Date: 25th March 2016
It’s 8am and I’m late.
I get to New Street Station by 8:15 and help finish setting up the banner and putting out the props.
We didn’t have props last time but we do now, it helps draw people in.
It was my second day volunteering with the Birmingham Museums Trust.
We were tasked with the slightly ridiculous but surprisingly useful task of walking round Birmingham’s largest train station in historic outfits handing out fliers and enticing people with artifacts/science experiments. One of my fellow volunteers called them victims. Probably a bit of a harsh way to put it, the kids seemed to enjoy the experiments and the parents were grateful that they didn’t have to stand around for half an hour waiting for the train with nothing to do.
The highlight of the day was when I bumped into a good friend of mine who said her family was visiting but she had no idea where to bring them.
This is not an isolated issue.
Had we been London, Manchester, Edinburgh the answer would be easy. The iconic sights: Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, British Museum, not the British Library because as I found out a few months ago – it’s not much of a library. But Birmingham? Well….we’ve got the Bullring….that’s exciting right? Not when your family is from Singapore with links in Hong Kong it’s not, the Bullring is tiny compared to South East Asian malls.
What then to do?
Birmingham, unlike London and other historical cities, does not have much of the aged splendor and seems at first glance to be, frankly speaking, a bit of a (insert expletive). For many years New Street Station was ranked most unsightly station in the country: the hulking brutalist chunk of concrete let no sunlight in and was topped with even more hulking chunks of concrete. Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction is also famous for being unsightly even though it provides great mobility across the midlands. Youtubers such as Yahtzee from Zero Punctuation (one of my favorite critics, highly recommended but not with children) and the School of Life have made fun of Birmingham with the latter using it as an example of a bad city that no one wants to go to – “No one’s ever willing taken a holiday to Frankfurt-am-main or Birmingham”.
Seems a bit mean for the UK’s second city which has the busiest train station outside of London (statistically flanked in both directions by London which means every single other city has to step up a bit).
They can’t be blamed though because as I found out, although the BMT own and manage nine (yes, NINE) museums across the city, no one seems to know. Our sites range from the Museums and Art Gallery in the City Center, famous for our collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings; to the Thinktank Science Museum which has just gotten a BRAND NEW DINOSAUR (and the world’s first steam engine but seriously…a new full sized fossil); to Aston Hall a Jacobean Mansion; to Soho House, the childhood house of Matthew Boulton and more.
Birmingham’s story is in many ways, one of being an outsider. George Cadbury set up his factory in Birmingham because he was a Quaker and could not work in any major city. It has also in many ways been a story of industrialization: Birmingham has always been a market town even in its earliest days as a Warwickshire village. By the 1800s Birmingham had acquired the nickname “City of a Thousand Trades” because every industry you could think of was thriving in the small town. In 1889 Birmingham’s status finally became that of a city. In the 20th Century Birmingham became one of the world’s leading manufacturers, the legacy can still be seen in the city with places like the ‘Jewelry Quarter’ and ‘Gun Quarter’ being named for their industries. Unfortunately, as industry became increasingly outsourced to cheaper markets, Birmingham’s factories closed down. The legacy of the closing down can also still be seen in places like Digbeth and Aston which are absolutely packed with unused, crumbling, once thriving factory buildings.
Birmingham’s history might not be at the forefront like it is in London but we didn’t become the second city out of thin air. Many of Birmingham’s has housed some of Britain’s post important people: James Watt, inventor of the first steam engine along with Matthew Boulton; J.R.R Tolkien, author of the Lord of The Rings trilogy spent much of his childhood in Edgbaston; and of course George Cadbury, whose name is now synonymous with chocolate, founded his factory in Bournville and created a town around it. There is as much history and culture here as any other city, you just have to look.
If you want even more of the story, come visit the museums. We have open days.
The Museum and Art Gallery is always free.
Open all day every day, no exceptions (except exceptions).
Historical accuracy note: Many of these places weren’t actually within Birmingham boundaries at the time. Cadbury set up his factory in what was still Worcestershire, Watt and Boulton worked in Smethwick and Birmingham up until 1974 was formally part of Warwickshire, not as the center of the West Midlands.
But give me a break, this is a much better story.
Also note: We have currently stopped advertising at New Street Station. I did mean to write this weeks ago as a plug for that but I didn’t end up finishing it for several reasons the biggest one being procrastination and a smaller one being my file got lost. Much apologizing if any staff from BMT are reading this….
For more information that I did actually check before writing this post see:
Historical maps, surveys and summaries from the City Council
and for even more information visit:
On there you can find links to all the BMT’s sites. All 9 of them.
And the following were referenced:
School of Life: How to Build an Attractive City
Zero Punctuation, Escapist Magazine
Specific video could not be found, it was a passing reference to the confusing thing that is the spaghetti junction
New Street as UK’s worst station: