The write stuff - Museums Association

The write stuff

A volunteer-run museum in Birmingham tells the story of how the city was once the centre of the world pen trade. By Sharon Heal
In the age of text messaging, email and blogging, the simple pen-to-paper method of communication is increasingly overlooked. But 150 years ago the basic nib, pen holder and pot of ink was at the cutting edge of communications technology - in fact, it was the only way of getting your message across.

The Pen Room in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter celebrates this fact, and the city being the centre of the world pen trade for the best part of the 19th century. At its height, more than 100 factories employed thousands of female workers who churned out millions of pen nibs (85 per cent of the world supply).

The museum was put together by a handful of local collectors and enthusiasts, who formed the Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association. They were determined that this relatively little-known part of Birmingham's history should be preserved.

Although abundant in objects and crammed from floor to ceiling with display, the museum lacks an overall narrative. Until, that is, you meet the inimitable double act that is Larry and Harry. Larry Hanks is one of the founders of the museum and his personal collection of pen nibs forms part of the display. There are also bits of Harry Scharf's collection in the museum.

They are avuncular, passionate about their particular areas of interest, and keen to tell visitors the story of the local trade. Harry does ink pots, blotters and fountain pens; Larry is interested in manufacturing and can relate the history of the local trade from inception to demise, as well giving you a potted account of how the museum came about.

They compete to tell visitors the story of pens, but this only serves to make the whole experience more entertaining. The museum is entirely volunteer-run and has bags of charm and authenticity because of it.

The museum was established in 2001, but, not content with one room for the burgeoning collection, the association bid for and won a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £90,000 in 2004. This allowed the museum to spread into an adjoining space.

Its collecting policy seems clear cut: anything to do with the Birmingham pen trade. But a dozen or so typewriters have snuck in, as has oddly, a telephone exchange, a Braille machine and some stenography equipment - the acquisitions are defended on the grounds that they are all forms of communication.

And the museum is still collecting - negotiations are underway for a particularly tasty company ledger and volunteers regularly go bargain hunting around the local antique fairs for associated ephemera. The only concern is that they will run out of space to put it all.

The displays are already dense with objects. There are more than 100,000 different types of pen nib and each had its own distinctive name and packaging: the Speedwell, the Rock, the Meteor and the Senator all had to compete against each other for sales, and the box after box of nibs tucked into every spare corner of the museum form a distinctive rhythmic pattern throughout. This is echoed in the displays of nibs made for trade fairs and exhibitions - thousands of nibs packed together to form intricate star and rose shapes - each company had its own display and several can be seen in the museum.

The business was highly competitive and travelling salesmen had their own hand-coloured kits to display their wares to stationers to best effect - how else would they be able to choose between the Peruvian and the Ladies pen?

But it's not just nibs. There are novelty inkwells, ink blotters, pen wipes, ink bottles, fountain pens and even the humble biro. And visitors can have a go at writing with ink - there is a small workshop where the museum runs weekly calligraphy lessons.

You can even make your own nib using equipment that was salvaged from local factories. There were 14 operations involved in making a nib and at the Pen Room you carry out five of them. Operating the hand presses, visitors can blank, pierce, mark, raise and slit a nib. You get a feel for how the thousands of women who worked in the industry spent their days (the reason it was predominantly female was that women provided a ready supply of cheap labour) and so social history and context are provided.

The volunteers at the Pen Room have achieved a lot: the museum is registered; it caters for schools and adult learners; it cross markets with other venues and, from Albania to Venezuela, it has an impressive list of foreign visitors. But most of all it is just a great and quirky way to spend a couple of hours in Birmingham.

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