On Sunday, 21 August, the public was invited to browse round the Council’s Museums Collection Centre in Dollman Street, Nechells.
This huge modern industrial building houses thousands of Items ranging from a fire engine to a stuffed bird, a Paolozzi sculpture to a dissected Arial Arrow motorcycle. The racks in the main warehouses are several stories high, so we could only look at what was on the floor level. Small items were housed in the admin blocks in little cages.
I was most interested in the big items and particularly intrigued by the computing machines and telephone exchanges that are less than 30 years old but which have been made obsolescent by the breathtaking pace of technological change. It also comes as quite a shock to those who were around at the time to see familiar objects such as the Sinclair C5 and a Norton motorcycle of the same era as one we rode in our youth alongside more ancient museum pieces.
It was fun at first to see so much variety but there was so much stuff laid out in random order that culture fatigue set in after a while. It began to feel more like browsing an antique or art saleroom than a museum. Only the prices and a printed catalogue were missing, a welcome omission if it means that the council is not, at the moment at any rate, thinking of selling off items of priceless heritage to the highest bidder in order to balance its books.
It’s obvious that very little curating has been done to make the collection accessible to the general public and the serious researcher. There is no online catalogue and many of the artifacts only have a small accession tag to identify them. The staff who were on duty were there to protect the collection and unable to answer questions as they normally worked elsewhere.
There will never be enough space in museums to display all the items in store so they must all be kept safe and sound indefinitely. But In these days of council budget cuts the worry is that nothing will be done and the collection will be quietly forgotten until the council sees the opportunity of selling off ‘surplus’ artifacts to private collectors. Councillors may strenuously deny such a possibility, but no-one can guarantee that it won’t happen one day.
It’s also to be expected that some items are more important or ‘popular’ than others and will be taken out of store for a while. We have no way of judging for ourselves what is most ‘valuable’ as heritage because we can’t see it all and there is no comprehensive illustrated catalogue. Nor can we go to see what interests us most because the collection is not organized thematically.
If the collection is to remain intact, as it surely should, the Council must bring some of it out of the Nechells warehouse and into the city centre.
I can see the former Central Library becoming a splendid Museum of the Twentieth Century that houses largish artifacts (not small ones in display cases); the early computing, digital and telephonic machines could be displayed on the present Technology and Science floor, works of art and small-scale sculpture on the present Arts floor, and social and economic artifacts on the present Social Sciences floor. Surely that is something a city the size of Birmingham and an industrial region like the West Midlands can afford. The growing popularity of heritage, evident from the numbers of people browsing the Collection on Sunday, will ensure that such a museum would be a huge attraction.