“Historians (both professional and non-professional) find objects tricky to understand and interpret. Historical ‘truth’ tends to be associated with the written word rather than with things, and objects are thought to be less articulate about the insights into the past that they offer.”
For the latest in my series exploring the work of urban historians today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with the team that’s working on the Birmingham Museums Trust’s Birmingham Manufactures project. Birmingham Manufactures is an Arts Council funded project that-amongst other things-aims to catalogue and make more accessible and visible, the Birmingham made objects in the museum’s collections.
What is the background to Birmingham Manufactures?
“The project will encourage thinking across the collections, and recognising the importance of these items for understanding the history of Birmingham manufacture.”
The project came out of a desire to improve the cataloguing system for Birmingham Museums, and make the collection more accessible to researchers and members of the public. The project is funded by the Art’s Council’s Designation Fund which funds projects which ensure the long-term sustainability of significant museum collections and maximise their value both to the public and to museum staff. This money has paid for two new dedicated members of staff, and will be used to develop the cataloguing system and to pay for new archival and collections storage. Birmingham Museums has an enormous collection of objects – somewhere in the region of 800,000 items – which have come into the collection in various ways. The acquisition and cataloguing of objects has traditionally been the responsibility of individual curators who look after a particular area of the collection – applied art, for example, or science and industry. Although many of the items in the collection are related to Birmingham manufacture, these objects are rarely understood in this way. Some objects, such as fine metalwork and jewellery, were acquired as examples of ‘good’ design to inspire Birmingham’s workforce and subsequently found their way into the applied arts collection. Others items, such as the engines and machinery used in some of the city’s various trades, were acquired and displayed at the old Museum of Science and Industry as examples of innovation and technology. More recently, oral histories from individuals employed in Birmingham’s workshops and factories have been collected as part of the social history collection, and new interpretation for the Birmingham History Gallery. The project will encourage thinking across the collections, and recognising the importance of these items for understanding the history of Birmingham manufacture.
How does this help us understand Birmingham’s history?
“As well as helping us to understand the economic development of the city, these objects can also help us to access something of the daily lives of the people who lived and worked with them.”
Birmingham is known for its history of manufacturing, and is commonly referred to as the City of a Thousand Trades. Industry and manufacture were central to the city’s growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and making and manufacture remain at the heart of the self-identity of many in the city today. The variety of objects that we will be cataloguing as part of this project suggest the complexity of this history. Items that we will be considering include weights and scales, engines, motor vehicles, bicycles, firearms, jewellery and domestic metalware, food products, buttons and pens amongst many, many others. Unlike industrialising towns like Manchester and Sheffield which were focused on one major industry (cotton and steel respectively), Birmingham flourished precisely because of the variety of industries operating within its borders. By understanding the composition of objects and the materials needed for their production, these items can help demonstrate the interconnectivity of Birmingham industries, and of their place in national and international markets and movement of people. As well as helping us to understand the economic development of the city, these objects can also help us to access something of the daily lives of the people who lived and worked with them. Some of these objects speak volumes about the skill (or otherwise) of Birmingham’s workforce and of the labour involved in their production; others suggest changes in fashion, taste, and consumption patterns; other objects will have more personal meanings, and will appear in individual and family histories in different ways. Rather than simply understanding these items as commodities or as examples of design, we will be digging through archives and conducting oral histories interviews to generate a more complex record of what these objects may have meant.
What do you see as being the project’s long-term outcome?
“It is hoped that a second phase of the project will work from the data we generate to map the location of particular workshops and factories, and provide a publicly-accessible resource to those interested in the history of Birmingham and its manufacture.”
The project will ensure that a significant number of items in the collection that were made in Birmingham and its surrounding areas are properly catalogued. This may not sound like an exciting ambition, but it is vital for the future of the collection, and its interpretation. As well as describing the objects in full and assessing their condition, we will be recording maker names and the location of production – where it is known. A large number of items will be photographed to a professional standard, creating a vital visual record which might also be used for display purposes. All this information will support the work of researchers and academics, and provide a wealth of information for those interested in the history of manufacturing in Birmingham. Eventually, all this information will be available online, allowing members of the public to access images and information about the collection digitally. It is hoped that a second phase of the project will work from the data we generate to map the location of particular workshops and factories, and provide a publicly-accessible resource to those interested in the history of Birmingham and its manufacture. Although the main outcome of the project will be to document, make accessible and raise awareness about an important part of the collection at Birmingham Museums we also hope that the project will encourage curators and members of the public to think differently about the objects in store and on display, and to continue to build connections between different parts of the collection. We are also hopeful that the project will encourage future collaboration between Birmingham Museums and local heritage sites, archives, libraries and community groups.
Are museums and their collections overlooked as a historical resource?
we hope the project encourages others to use the collection as a resource whether… writing an institutional history of Elkington & Co… or wanting to show their friends the custard packets they used to have on their table…”
Yes! Historians (both professional and non-professional) find objects tricky to understand and interpret. Historical ‘truth’ tends to be associated with the written word rather than with things, and objects are thought to be less articulate about the insights into the past that they offer. More recently, and partly stimulated by what is termed ‘the material turn’, there has been an increase in the use of museum collections in historical research and a recognition that objects offer important insights into the past. Although the interest in using museum collections is increasing, there is a problem with the logistics of how exactly interested parties might access these items, particularly the vast majority of items which are not on display, but locked away in museum stores. As funding cuts follow funding cuts and staff numbers dwindle, providing access to these collections becomes all the more difficult. By fully cataloguing the objects which appear as part of the project, and by taking detailed photographs of them, we hope the project encourages others to use the collection as a resource, whether they’re interested in writing an institutional history of Elkington & Co. or one of the many other Birmingham manufacturers, or wanting to show their friends the custard packets they used to have on their table…
Has there been much interest from the public in what you’re doing?
Although we’re still at the very early stages of the project, we’ve been lucky to have lots of people get in touch. It’s wonderful to hear the stories of those who work or worked in Birmingham-based industries, or those who have memories of their relatives doing so. As I mentioned, we will be doing some oral histories as part of the project, and would be very pleased to hear from anybody who would be interested in doing this. At the moment, we are particularly interested to find anybody who worked at the factory of Alfred Bird and Sons in Digbeth, so please do get in touch!
Why do you think that people have been motivated to get in touch, or otherwise engage with you, about Birmingham Manufactures?
These industries shaped people’s lives, and those who worked in them (and their relatives) have a strong affinity with them. There is also something very powerful about the idea of your history, the history of your workplace, your family, or your neighbourhood being recorded in some way by a museum.
What’s the interesting thing that you’ve uncovered so far?
“One rectangular tin of custard powder… made it all the way to the North Pole on Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition in 1893-6…”
There are many interesting stories to be told from the collection, but our favourites so far are the globe-trotting tins of Alfred Bird’s food products. With its home in the Custard Factory in Digbeth, Bird’s was an iconic Birmingham brand, and because of this, we acquired a collection from its archives in 2013. The collection offers a fascinating insight into the development of a brand, food tastes, and advertising in this country, but it also demonstrates the global reach of many Birmingham-made goods. One rectangular tin of custard powder, for example, made it all the way to the North Pole on Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition in 1893-6; another tin of baking powder was found on the other side of the globe, rescued from Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Birmingham Manufactures say:
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