Birmingham – A City in the Making

This week I attended a meeting of the Historians Advisory group for a major new suite of galleries at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Birmingham – A History in the Making will take its place on the third floor of the museum and replace the history galleries that were hastily assembled when the museum’s natural history collections were removed in 2003.

View of the proposed entrance to the new galleries. Copyright Redmans Design. See:

Even though Heritage Lottery Funding was only announced in November, and even though the galleries aren’t scheduled to open until 2012 or 2013, the plans seemed to be pretty advanced. We were asked to comment not simply on ideas for galleries, but on a particular case and its contents. I was in a group looking at how slavery was going to be represented in a gallery on the eighteenth century.

We struggled with how to represent on the one hand the way in which Birmingham manufacturers and consumers benefitted from the slave trade, but on the other hand the way in which the movement against the slavery became particularly strong among the non-conformist manufacturing elites in the town.

The real problem was how to get across all this complexity in a single glass case. In my group was Catherine Hall, Professor of History at UCL whose fantastic book Civilising Subjects covers some of this ground in relation to Birmingham in the nineteenth century. That book, however, runs to over 500 pages and only deals with the period 1830-1867.

As historian after historian suggested textual documents which might be used, I started to realise the real challenges involved in creating a good museum display. It’s nothing like writing a book since you can’t rely on, and refer to endless other texts. Finding the right objects to display makes all the difference, but sometimes these can be terribly elusive.

The problem with slavery in eighteenth century Birmingham is that much of the time it was happening elsewhere. Goods were made there but exported. Sugar arrived there, but almost mysteriously from afar. Making slavery present in Birmingham is not just a problem that just confronts 21st century curators but was also a problem for anti-slavery campaigners such as Josiah Wedgwood.

Campaigning materials are some of the most eloquent objects that Birmingham has to display, but these only tell one part of the story. The other is the everyday, taken for granted nature of slavery, the way in which it was tied into all sorts of business practices and investments. I couldn’t help but thinking of commodities such as ‘blood diamonds‘ or the mineral coltan, which like sugar in the eighteenth century is central to all sorts of new consumer behaviour in Britain. While we might read about the connections between our behaviour and horrific acts of cruelty and violence, we still can’t quite believe that our mobile phones and engagement rings are really responsible.
In the end, as a group, we argued that you couldn’t really deal with slavery by separating it out and placing it in a case called ‘taking a stand’. Instead you had to try and also make its presence felt in other sections of the gallery that focussed on trade and manufacture, and the prominent men of the city such as Matthew Boulton. You also can’t really deal with it by confining it the eighteenth century, as if the 1807 abolition of the trade in the British Empire marked the end of Birmingham’s involvement in supplying goods that were traded for slaves.
Since the bicentenary, three years ago, slavery has almost become too prominent in the museum world, presenting a now well-known story with a happy ending. By telling this story, you can almost get out of telling all sorts of other stories about the way in which life in Britain has been intimately connected with the lives of people in other parts of the world for a very long time. One has to wonder how many people have died at the end of a gun that was made in Birmingham. 
However, unlike the slave trade, that story may be a more difficult one to tell, since the UK continues to export arms around the world. BAE, one of the largest arms producers in the world, continues to have factories at Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, just down the road from Birmingham Museum.