A revised 10 year vision for Birmingham Museums Trust

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Birmingham Museums Trust is looking for a new Chief Executive to drive forward a vision for one of the country’s largest civic collections. The successful candidate will not only need to weather the devastating impact of Covid19 but capitalise on the opportunities presented by the Commonwealth Games in 2022, the relocation of the Museum of Science and Industry and the collaborative possibilities that may arise from the city’s ongoing regeneration and change.

BMT published their own 10 year vision a few years ago for the development of their internationally significant collection, but changing circumstances may mean it requires a little tweaking. The ongoing pandemic has demonstrated the need to develop more sustainable models for heritage sites that are less reliant on visitor numbers and the global Black Lives Matter movement has reinforced the urgent need to confront our history and how it is taught. The new CEO has the task of reimagining the role of museums, developing a sustainable business model for the UK’s largest museum trust and ensuring that BMT can develop Birmingham’s reputation as a global cultural and artistic destination. No small task, but here are some ideas on where to start.

Encourage better representation

Building a sustainable business for BMT requires an imagination that can understand the potential interconnectedness of BMT’s venues but also their place at the centre of Birmingham’s cultural ecosystem.

That ecosystem is varied and vast. No single individual can adequately represent one of the youngest and most culturally diverse cities in Europe so it is essential that BMT’s vision is informed by the very people it wishes to not only appeal to but represent on the world’s cultural stage. To reflect Birmingham to the world, BMT must reflect Birmingham in its own organisation. To this end I would establish a BMT Youth Board, consisting of up to 20 passionate Brummie volunteers under 25 drawn from varied backgrounds and identities to advise and guide BMT’s priorities, decision-making and overarching vision. Board members would also act as ambassadors for BMT, engaging their own networks to grow and diversify BMT’s audience. Applicants from the arts, creative and STEM industries in the city would apply online and be appointed by the chief executive who would be responsible for chairing meetings and incorporating the views of the Youth Board into BMT strategy. It is only in a community comprised of diverse backgrounds and identities that different ideas and perspectives can emerge. Those perspectives shape innovation and better create solutions to problems that might otherwise go unsolved.

Birmingham’s strength has always been built on its diversity and its ability to draw people here; from non-conformists and tradespeople wanting freedom from church or guild restrictions, migration from the Commonwealth in the second half of the twentieth century to the more recent trend of people moving away from London to become Brummies. Romanitas was the collection of cultural concepts and practices by which the ancient Romans defined themselves. This identity was not based on language or inherited ethnicity but on being part of a community with a common way of life and customs. The similar distillation of the shared culture and history of Brummies is what we can define together and reflect to the world; our ownBrumanitas’.

Foster an entrepreneurial culture

An integral component of Brummie-ness is an enterprising, risk-taking and entrepreneurial nature. The chief executive should lead from the front and it is for this reason that a Special Project Fund could be drawn from an initial pay reduction for the position. This is not to undermine the value the CEO brings to BMT but to reflect and foster the sense of personal investment they have in their own ventures that is common to the most successful businesses. It is unusual for the founder or CEO to be the most highly paid member of staff at a startup. For them constant capital investment in the company and creating sustained growth is paramount and if that means taking an initial pay cut, it is for them to earn it back in the long run. That idea of personal investment is even more vital at a time when revenues are falling, the sector is in crisis and loyal staff need support. Birmingham City Council has a history of short tenured CEOs and it is vital that BMT attract someone whose love of the city trumps financial incentive.

The CEO should identify unique business propositions for each of BMT’s main venues that would not only aim for more financial self sufficiency, but also diversify the museum’s offering, reach new audiences and give staff the chance to develop their skill set and expertise in specific directions.

Go digital and invest in people

The pandemic has shown that cultural venues need to evolve a sustainable business model that can maintain revenue streams less overwhelmingly dependent on BCC funding and visitor numbers. Recent redevelopment proposals for Symphony Hall, the Rep and most recently the Hippodrome have emerged because of a need to provide more versatile mixed use spaces. Some ‘quick wins’ require developing BMT’s online activities, from sales to a range of resources available for individual members that can also support outreach efforts.

Developing BMT’s sales channels not only promises to increase revenue but offers opportunities for collaborations with local organisations, initiatives and businesses. Working with galleries and artists across the city as well as the Birmingham Design Festival Team, BMT could spearhead efforts to create Birmingham’s first annual art fair, inspired by the Affordable Art Fair in Bristol, Buy Art Fair in Manchester and Frieze London. Drawing artists to the city is integral to changing the perception of Birmingham and establishing its cultural credentials more widely.

Cosimo is an online subscription platform that gives Birmingham based artists the chance to sell their work online. A potential partnership could see local artists involved on the site commissioned to design standard sized posters for BMAG exhibitions that would be available exclusively in the museum shop, increasing their exposure and thereby committing BMT to investing in the people driving the city’s artistic scene.

Creating a Special Project Fund is drawn from the Chief Executive’s salary reduction and would demonstrate a public commitment from the new Chief Executive to Birmingham Museums Trust and a statement of solidarity with others working in the arts currently facing a very difficult time. The additional funding could be utilised for a variety of projects deliverable in the short term such as completing the extensive cataloguing of the entire collection and curating new pop up exhibitions for loan. Potential exhibitions titles can also be put to an online poll so that followers on social media and newsletter signups can vote on the temporary exhibitions they would most like to see next at BMAG and buy tickets in advance, generating revenue even while the museum remains closed or undergoing renovation.

Funding can also be used to develop a fully immerse VR experience of a number of exhibitions in numerous languages. This will provide a permanent record of past exhibitions that can be purchased in the future or provided for free. The immersive headset based experience can tour care homes, mental health charities and schools bringing BMAG’s treasures to those who may not be able to experience them directly owing to personal circumstance or during the redevelopment of BMAG. Donations can be encouraged from participants and basic headsets compatible with smartphones can be purchased from museum shops so that anyone can download and experience the videos for themselves at home. This new outreach programme can generate interest in the museums as well as broadcast this city’s history to a far larger audience. Access to the online Digital Lab can be made available through membership.

Develop unique propositions and new models

Land at Aston Hall could be earmarked to develop a kitchen garden, growing vegetables and herbs in an area that can host tours for school children to learn about nutrition and food production. The museum shop can stock seeds and produce grown on site and depending on the scale of the project could supply Sarehole Mill’s recipe box initiative, even developing a collaboration to supply local businesses such as Slow Food JQ or Digbeth based zero waste supermarket, the Clean Kilo. With adequate management of the land BMT can take an active role in promoting children’s education not only in history, the arts and science, but in nutrition. Inspired by Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saisons, the food growing enterprise could grow to house a high end restaurant space and cookery school that utilises ingredients that are grown entirely on site in the landscaped and publicly accessible allotments, creating a new and more resilient model for the sustainability of heritage sites, putting land to productive use.

Sarehole Mill’s excellent recipe kit initiative has proven incredibly popular during lockdown and offers plenty of scope for expansion. Working with Birmingham Slow Food, BMT can increase awareness of Sarehole Mill’s food business and source ingredients for new recipe boxes locally and sustainably, supporting local businesses in the process. Working with Birmingham’s high profile chefs to develop recipes will increase the range of recipe boxes available for purchase and add the support of household names to the enterprise. These boxes can be made available more widely online and at a number of collection points as well as placing Sarehole Mill at the forefront of pioneering teaching about nutrition and the importance of healthy, fresh, locally sourced food thereby contributing to children’s food education and overall health. Museums, which have already shown to provide a sense of wellbeing and improve the mental health of visitors can also have a positive influence on our physical health too.

Although I am loathe to mention it as I am working on a similar project myself, developing an online presence for the Jewellery Quarter is essential for driving visitor numbers to the area and BMT is in an ideal position to do so. By working with local designer makers looking to increase awareness of their brand The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter could expand their online shop to better showcase the area’s industry as well as provide desperately needed display space for many businesses based out of workshops without retail areas. A rolling calendar of commercial exhibitions supporting local makers could form the foundation of a new jeweller network, taking up the mantle to champion JQ businesses through collaborative online support and advertising and developing the area as a historic visitor destination. In exchange for retail space, both online and in a physical store, BMT can develop a network of workshop tours run through the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter allowing visitors to meet the makes and purchase pieces directly. In the long term this network can form the basis for a ‘living museum’ strategy for the Jewellery Quarter. BMT can work with BCC to catalogue their extensive property ownership in the area and partner with local CICs to acquire ownership of a number of properties to safeguard their future. The properties can be developed as low rent workshops aimed at supporting jewellery businesses while also forming a network of visitor attractions under the stewardship of BMT.

Provide a cultural lead on redevelopment and reach beyond museum walls

One of the headline developments coming to Birmingham is HS2, whose excavations have recently unearthed the foundations of the world’s oldest locomotive roundhouse. I believe it is up to BMT to take a more active role in working with stakeholders on plans to preserve such sites of interest. Although HS2 have plans to preserve the discovery, it forms a piece of global history that needs to be incorporated into Birmingham’s cultural ecosystem. Depending on the timing of the development of the new Museum of Science and Industry, BMT can work with HS2 Ltd to display the steam locomotive 'City of Birmingham’ in Birmingham’s Curzon Street Station to celebrate its opening and creating a focal point for arrivals to the new station. In exchange for the loan of the valuable cultural asset, BMT can operate a concession for the duration of its display from which to advertise its venues, sell tickets, keep an eye on the display and raise awareness to visitors.

An unfortunate element of HS2’s construction is that the Eagle and Tun pub is slated for demolition. I would like to see BMT’s role evolving to include more vocal advocacy for Birmingham’s history beyond its portfolio. BMT has the platform to lead heritage preservation campaigns and increase awareness of buildings under threat from development, working with BCC to find ways of saving and reusing them. A crowdfunding campaign could be launched to save and relocate it, for example, to Smithfield. Under BMT’s leadership, crowdfunding could become a common source of funding for special projects, drawing support from well beyond members and patrons. The Eagle and Tun, with its historical connections with UB40 could even become a small Birmingham Music Museum, building on the global draw and exposure the Black Sabbath exhibition garnered, growing and diversifying BMT’s audience further.

I would like the see the new CEO explore ‘cultural consultations’ on masterplans brought forward by BCC and private developers. (I have already had some personal success doing this showing that it is possible. An idea to reference the heritage of a site by tracing the footprint of long demolished buildings in its public realm design is being considered in the design brief for Hammerson’s Martineau Galleries and the Stone Yard development in Digbeth recently revised its landscaping plans to include the very idea.)

By developing links with private developers BMT can advocate for the incorporation of public art in new development plans, encouraging the inclusion of new, high quality public spaces in projects where pieces currently in storage can be displayed.

BMT possess several dismantled buildings in storage that could become the focal points of new council led regeneration projects, grounding new masterplans in a sense of place and ensuing that entire newly built communities have a sense of inclusion in the city’s heritage and history.

BMT’s existing ten year vision rightly identifies BMT’s role in facilitating social and economic regeneration of deprived areas with their Big Store vision in Meadway. Similar opportunities lie in the city centre. The Museum of London’s relocation to the former Smithfield Markets offers a possible parallel in Birmingham and an opportunity to lead on one Birmingham’s largest redevelopment projects. Both the General Children’s Hospital and Victoria Law Courts have been mooted for relocation in the next decade. As archetypes of Victorian terracotta and two of the city’s most beautiful buildings, I believe that it is incumbent on BMT to explore how these architectural gems can become publicly accessible when the time comes for a new use for them to be found.

BCC’s Edgbaston Reservoir SDP includes an intention to put Perrott’s Folly and Edgbaston Waterworks at the centre of the new community. With BMT involvement they could join Sarehole Mill to form a ‘Tolkien Collection’, preserving and showcasing sites associated with one of Birmingham’s most famous figures and capitalising on our association with him that was never taken advantage of when the Lord of Rings films were released. Seeing the eye of Sauron darting around on one of New Street Station’s own ‘eyes’ is an advertising opportunity unavailable at the time of the films’ release.

"The 10.31 train to Isengaard is delayed by 10 minutes due to Orks on the line at Mordor"

In establishing a new Museum of Science and Industry BMT could work with the council to kickstart the redevelopment of Typhoo Wharf in Digbeth or the broader Smithfield masterplan, if a site in its environs were chosen. The new museum would become joint anchor for the development alongside the new retail markets. As a future metro extension promises to extend the burgeoning tram network through the site towards Edgbaston Cricket Ground, small details such as displaying a 1990s tram and the Birmingham Corporation Tramways incarnation in BMT’s collection adjacent to the new line offers the tantalising viral opportunity for photographers to capture three generations of Birmingham transport in one photo.

The potential BMT-led redevelopment of Typhoo Wharf

Promote environmental as well as financial sustainability

With the incoming CAZ and the wider need to reduce air pollution and reverse the climate catastrophe, BMT should be encouraging sustainable travel between its venues which also maximise their accessibility and visibility. By working with TfWM to create a combined ticket for multiple venues that also entitles the purchaser to free tram, bus and/or rail travel between venues, BMT can affirm a commitment to promoting greener travel options to its venues wherever possible and generate increased revenue and visitor numbers from up-selling combined tickets with a small discount for two or three venues and the travel between them. Hop-on, hop-off museum travel tickets could also be available as an option on ticketing machines around the region too, resulting in free advertising for venues.

BMT venues (and Meadway) compared to existing and under construction rail and tram routes

Decolonise the collection and reimagine the role of museums

The demands to remove public monuments celebrating contentious figures prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn attention to glaring omissions from the way history has so far been presented. The dedication on Edward Colston’s statue, for example, did not mention his active engagement in the slave trade. If it had, questions about whether he was an appropriate figure to be commemorated publicly would had been asked far sooner. This omission, as well as a general absence of education about the reality of the British Empire, has meant that knowledge of Colston’s and others' actions is not widely known and so when it is revealed, some think of it as revisionism rather than intellectual or academic honesty. In that sense those defending his statue are not, as they claim, objecting to history being erased by its removal, but objecting to history being revealed because the reality doesn’t fit their pre-existing narrative. BMT must work with BCC on an audit of all publicly displayed statues across the city and utilise BMTs extensive collection to recommend replacements where needed. The public can take part in online votes to decide which statues (if any) presently in storage they would like to see returned to a prominent position in the city.

In seeking to educate, BMT must be prepared for the fact that many people find questioning their longstanding views uncomfortable, but encouraging people to do so is part of the crucial didactic role museums have to play. If people are going to learn from history they cannot be presented with a sanitised or abridged version of it. Decolonising museum collections is a challenge but also an opportunity to explore the nature of museums themselves. Drawing on the work undertaken by Conway Hall, the first step in the process is informing visitors how each piece in the collection has been acquired. There are more Egyptian obelisks in Rome than there are in Egypt and Napoleon filled Paris with artistic treasures obtained while on campaign; museums are inextricably linked with imperialism. ‘National’ museums, as symbols of cultural prestige, will almost certainly contain the most offending acquisitions but it would be interesting to explore, alongside bequests, donations and purchases, the breakdown of how BMT’s extensive collection was acquired. Including and displaying the findings of such initiatives makes the museums more accessible, breaking down ideas that they preserve an intentionally abridged version of history to satisfy a limited audience. This exploration is intellectual honesty rather than revisionism, nothing is being rewritten, in many cases it is being written for the first time after decades or centuries of obfuscation.

Preserving the past is the responsibility of museums but it is their role to frame the past in a way that means we can learn from it. Explaining how the past continues to influence the world today, in everything from inequality to car centrism is how we can better understand our present and in so doing tackle the problems we face today so they won’t exist tomorrow. Relating exhibitions to our present lived experience also makes them more compelling, more relevant and more effective as a means of learning. Curation is therefore a political exercise, driven just as much by what you choose to leave out as choose to display and how you display it. BMT has a unique opportunity to drive a new approach to programming that harnesses that political exercise in curation to engage people and communities in the city who might feel excluded from a very narrow definition of culture. The role of museums extends beyond their walls and can assist with community cohesion, mental health and advocating for a brighter future by interrogating the past.

At Soho House I would seek to trial an experimental ‘community curation’ project, encouraging local perspectives on how parts of the collection are displayed and explained. Local organisations could work with BMT to frame the collection as they would wish it to be presented, giving people the opportunity to interpret and exhibit our history, prioritising what is often overlooked or omitted.

At Thinktank I would design an exhibition on the history of Birmingham transport, inspired by the recent rapid reorganisation of our public spaces to favour cycling and walking over not only private car use but public transport use too. The aim of the exhibition will be not only to showcase Birmingham’s place at the heart of the rail network of the industrial revolution and the UK’s motor industry throughout the 20th century but to educate a younger audience on the effect that has had on the city. Bringing us right up to the present day, the exhibition will explore how the city went from being the ‘workshop of the world’ to overly dependent on the motor industry and how that has shaped the urban fabric of the city we see around us. Demand for cars fuelled the destruction of Victorian Birmingham, the dismantling of the tram network and the construction of huge roads that are now being reversed. The exhibition will not be ‘anti-car’ but chronicle the development of car centric attitudes and the effect that they have had and continue to have on the city. Understanding these attitudes is key to addressing them in the present and the thoroughly timely exhibition will shed light on the current proposals by TfWM and BCC for more sustainable and people-centric development of the city, set against a backdrop of historical continuity with the steam engines and Birmingham Corporation trams of the past.

Create new venues and attractions

The development of new venues is crucial to diversifying BMT’s cultural offering and drawing in new audiences, raising the city’s national and international standing in areas in which it has made an enormous but often overlooked contribution.

Birmingham’s Gun Quarter is presently undergoing unprecedented levels of redevelopment and yet is eclipsed by both the Jewellery Quarter and Digbeth as the city’s best known areas with a long industrial heritage. The lack of widespread awareness of the area even lead to BCC renaming the quarter ‘St Chads’ in their Big City plan to avoid connotations of gun crime. The centre will also contextualise the history of the growth of the city’s gun trade against the backdrop of colonialism and the city’s links with slavery.

British port cities are widely assumed to have had the most significant involvement in the transatlantic slave trade but the forced migration and exploitation of millions of people has links with Birmingham’s gun manufacturing history too. Locating and preserving a property to showcase a permanent exhibition of the area linking to BMAG’s smaller ‘Birmingham and the Slave Trade’ exhibition can form a cultural hub in a new area of the city.

The Black Sabbath Exhibition at BMAG was a huge success drawing visitors from all over the world. Providing a permanent home for Birmingham’s musical heritage from ELO to Duran Duran and Lady Leshurr to Judas Priest will increase BMT's variety of offering, supporting and growing patronage of other venues through marketing activities and combined ticketing. An ideal venue would be one with an existing musical heritage such as the Crown Pub on Station Street or as a cultural attraction anchoring BCC’s Smithfield development. (Addendum: I had written about 8000 words including a lot on COVID19 mitigation measures but cut it down for the post, if you'd be interested in the bits that didn't make it in please let me know.)

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