There are historic cities and then there’s ‘Birmingham, its people, its history’

Alan Clawley believes Birmingham doesn’t capitalise on its historic assets and suggests a better way to make more of them.

There are some cities whose history is its main attraction. Cities such as York and Lincoln draw visitors from all parts of the world but especially from the New World where, mistakenly, the present-day inhabitants believe they have no worthwhile history of their own.

There are other cities, like Birmingham, that are not visited for their history.  Perhaps this is because in this old country of ours, anything that happened in the last 200 years is still not regarded as history.  For the newer cities like Birmingham, the bulk of their history was made in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Yet Birmingham does have a history, one which is as exciting and fascinating as other, older, cities. Up to now this history has not been adequately told by its civic museums, most of which were financed by the city’s wealthy Victorian industrialists.

BMAG and Council HouseThe Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) is stuffed full of the artefacts of the Industrial Revolution but there is no obvious narrative to explain how they came to be there. It’s like a local version of the Great Exhibition held in the Crystal Palace in 1851 when all and sundry displayed their products without any attempt by the organisers to explain a purpose beyond that of a trade show, the forerunner of our own National Exhibition Centre. Furniture designed by Morris and Co jangled with room settings by Pugin in an astonishing cast-iron and glass structure designed by a gardener.

For many years the only attempt to tell the story of Birmingham was tucked away in a BMAG basement, but now a new exhibition has been opened entitled Birmingham, its people, its history.  It has cost £8.9 million and has been funded by grants, mainly from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which in itself signifies its national importance.

It’s a good effort, but to my mind, it still relegates Birmingham’s history to a part of the museum where there is not enough space to do it justice. As most of Birmingham’s history happened in the 19th and even 20th centuries, I would have expected the exhibition to be mainly about those centuries. In particular, I miss the big model of the 1920s Civic Centre that used to be displayed under the dome. There is however, a model of Digbeth in mediaeval times, which is clearly meant to be the centrepiece of the show, but it could be a mediaeval village anywhere. The model is static Golden Lion in Cannon Hill Parkwith interactivity provided by pressing buttons to light up various parts of the model. I found it difficult to relate it to the modern Digbeth and orientating it was tricky as north points are not very clear. I would have expected modern digital technology or overhead projection to have been used to overlay present day maps of the area to show how it developed since those far-off days.

Birmingham plan in '30sPost-war housing redevelopment and the Inner Ring Road – the life work of chief planner Herbert Manzoni – does not get much space in the exhibition although it caused huge social and environmental change in the city. Manzoni was not interested in history and would have had little time for an exhibition about it. He said that any building more than 15 years old was expendable if it stood in the way of his sweeping vision of a new world, but whether we like it or not he did make his mark on our history and we are still living with his legacy today.

‘Change’ is the constant theme of Birmingham’s history yet the displays in the exhibition are mostly static and set out like chapters in a book. These are good in themselves but the curator’s attempt to draw them together in the form of a fictitious visitors guide tends to blur the distinction between real and imagined history.

Part of the story is of course told at Soho House, Sarehole Mill and Thinktank but people are unlikely to visit them as well as BMAG in the same day. The main exhibition of the history of Birmingham in the last 200 years should be easy to visit in the city centre. It could make use not only of the whole of BMAG but could use a refurbished Central Library building right next door to display some of the vast industrial collection presently stored in Nechells.  Now that would draw in the history fans.

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