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. 

Rebuilding Tradescant’s Ark at Sea

I went to the Ashmolean Museum today. I was keen to see what the £61 million refurbishment had ended up looking like.

I have a soft spot for the Ashmolean since I had my very first undergraduate tutorials there. They were with the inspirational prehistorian Andrew Sherratt, in his dingy attic office with views across the Oxford roofscape. We had eight weeks to cover the whole of human history from human evolution to the silk route, by way of the origins of farming, cities and metal-working. This was an exhilarating ride – the task for my first week in Oxford was to produce a diagram showing the significant events in human history – all of it!

Tutorials were epic events at 2pm on a Friday afternoon, sometimes lasting upwards of three hours. I remember Andrew repeatedly boiling an old kettle next to his desk and making himself cups of black coffee. He never thought to offer a cup to the two first year undergraduates sitting across the desk from him. By 5pm, gasping with thirst, we would be turned onto the street by the museum security guards, locking up the galleries for the night.

That was in 1997, and in those days many of the galleries at the Ashmolean still featured arrays of countless objects with handwritten labels and explanatory panels. There were galleries of material from Egypt and the Near East, from the ancient Mediterranean, from India and China, as well as galleries of European fine art. They were all in the same building, but each space had a very different look and feel, reflecting the preoccupations of the different departments of the museum. To connect the dots, and think about how what was happening in China related to what you could see in the European galleries, or how the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia related to Minoan crete or Ancient Greece and Rome, you needed someone like Andrew.

As a pioneer of world-systems thinking in Archaeology, he was happy to move from one part of the world to another, following the trade routes. He would drag us between the galleries to compare different types of pottery. When talking about stone tools in one tutorial, Andrew decided that the best thing would be to get the feel of them and dragged us into the bowels of the museum where he made us hold a series of stone tools dug out of a dusty storage boxes. Today, some of this connecting up has been attempted by the new displays. The welcome text declares that the museum’s new ‘display approach – Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time….reveals how the civilisations of the east and west have developed as part of an interrelated world culture.’ Glass panels and balconies allow you to look from one gallery to another and make the imaginative leaps yourself.

The atrium that you arrive at from the main entrance encourages the visitor to make connections between the different areas of the Ancient World that are displayed on the ground floor: the Mediterranean, the Near East, China, Egypt and India. In the basement a series of new displays make connections through themed displays on money, reading and writing and the human image. The key gallery on the first floor is called ‘Asian Crossroads; while the second floor has one called ‘West meets East’. The third floor seems to be preserved for European art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is hard to escape the feeling that European modernism appears to have transcended the inter-regional influences of previous centuries (While in reality the influence of African and Pacific art on European modern art has been enormous). The third floor is also still largely empty, with some expansive (but unused) temporary exhibition spaces. Although the museum was formally opened by the Queen a month ago, it is still clearly a work in progress. Many cases were awaiting their labels and a number of positions in the cases remained unfilled. Like a venerable old ship, the Ashmolean continues to move, but attempts to impose a new display approach, like setting a new course from the bridge, isn’t going to happen quickly.

A lot has happened in museums since 1997, the year in which Tony Blair became the first Labour Prime Minister since 1979. By signing up to the New Labour social inclusion agenda, museums have been able to access pots of money for large capital building projects and new museum buildings have emerged all over the country. Pushing my son in his pushchair I was more than happy to find the new building dotted with lifts. However, I did have to work hard to find them and they are quite small, (we just squeezed in a pushchair, a wheelchair and two people standing at one point). Because of this, much of my afternoon seemed to be spent waiting at lift doors. These are the ubiquitous brushed metal, with plenty of mirrors inside which my one year old son could use to make faces at me.

The archaeologists of the future will surely marvel at the last decade as a boom period for museum building and renovation, inaugurated by the opening of the British Museum’s great court in 2000. It is of course paralleled by the contemporary and related trend of rebuilding those other great public buildings of our age: shopping centres. Both trends are perhaps symptoms of the consumer boon of the last decade. The stark modernist architecture in both cases features white surfaces with lots of chrome, stone and wood. The Ashmolean even has chrome baby changing stations. The only problem with shiny new buildings is that they make slightly less shiny, slightly less new buildings look much older than they actually are. They also show up dirt incredibly badly. With areas of the building still something of a building site, it wasn’t hard to find evidence of dirt and dust around the Ashmolean.

While the refurbishment of Oxford’s Westgate shopping centre has been put off due to the economic downturn, the Ashmolean redevelopment has managed to slip through the net of the impending age of austerity. As the UK’s oldest public museum, founded in 1683, the Ashmolean has seen recessions before. It has seen new museum buildings and reorganisations that have led to transfers of the natural history and ethnographic material from the University’s collections to other museums in Oxford. One can’t help thinking that for those curators who manage to hang on to their jobs, the shift away from big building projects, which the next decade must surely bring, may be something of a relief. The main beneficiaries of the bundles of cash spent on museums in the last ten years have been designers and architects, who have expected curators to supply them with objects, ideas and text, which they then mould into a design that has to look modern and up to date. Most museums have the same number or fewer curators than they did in 1997, but like the NHS, museums have employed armies of managers to see that the curators keep up with their increased work loads. While the redisplayed Ashmolean, and its new ‘display approach’ appears to embrace so many of the ideas of Andrew Sherratt, it is hard to imagine him working there. Discovering and following connections and patterns between different parts of the world requires an enormous amount of research time, but also quite a bit of fortuitous discovery that results from apparently purposeless exploration and lateral thinking.

At the end of a long afternoon exploring the galleries, I decided to visit the Ashmolean’s new rooftop restaurant for a cup of coffee, while I fed my son his dinner. Having managed to find the one lift that actually went to the fourth floor, I arrived to find the waiting staff packing up for the day. They told me that the coffee machine wasn’t working, denying me, once again, the chance of having a coffee while looking out from the roof of the museum. Once again we rode the lift back down to the basement cafe. My son is just learning to walk and following an afternoon strapped into his pushchair he was keen to cruise around the cafe from chair to chair for a bit of exercise. For a brief moment he dropped to the floor crawling over to something that had caught his eye. He reached up to me, his tiny hand clasping what looked like one of the obsidian flaked tools Andrew Sherratt had made me hold in my own hands. What he had actually found was a piece of broken glass, and a trickle of blood slipped slowly from the thin slice it had made in his one-year old thumb.

What a reminder, if one were needed of the origins of human culture and technology along the cutting edge. While the Ashmolean museum presents a celebratory account of human borrowing and influence under its motto ‘Crossing Cultures Crossing Time’, arguably the Ashmolean museum is not really about cultures at all, but about civilisations. As Andrew Sherratt would no doubt have been pleased to point out, while large states with urban centres manage to produce some pretty impressive objects, they also have well armed military forces ready to impose their will, particularly when their trade routes are threatened. It is no surprise then that the Chinese navy are currently looking for a permanent base on the African coast to take on the Somalian pirates. While culture is a word used most often by those who are trying to escape the influence of their former imperial powers, civilization is one most often used by empires. The French Anthropologist, Marcel Mauss has declared that ‘Societies live by borrowing from each other, but they define themselves by the refusal of borrowing.’ It is the conflict, and the cutting edge that appear to have been left out of the Ashmolean’s vision of ‘how the civilisations of the east and west have developed as part of an interrelated world culture.’

In getting to grips with the redevelopment at the Ashmolean Museum, a better analogy than steering a ship, might be rebuilding the ship while at sea. You can replace a few sections at a time, but try to do much at once and you start to spring some serious leaks. I wasn’t at all convinced that the Ashmolean wouldn’t require quite a lot of bailing if it were a ship at sea. The different departments’ displays, while more integrated than they once were, still seemed to be pulling the museum in different directions. As I left the baby changing area at 5:45pm, having cleaned up my son’s cut thumb, I found that although the museum officially now closes at 6pm, I had been locked into the empty galleries. As I waited for a security guard with a key to come and let me out, I reflected that despite its shiny new building and ‘display approach’, it was clearly still the same Museum. I hope that one day soon, I’ll manage to have that coffee with a view from the roof.

Aston Hall in Birmingham

I went to Aston Hall today.

Built between 1618 and 1635, its showy Jacobean architecture is a bit of a surprise in north Birmingham. The hall overlooks Villa Park and the Hall is closed on match afternoons. It is not far from spaghetti junction and the A38M Aston Expressway runs along one edge of the park, generating a constant buzz of traffic noise. However some clever tree planting has created a leafy environment from which the surrounding city seems distant.

The house has a long and complex history, being attacked during the civil war, and once the home to James Watt junior. The house has been owned by the city of Birmingham since 1864 and has been used as a museum since that time. However, it was only after the second world war that the house has been furnished as a period house, very similar to a National Trust property.

According to information panels in the house, during the 1990s the Hall and Park suffered from “reductions in funding and problems with vandalism and failure to respond to the needs of the local community.” In 1996, following the establishment of the Heritage Lottery Fund two years earlier, a £12 million redevelopment programme was planned.

In 2002 an application was made to the HLF, co-funded by the local development group Aston Pride. This is a local body set up with government money to tackle the area’s poor job prospects, high levels of crime, educational underachievement, poor health and problems with housing and the physical environment.

In October 2006 the Hall closed for the work to begin, and it re-opened earlier this summer. Having last visited the hall before it closed for one of the popular Aston Hall by candlelightevents, I wanted to see what had changed.

Most obvious was the new entrance in the old stable block. This now has a new reception area and shop, cafe and toilets. It is fully compliant with Disability Discrimination legislation, providing a route into the Hall which avoids the front step – really useful when pushing a buggy.

On the first floor, accessible by a shiny new lift is an exhibition called ‘Astonish’ which engages with the history of the local area, and particularly with its significant history of immigration, industrialisation and urbanisation. The refurbishment has also focussed on the park with the construction of a number of sports pitches and an impressive looking new Sports Pavillion.

As well as the Astonish gallery, the redevelopment has attempted to engage with the area’s diverse community in a number of ways. A new garden draws on 17th century European and Persian forms, with fountains reminiscent of the Alhambra, and bright new benches designed by the artist Anu Patel.

In addition the ‘World Room’ includes displays on the ‘Influence of the East’ on design and furniture styles. There are also sections on ‘oriental carpets’ as well as tea drinking and the relationship of European sugar consumption to transatlantic slavery.

Despite these touches, and the Hall’s free admission it’s hard not to feel a bit like Aston Hall is not entirely comfortable with its position in the middle of north Birmingham. The overwhelming focus of the room settings is still on the Jacobean period, when the Hall existed in a largely rural English landscape.

The local area is felt most strongly in the stable block, but according to the Duke of Wellington, being born in a stable does not make you a horse. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the children born in Aston, with family roots elsewhere, would grow up thinking of Aston Hall as their heritage or not.