Birmingham’s industrial and scientific heritage

Last week I went on a day trip to Birmingham. At first I was hoping to visit Soho House¬†but as they are currently closed for redevelopment I had to make other plans. So, instead I made my first visit to Birmingham’s science museum, Thinktank. I’ve been reluctant to visit Thinktank in the past for two reasons: firstly Thinktank is mostly a science centre, rather than a museum, and as a historian I don’t find much to interest me there. Secondly the historical collections that are on display in Thinktank are owned by the people of Birmingham, yet Thinktank is a privately run organisation that charges for entry. I don’t agree with this way of utilising publicly owned collections, and didn’t want to support it, but the recent merger of BMAG and Thinktank has put all of Birmingham’s collections in the same situation.

Having got over my reservations I paid my entry fee and headed straight for The Past where I hoped to find the historical collections. It won’t be a great surprise to learn that in the city where Boulton and Watt worked there is great emphasis on steam power. The ground floor is overwhelmingly filled with a variety of steam engines in the Power Up section. While it’s great to see collections out on display there was a definite case of not being able to see the wood for the trees here. The engines are piled together so you can’t stand back far enough to see any of them properly, and the structure of the building hinders rather than helps any appreciation of the objects, as you can see from this picture of the Smethwick Engine.

Can you tell which bits are engine and which bits are building?

The second major display area, Move It, focussed on transport – canals, cars and rail. Again, this makes sense – Birmingham was a major centre for trade despite being further from a port than any other city in England. Good transport infrastructure was essential. Car manufacturing was also alluded to, although barely discussed, by this very engaging display produced by Jaguar Land Rover (even if it did sit slightly oddly in The Past).

Hit the button and watch the robots demonstrate spot welding.

The second of the four museum floors also incorporates collections into the display. The City looks at daily life in Birmingham throughout the past, and necessarily includes daily technologies in the story.

What I was hoping for were stories about what science and industry meant to the people of Birmingham. Who worked in factories, and what was it like? What difference did it make when the canal was first built? Did Birmingham feel like a cosmopolitan hub due to the industrial links? Instead I found quite one dimensional interpretation that provided a limited description of objects and only a few clues about the pioneers of the technology. The further information interactive screens were not working, but perhaps these would have supplied the information I wanted.

I don’t like writing negative reviews, but I was very disappointed by Thinktank’s historical displays – I’m not going to comment on the other two floors of contemporary science stuff, that’s not where my expertise sits. Birmingham has a rich industrial heritage and the strong collections that represent it are sadly sat in storage. Hopefully the forthcoming Made in Birmingham¬†will address this some to some extent, but Thinktank simply doesn’t have the space to do the job properly. I hope they can raise the bar above the level set by the other displays that fail to give any context to objects or provide the human stories that help me as a visitor to understand the value of a moment in time or a particular object.

Perhaps the one exception is the display about the Lunar Society members, found tucked away behind the lifts. A push of a button begins a short audio presentation that highlights different objects in turn and weaves historical description together with quotes from the various protagonists. A bit more of this please, Thinktank!

A corner of the Lunar Society display

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