‘Birmingham: its people, its history’: representing slavery in a civic museum – Part I

By: Kate Donington

Last week I visited the recently refurbished Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to view the new permanent exhibition ‘Birmingham: its people, its history.’ My interest in visiting the new gallery stemmed from a meeting with Birmingham University PhD researcher David Callaghan. David’s research explores the representation of ‘black history’ within heritage sites, he has a particular interest in Birmingham and has published several works on the black presence in the Midlands.  BMAG spent £8.9m on the transformation which was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The gallery is free and has been designed to reflect ‘how the people of Birmingham and its industries have shaped not only the city, but the world as we know it today.’[1]

Catherine Hall has written about the historic meaning and value of the museum as an expression of pride and identity:

 In Birmingham, Britain’s second city, the Art Gallery celebrates the civic heritage of a place which became rich in the nineteenth century. The gallery itself is a beautiful Victorian building. It was a part of the new town centre designed by Joseph Chamberlain, at that time the Liberal mayor of Birmingham, before his later metamorphosis into Tory imperialist. It was designed to stand as witness to the ways in which Birmingham had been transformed from a commercial and industrial mecca to a place of culture.

Walking through the imposing  town square with its grand civic buildings and its monuments to the great and the good of Birmingham’s past it is easy to imagine the impression this cultured display might have created on the city’s inhabitants. Victorian museum culture, as Tony Bennett has argued, was about more than simply educating and entertaining the population – it was a means of reinforcing the power relations which structured society. Paid for and stocked by wealthy industrial philanthropists it was a reflection of this class’s power through a public display of their (expensive) taste. It was believed that exposure to this form of high culture would improve the citizenry and in doing so elevate the city and its founding fathers. Bennett wrote that the Victorian museum’s task was ‘simultaneously ordering objects for public inspection and ordering the public that inspected.’[3] The working class visitor was unlikely to see anything which reflected their own experiences, instead they were to be awed by the accumulated treasures which the benevolent patrons had assembled for their instruction and delight.

In our current age of steering committees, focus groups, advisory boards, community engagement and cooperative curation perhaps that power has been ceded somewhat. The museum has become a more democratic and inclusive space. Museums funding is in part dependent on footfall and there are compelling commercial (as well as important political) reasons for producing exhibitions which reflect the communities the institutions serve. The gallery’s re-imagining of Birmingham’s past is a reflection of Birmingham’s multicultural present. The story of Birmingham is both local and global and the gallery makes the point that this has been the case throughout the city’s history. This aspect of the exhibition has been described by Stuart Burch as both ‘presentist’ and ‘a far from neutral treatment of history’ although he is sympathetic to the ‘ideology’ behind it.[4] The trouble with this criticism is that it assumes that history is an apolitical subject. As E. H. Carr argued in What Is History?the past and the present are in dialogue with each other, that is the nature of historical writing and representation. As a member of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership research team I was particularly interested in the ways in which Birmingham’s involvement in the slavery business is represented in the gallery space. Catherine Hall was a member of BMAG’s Historians Advisory Group and she argued strongly for material on slavery to be included. As I entered the gallery I wondered – would a display which is still in many ways rooted in a narrative of civic pride allow itself to confront this uncomfortable history?

(Part II will be published on 6 December 2013)

[1] ‘New Galleries Now Open’, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery [online]

[2] Catherine Hall, ‘Rethinking imperial histories: the Reform Act of 1867’, New Left Review, 1/208 (1994).

[3] Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics Culture: Policy and Politics (London: Routledge, 1995), p.61.

[4] Stuart Burch, ‘Birmingham: its people, its history’, Museums Journal, Issue 133/1, pp.42-5.