Last weekend I popped in to see the new History Galleries at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I was in a bit of a hurry so I didn’t have time to do it justice, but will certainly have to go back and have another look, taking my husband and small son with me as there will be plenty to interest them both. Firstly, I must confess: I don’t much like exhibitions which focus on a local area, usually with lots of flint arrow-heads; I conceived a strong dislike for such places in childhood. So I was slightly concerned that this would be similar, and, you’ll be pleased to hear, it wasn’t. The galleries tell the story of Birmingham, from its beginnings through to the city we know now. It covers a huge range in the space, introducing the visitor to Birmingham in different periods and demonstrating what life would have been like in the city at that time. There’s a lot for children to do, and a lot of interaction, as well as information boards for those who want detailed facts.
There are some fascinating objects on display, from archaological finds to paintings and objects from the city or made in the city, and even the doors of the debtors’ prison and a display on Freeth’s Coffee House in the eighteenth century. Given my own interests I was particularly taken with the nineteenth century displays, which feature objects made in Birmingham at the height of the city’s period as a centre of industry and craftsmanship. The magpie in me loved the buttons, which were beautiful and varied, and especially the chalice, monstrance and candlesticks made during the Gothic Revival by John Hardman & Co. There were also some beautiful stained-glass panels from the Birmingham School of Art. The exhibition also shows how significant Birmingham was culturally in the nineteenth century; for example, the Town Hall not only held the premieres of Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (based on a poem written by Cardinal Newman), it also saw the first ever public reading by Charles Dickens of A Christmas Carol. When BMAG itself opened, in 1885, its purpose was ‘to display examples of good design and craftsmanship from around the world to inspire local manufacturers to make high-quality products’. Some of these products which were made are on display here, and it’s fascinating to see a collection of Arts and Crafts objects with such strong local connections.
The galleries make excellent connections between what was happening in Birmingham and the rest of the country (and indeed world). It offers lessons in social history – such as the development of education, for example, or life on the homefront during the wars – as well as being rooted in local history. It is clearly also an exhibition with a social conscience, looking at aspects such as child labour and slavery, and asking visitors to consider the lives of those in poverty today, for example. There is a lot to appeal to everyone here, although I have to say that the section on twenty-first century Birmingham seemed to me rather dull by comparison with its fascinating past!