The post-industrial metropolis Birmingham has seen 1,400 years of growth spurred by civic, scientific, commercial and migrant activity. Today, it is the hub of the UK’s manufacturing and automotive industries.
Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT), the largest independent charitable trust for museums in the UK, constitutes nine sites including Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), which is currently undergoing refurbishments but is partially open for pop-up displays and events, such as those around the Commonwealth Games and Birmingham Festival.
These short-term pop-up exhibitions are free to attend, widely accessible and easy to engage with as well as being cleverly dotted with interactive prompts for visitor engagement. The exhibitions encourage interaction with the city and seek feedback from visitors regarding the future of the museum. In doing so, they effectively bring to mind BMAG’s role and significance as a people’s museum for more than a century.
We Are Birmingham
Hosted in the large round atrium, the collection redisplay titled We Are Birmingham features local people and their experiences of the city. In collaboration with six young creatives, the space is collaged with paintings, photographs and anecdotes. Interpretation is minimal and easy to engage with; although for an exhibition, it is mostly hung above eye-level, so I found myself having to crane my neck. At a distance though, my gaze is captured by the atrium’s architectural interior instead.
As visitors sweep past the atrium, they stop to admire the 20th century artist Jacob Epstein’s sculpture of Lucifer, which has remained in place through the redisplay because it’s just so awkward to move. Appreciated for its androgenous nature, Lucifer provides symbolism as a displaced object in the city’s larger socio-political context. Altogether, We Are Birmingham sets the stage for what the museum has to offer in terms of people’s perspectives, but unfortunately lacks an audiovisual component for people with disabilities.
Walking straight through the round atrium, past Lucifer, a long corridor displays objects from the vast BMAG collection. Various objects from the museum’s collections are displayed along walls, some in enclosed cases. This exhibition serves to highlight everyday objects and spectacular arts and crafts created and traded in Birmingham. References to the underlying history and connection to slavery and the city’s colonial legacy shine through the interpretation.
This display is family friendly, accessible for wheelchair users and engages a broad audience base. There are tables and materials laid out for people to draw, describe and share their favourite objects from the display. In the spirit of being a people’s museum, the interpretation coyly invites viewers to interact with and explore the history of objects and their acquisition, respond to existential questions, and share views on what the museum means to them. The interpretation seems just enough to pique people’s fancy but could incorporate an audiovisual or digital interactive element for visitors to dig deeper into the objects and share what items they hope the museum could feature in the future.
In the Que – Club Culture in the 90s
The live music venue, Que Club, was historically housed in one of Birmingham’s most prized Grade II listed buildings, the Methodist Central Hall. With disclaimers and content warnings, this compact exhibition shines light on shared experiences of club culture during the 1990s and encourages engagement with the city’s complex public history.
The throbbing music buzzed in the background as I stood immersed in the plethora of photographs, posters and advertisements, enthralled with the distinct writing fonts, graphics and colour. The captivating, not-too-label-heavy display helps keep visitors engaged with the multisensory material, which includes live accounts, memorabilia, written anecdotes, music archives and a film about 90s rave culture.
Interpretation positioned along the display is camouflaged by the archival posters, making it difficult to differentiate between the interpretation text and text on the posters themselves. The 35-minute film featuring personal accounts of promoters, ravers, musicians and performers seems too long to commit to, but adds an immersive visual appeal for capturing attention. The exhibition would have ticked more boxes on engagement if it incorporated QR codes leading to history bites on techno music and club culture, or interactive questions about peoples’ lived experiences of club culture in the city today.
Wonderland: Cinema Stories
Want to learn more about how cinema shaped the street life and public sphere for Brummies over the last 125 years? Head over to this collaboration between arts organisation Flatpack Projects and young BMT volunteers, which maps a timeline of the history of more than 150 cinemas and picture houses that popped up in the city from the 1800s to the present-day. With photos, written text, posters and an interactive 3D map, the display is really captivating, but I was most fascinated with the latter.
The large 3D map, on an island in the middle of the gallery with tiny buzzers laced on the edges, allows visitors to visually locate cinemas decade by decade as they pop up on the digital screen with each buzz.
A history of outdoor cinemas, representation of South Asian film, as well as personal accounts of female cinema staff and film enthusiasts presents a broad range, well-represented picture of the city’s cinematic culture and history. With makeshift cinema tickets available at the entrance, it is family and user friendly.
There is an element of digital interaction with QR codes for avid smartphone users to reflect and share their favourite cinema memories, movies and experiences. The direct input and influence of young people, volunteers and residents of the city of Birmingham brings the exhibition material alive.
Project data – Wonderland: Cinema Stories
The contemporary art display SaVAge K’lub consists of crafts, artistic and ritualistic practices of queer, indigenous communities based in New Zealand as represented by artists Rosanna Raymond and Jaimie Waititi. With striking costumes, film and artefacts on display from SaVAge K’lub members and Birmingham’s Pacific Collection, it is very attractive to look at and be in. It shows contemporary artefacts and how they connect to indigenous communities.
While there is minimal interpretation, which helped me focus on the objects themselves, I would have been intrigued to learn more about the artefacts, their significance and histories, especially in the communities they represent and their relationship to BMAG. The installation forms part of a larger programme of event performances and workshops, and in fact feels rather incomplete without the experience of the latter.
Blacklash – Racism and the Struggle for Self-Defence
With captivating film footage, posters and photographs from activist photographer Mukhtar Dar’s private collection, Blacklash documents the struggle and fight against street and state racism in the 1970s. Dar was a member of the Birmingham and Sheffield Asian Youth Movements, and his rich archives respond carefully and sensitively to the history of the biggest political grassroots struggle of South Asian youth in the UK.
Riveting, harrowing and spine-chilling, the ephemera reflects the brutal “Paki bashing”, rage and resistance of working-class South Asian migrants, influences and organisations in the 80s and 90s. The interpretation neatly balances the visual material. Curatorially, the silver corrugated gallery walls punctuated with poster for political rallies and outliers such as Kulwinder Kaur, I found immediately effective at emulating an atmosphere of street violence and police surveillance.
Dark in subject matter and design (the walls are painted black), heavy and evocative of the racism experienced by South Asian migrants in the 80s and 90s, this pop-up I felt deserved more space and thoughtful placement in the gallery, especially considering the Que Club exhibition was bustling directly opposite.
Overall, these six temporary displays altogether spark positivity by way of being widely accessible, participatory and community-as well as drawing directly from Birmingham’s history, character, local population and colonial legacy. Against a backdrop of uncertainties, such as the ongoing cost of living crisis, the future of staff working conditions and impacts of the pandemic, persistence is key and so is the working-class experience in a rapidly changing digital age – will the museum be able to tackle these challenges going forward?
With some redistributed art funding in the Midlands, the recent change of Birmingham Museums Trust’s leadership, the museum and gallery’s redevelopment plans and work with communities, we can certainly hope for an exciting time for the Museum and its people.
Qanitah Malik is an interdisciplinary artist, researcher and creative producer based in London