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A History Lover’s Guide to Birmingham

11 May 2018 | Sian Brett

The West Midlands city rose to prominence during the Industrial Revolution, and to this day the city bears the hallmarks of a manufacturing powerhouse. Bombed heavily during the Second World War, Birmingham saw an influx of immigrants from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a city proud of its heritage; we went to find out more.

The number one stop on any city based history tour is the local National Trust property, and the Back to Backs is certainly one you’re not going to want to miss. This original 19th century courtyard was one of many across the country built to deal with the rapidly expanding population at the time of the industrial revolution in factory towns. Back to Backs have shared party walls on three of their four sides, and housed large families in small rooms. It was a hive of poor sanitation, poor living conditions, but also a hive of life. Our tour guide at the Back to Backs described his grandmother’s house being in a similar courtyard, and how life was for her. It adds a personal touch to what is already an incredibly in depth and detailed tour. The families who lived in the rooms you walk through have been heavily researched and as you walk through their homes you are treated to tales of their lives, their work, their families. At intermittent points recorded voices recount stories of encounters in these houses, and bring the experience to life even more. The tools and workspaces of those making waves in various highly skilled industries are on display too, giving you a sense of just how much life and work was intertwined for those residing in these houses. Across the UK in the 1960s and 1970s many Back to Backs were developed or destroyed because of the poor living conditions fostered there. This furnished historical property is thought to be the last of its kind; the last collection of houses like this grouped around a courtyard, demonstrating the community at the heart of Birmingham.

Image Credit: jillyspoon via Flickr
 
For those who want to delve further into Birmingham’s past, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is home to many pre-Raphaelite paintings, as well as an in depth exploration of Birmingham from the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found up to collections that represent Birmingham in the present day. The gallery holds regular exhibitions, and one that you should be sure to check out is The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire in The Story Lab. The exhibition explores Birmingham’s relationship to the British Empire, and examines how museums such as Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery are often implicit in colonial narratives. Co-curated by Birmingham based creatives the exhibition attempts to directly address how museums cannot always be neutral, and how the legacy of the British empire still impacts upon curation and on Birmingham. The exhibition runs until 24 June 2018.
 
A similar re-examination of the past can be found in Vanley Burke’s permanent photography exhibition Vanley Burke: Photographing Birmingham (1968 – 2011). Burke is a Jamaican born photographer who moved to the UK aged 14 where he began documenting the immigrant experience in Birmingham, photographing everyday lives as well as prominent black political figures and their impact. The exhibition is part of the larger series ‘Rivers of Birmingham’ and is a moving and poignant documentation of Caribbean people living in post-war Britain, their lives, their work, their relationships. It’s a stunning ode to an integral part of Birmingham’s history.
 
Image Credit: Darrell Godliman via Flickr

To explore the industrial side of Birmingham, be sure to head over to the Jewellery Quarter, the largest concentration of jewellery trade businesses in Europe, producing 40% of all the jewellery made in the UK. As well as picking out all the jewels you’ll drape yourself in once you’re a millionaire, check out the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. Here you can not only discover more of the city’s impressive past but also watch demonstrations and take part in workshops. Another top museum about Birmingham’s industrial past is The Pen Museum, which teaches visitors about how Birmingham became a key part of the communication revolution and about those whose work and lives were surrounded by the pen industry.

Image Credit: Graham Fellows via Flickr
 
But more than anything, Birmingham’s rich history is stitched into its streets; in the Saturday market, which sits in the same location it always has, in the canals which were so integral to the Industrial Revolution, and in the many buildings which retain their beautiful Victorian architecture.

 

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