Opening in October, The Past is Now is the first of a series of Story Lab exhibitions that the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery are showcasing, hoping to encourage feedback and widespread engagement from visitors to the museum. This exhibition explores the city of Birmingham’s links with the British Empire and it’s lasting legacies. Themes that are included in this exhibition include capitalism, the environment, struggles for independence and the involvement of Birmingham guns in the Atlantic Slave Trade.
One contentious character that is discussed explicitly due to his extensive connections to Birmingham as a Member of Parliament and to the British Empire as Colonial Secretary at the turn of the 20th century, is Joseph Chamberlain. Often heralded as a radical liberal politician and commemorated throughout the city, the museum itself is situated in Chamberlain Square, he is viewed in an alternative way in this exhibition. Chamberlain’s involvement in the Second Anglo-Boer War and his attitude towards South Africa are suggested to have contributed to the beginnings of Apartheid, the separation of black and white populations, which was official legislation from the 1940s to the 1990s. It is very eye-opening to consider Chamberlain in light of this and the objects that have been displayed alongside the information panels really bring the facts to life and enhances the information. These include political postcards, Chamberlain trinkets and accolades gifted to him.
All the themes are considered along everyday objects, including a bicycle, a rice tin, a grandfather clock and even a mobile phone. Seeing these objects alongside the information panels depicting the human and environmental cost that manufacturing such objects for the British consumer market during the British Empire, and some modern day equivalents, really hits home how sheltered and divorced we are from the origins of our goods and the consequences of our fast-paced consumer driven society; as the title of the exhibition states ‘The Past Is Now’.
There are plenty of thought-provoking questions to consider throughout the exhibition and opportunities for visitors to leave feedback on white boards, notecards that can be hung up or posted, feedback forms and by posting online using the hashtag. These questions are changed regularly and include; How does the word Empire make you feel? What is missing in this exhibition? and Where are you in this exhibition? Lots of interesting and wide ranging comments have been left and used to stimulate discussions about the British Empire and it’s lasting legacies.