Volunteering: The Past is Now, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

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.

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#ThePastIsNow

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Friends Association: Victoria Baths, Manchester/Moseley Road Baths, B’ham

From April 2016 to June 2017, following my graduation from Manchester University, I volunteered at Victoria Baths. It is a beautiful building in the Chorlton-on-Medlock area of Manchester that opened in 1906 with three swimming pools, aerotone, slipper baths and Turkish Baths Suite. The baths closed for swimming in 1993 and campaigns have been fought since then to protect the building and preserve its Edwardian magnificence.

Victoria Baths now plays host to a variety of events throughout the year, although it closes throughout the winter months as the building is too cold to hosts tours. Throughout the rest of the year, April – November, there a many events that are held in the baths, such as vintage wedding and furniture fairs, arts and crafts fairs, film screenings and food festivals amongst much more on the second Sunday of each month. There are also a variety of tours offered of the building on those Sundays and every Wednesday afternoon, as a volunteer there I often assisted on the ticket desk, in the tea room and shop.

Now as a member of the Victoria Baths Friends Membership I make an annual donation to the baths to help with the running and preservation of the building. In exchange for this I have free entry to the baths events and tours whenever I am able to, which I hope to take advance of soon, and also regular updates about developments and campaigns by the baths.

As well as the events Victoria Baths hosts, many things have been filmed in the baths, such as the BBC drama series Peaky Blinders, and is also often hired for weddings, parties and university graduation dinners. Victoria Baths is able to accommodate such a variety of events due to is size, grandeur, stunning stained glass and polished tiles, it is a favourite amongst local photography groups and artists.

Moseley Road Baths in the Balsall Heath area of Birmingham is a similar building, slightly smaller with only two swimming baths, that was opened the year after Victoria Baths, in 1907. There is currently an active campaign that it trying to save the baths from closure, unlike Victoria Baths that closed for regular public swimming in 1993, Moseley Road continues to this day to be open for swimming for the local community and historic baths enthusiasts. I will attached a link to there crowdfunding campaign below.

Whilst keeping the smaller pool open for regular public swimming, it would be great to see Moseley Road Baths host similar events in their larger gala pool, which was been closed for some years and to host tours around the building that I’m sure there would be ample support and interest for. Friends of Moseley Road Baths is another friends association that I am considering supporting due to the buildings similarities to Victoria Baths and its potential for development as a site of historical significance for social history in Birmingham. The Moseley Road Baths Coalition, which includes a number of organisations such as the National Trust and Historic England amongst others, have until March 2018 to raise the funds and action plan they need to keep the baths open and preserving its future developments.

Moseley Road Baths Crowd Funding Campaign 

Featured Image: Victoria Baths gala pool, filled in September 2016 as part of its 110th birthday celebrations

 

Volunteering: Aston Hall, Birmingham

During August 2017 I volunteered at Aston Hall for a week as a summer activities assistant; I have visited the hall before with my family but not for a number of years and throughly enjoyed the experience. Myself and three other young people were given lots of information and advice on how to interact with the public and interesting information about the hall and families that have lived there. I have held a number of volunteering positions in which I have interacted with the public and engaged them with local history and enjoyable anecdotes that enhance the visitors experience.

Aston Hall is a beautiful Jacobean style building with original oak panelling, friezes and staircases; a particular highlight is the Long Gallery in which a great view of Aston Park can be seen and a great space that accommodated a variety of activities. The hall is unique in a number of ways, it’s extensive connections to the English Civil War and Royalist support of King Charles I are evidenced throughout a number of the upstairs rooms in the hall in which the King dined and slept before the battle of Edge Hill; the canon ball hole in the staircase is a highlight of the hall that most visitors enjoy and really brings the history of the hall to life.

Other interesting aspects of the house include Sir Thomas Holte, who ordered the hall to be built and was the original owner of Aston Hall; he had it built to reflect his new title and status as a Baronet. Thomas out lived all but one of his 15 children and a number of tales tell of his formidable character.

While I was volunteering in the summer, the hall had a fairytale storytelling day with armour for visitors to try on and historic card and dice games to join in with. Aston Hall has many events throughout the year, often seasonally themed, such as for Halloween and Christmas, which are coming up soon. I have been returning to the hall to volunteer since the week in summer and I am looking forward to assisting with the autumn and winter seasonal events.

 

 

Exhibition Review: Empire Through the Lens, Bristol

Earlier this month I was in Bristol visiting for a friend’s birthday; I had a couple of hours to spare before my coach home to Birmingham was due so I decided to tackle the steep and winding roads that led me to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Knowing I only had the time to see one gallery or exhibition, my attention was drawn immediately towards Empire Through the Lens located on the second floor exhibition gallery. During my time at university I developed a keen interest in the contested history of the British Empire and the ways it continues to impact both Britons and post-colonial people.

The exhibition included 27 photographs that were taken from the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives and chosen specifically by people with personal connections to the image or photographer, also by writers, broadcasters and historians, including David Olusoga.

What struck me most was the insight each photograph gave to that place and the scene that the photographer had manufactured. Also fascinating was the descriptions that each contributor gave as to why they had chosen that image and the historical context that the text panels gave to the image. Relevance of the images to current events and challenges still faced by post-colonial nations were very eye-opening.

One image I found particularly interesting is the ‘Woolworth’s opening’ photograph taken in Barbados. The origins of the shop are characteristic of the British Empire: British style, customs (in this case shopping habits) and management were imposed on locals who were employed on the shop floor. The irony of the image is the fact that ‘Woolies’ disappeared from British high streets nearly a decade ago, and yet the shop in Barbados continues to thrive. Despite the initial imposition of the company by the British, it was sold into local ownership in the 1980s and has faired much better than it’s British counterparts.

Many of the images in the exhibition are much more shocking and unsettling than the one I have focused on here and expose the dark sides of British colonialism that continued well into the 20th century.

Bristol itself, like many major UK cities, has extensive connections to the British Empire as a major port. Recent debates have been circulating about whether names and monuments associated with past slave traders should be renamed to avoid any hint of wrongful celebration of Britain’s dark past or whether they should be kept as they are to ensure we do not erase history and learn from its mistakes. Colston Hall is one such contested site in Bristol, named after prominent slave trader Edward Colston; the music hall has recently announced that it will change it’s name when it reopens in 2020 after a campaign by local people, music artists and anti-racism activists.

The exhibition, Empire Though the Lens, is running until summer 2018 and is well worth a visit if you are in the Bristol area.

Featured Image: Woolworth’s, publicity photograph photography by an unknown photographer, Bridgetown, Barbados, 1956

 

My First Blog

I have wanted to start a blog for some time now, and hope this will be a place that I can record all of my interests and experiences with history and heritage . None of these posts have been requested or approved by any institutions or individuals, they are simply my opinions and experiences.

Some background about me is that I am 21 years old, from Birmingham, England and have recently moved back there after graduating from the University of Manchester doing BA History and Sociology. I have started a job that is unrelated to my degree or my interest in heritage and therefore I need an outlet for my thoughts and hope this will be a platform that is personally, professionally and socially beneficial for myself and others.

Currently, I am volunteering at the Pen Museum in the Jewellery Quarter area of central Birmingham and have recently written a blog post for them about my time volunteering there. Other topics I plan to blog about include museum and exhibition reviews; places I have/currently volunteer at; museum friends associations I am a member of; historical TV programmes, podcasts and social media accounts I recommend following and more.

Comments on the content of these blogs are welcome, I hope they are enjoyed and spark people’s interest in history and heritage in Birmingham, Britain and beyond.

 

 

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