The city of Birmingham, alongside Liverpool and Glasgow, has one of the UK's three great historic, encyclopedic regional collections. It consists of around 1 million objects across almost every imaginable collection area, displayed and stored in nine venues. It is the largest civic museum service in England. Since 2012, the independent educational charity Birmingham Museums Trust has cared for the collection and venues on behalf of Birmingham City Council.
I became Director of Birmingham Museums Trust in 2013, having formerly been Head of Glasgow Museums. One of my first observations was that the collection contained remarkably little that represented working-class life, including post-war immigration to the city. This absence was reflected in the visitor demographics, which were dominated by elderly, white, middle-class visitors. This does not reflect the makeup of the 1.2 million-strong population of Birmingham, which is exceptionally young and very diverse. The story of immigration to Birmingham is a complex one, but the largest groups are from Britainrs"s former colonies, the African Caribbean population from the West Indies and the South Asian population from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Nearly 50% of the city's population is now Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME).
Mrs EC McGhie-Belgrave MBE_Photo: Birmingham Museums Trust
The philosophy of the project was underpinned by the fact that the collection and venues are the property of the citizens of Birmingham, held in trust by their democratically elected representatives on Birmingham City Council. As an educational charity, Birmingham Museums Trust serves the people of Birmingham and visitors to the city, balancing the maximum possible access to the collection in the present with the need to preserve it for future generations. We have an obligation to provide a service to all our communities, especially those who may experience barriers to participation for social or economic reasons: Birmingham contains many areas that score highly on the Index of Multiple Deprivation. We know from audience research that the subject areas that interest our traditional visitors – Pre-Raphaelite art, for example – are not those that interest people from other socio-economic groups or different cultural heritages, who tend to be more interested in the history of the city in which they live.
So much for the aspiration. Among the staff of BMT in 2015 it would be fair to say the project was not received with undiluted enthusiasm. Longstanding members of staff repeatedly said `I don't understand this project", code for `I don't approve". We set up an expert panel, but it was perhaps weighted too much towards academic specialism, and in future we will think more carefully about community expertise and understanding. The expectation was the we would mainly acquire by purchase, although I was more interested in encouraging a long-term tradition of donations, and in the event donations far exceeded purchases. We recruited project staff, not all of whom understood or sympathised with project aims and methods, and adjustments to the composition and management of the team were needed.
Africa Liberation Day poster_Photo: Birmingham Museums Trust
One element of the project involved working with community partners to interpret and display the objects we acquired through the project in our museums across the city. Our original target had been 40 objects, and we collected over 1000, so we had ample material to choose from. The exhibitions were well attended and received positive feedback, contributing to the sense of community ownership of the museums. Another strand of the project involved providing advice to individuals and community groups on how to preserve and interpret their own collections.
Collecting Birmingham was one of a varied programme of projects in Birmingham Museums Trust over the last four years that have grown and diversified our audiences while changing the culture and practice of the organisation. Other projects have included an exhibition partnership with the Arts Council Collection, which addressed contemporary issues such as LGBTQ rights and feminism, attracting young audiences. Even younger audiences, many of them still in buggies, came (bringing their parents) to see Dippy the Diplodocus from the Natural History Museum. We worked with a group of activists to explore the legacy of the British Empire and decolonise the museum in a gallery called The past is now. And with Knights of the Raj, Birmingham artist Mohammed Ali attracted new audiences to a joyous exhibition about the tradition of `Indian' (actually Bangladeshi) restaurants in Birmingham. Most recently, our traditional audience (and some of our newer ones) have queued to see drawings by Leonardo from the Royal Collection.
Collecting Birmingham has been part of a process of change in Birmingham Museums. We will never go back to a position in which curators are the sole gatekeepers of what new objects to acquire for Birmingham's collection. We continue to build a network of relationships across the communities of the city and internationally that we hope to maintain and develop in the future. More people from more communities are visiting our museums and joining in our events and activities. We have learned that knowledge and expertise do not reside only with academics, and that our audiences have a lot to teach us. We have become a more open, innovative and confident organisation that finds it easier to consult with and accept advice and input from partners on how to use the vast public asset that is the city of Birmingham's collection.
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