates and 2 question marks – and a sense of achievement.

Vestibule entrance, possibly very early 20th century

This is a photograph of the Vestibule. Unfortunately we do not have an exact date for it yet but we think it was taken in the very early twentieth century.

When we discovered the Social History Library within the museum itself the project finally took flight. We found boxes of photographs revealing the museum in the 1890s and the building of the extension in the early 1900s. A bit of detective work and was required to attribute dates to some of them. We uncovered old exhibition catalogues, newspaper cuttings, visitor reports, and meeting minutes. We also found a very helpful ghost unless the curators were playing tricks on us. Each time we discussed needing to find out something specific we would return to the library and magically it would appear. We would discover new photographs in boxes we were certain we had seen everything in before. Also, things we remembered seeing would mysteriously disappear one day and reappear a week later. We discovered biographies of all the important benefactors to the Museum and Art Gallery and huge catalogues of the collection hidden away in the darkest corner.

Above the Industrial Gallery after WWII

This photograph is from above the Industial Gallery when it was boxed in after the Second World War, however, we are not certain of the date.

Over eight months we pieced together a document that aims to provide answers to most questions we, and visitors, have about the history of the building.  These include: why it was built, where the funding came from, who designed it, how we came about the collection and who made it all possible. Most importantly we discovered an immense passion for the place we work. We presented our findings in a full staff briefing and were stunned to see our level of excitement and curiosity mirrored in our audience.

The research is, of course, ongoing. We still have broad questions and assumptions we need to prove. We each have very specific areas of interest that we are independently studying and sharing so hopefully the project will expand further and future employees and visitors will have an easily accessible information about the Museum and Art Gallery.

Gallery News publication front cover, 1982

This is another cover from Gallery News from 1982. It shows the Industrial Gallery before the staircase was put in place which dates it between 1885-1890.

We have just begun to give guided tours for the public at £3 per person. The next one is on the 23th of July at 1pm – for more details please visit BMAG’s What’s On page.

Olivia Bruton
Visitor Assistant at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

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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