Birmingham Education

Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry – Newhall Street

Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry site

Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry site

One of  the single greatest losses to the heritage of Birmingham occurred in 1997 when Birmingham City Council closed the Museum of Science and Industry which occupied part of the former Elkington Silver Electroplating Works in Newhall Street and had operated since 1951.

The Museum was a fascinating Aladdin’s Cave of industrial heritage exhibits crammed into a very unsuitable building for such a function – lots of tiny rooms on different levels – which made it all the more exciting to explore! Immediately inside the entrance you were presented with a rather grotty ‘cafe’ area along the right-hand side and then, to the left, 6235 LMS Coronation Class 4-6-2 loco ‘City of Birmingham’ which used to shuffle electronically along backwards and forwards a yard or so on the hour:  sounds naff but was very impressive as a child – particularly the scale of the engine.

As you moved along the walkway past the loco and cafe you had an Otis lift gear display infront of you – when you pressed a button the machinery whirred into action and the many hours of laughter I had as a child at the phrase ‘governor balls’ you wouldn’t begin to imagine! To the left of that I seem to recall an old open-sided Birmingham City Council dustbin lorry and an old steam engine named ‘Secundus’ that I think had blown it’s boiler working in a quarry or some such in Dorset . . . the ‘Birmingham’ connection being it was built by Bellis & Seekings in 1874.

To the end of the room and through a small doorway and you were into a more labyrinthine part of the museum with vintage cars, aircraft parts, the last tram to run in Birmingham along with sound (when a button was pressed, of course) and – one of my personal favourites – ten to 15 radios dating back some 100 years or so with a little control panel.  A tune would be playing and by pressing a series of buttons, the tune would switch to playing through the corresponding radio so you could hear the differences in sound quality over the years . . . an excellent piece of kit.

I must have spent a day or two every holiday mooching around inside the Museum and knew every exhibit inside out (the sands of time, however, have gradually eroded this knowledge, sadly).

As mentioned elsewhere, I left Birmingham for many years and when I returned at the close of the 1990s the Museum of Science and Industry was no more – closed for good and a new pretender to the name was emerging on Curzon Street to be opened as ThinkTank in 2001, part of the Millennium Point development.  Sadly, whilst a few of the exhibits had made the move, many were simply moved to Birmingham City Council’s Museum Collections Centre in Dollman Street which opens sporadically to small public viewings.

As if this wasn’t a poor enough state of affairs, with the Museum now vacated from the Elkington building the Council deemed the structure “surplus to requirements and [it] was marketed for disposal” whereby the Council began hawking the site around to potential developers.

St Bernanrd’s Property took the project on in 2002 and the accepted plans are now to provide “mixed use development including leisure and commercial uses and 234 apartments” including “the retention and sensitive refurbishment of a number of Listed Buildings on the site, some of which formed part of the former Elkington Plating Works”. So, we lose a fascinating record of the City’s industrial heritage for more ‘mixed use’ nonsense – many similar projects are standing half empty around the City already – but ‘some’ of the former works will be saved . . . surely more of it would have been had they left it as it was?  Furthermore, take a look at the photographs below to see how many buildings have been retained at the site during the preparation for the Newhall Square development.  Whilst the frontage buildings shown above are retained, where the gates now stand a large glass-fronted section housing the City of Birmingham loco lay which, along with the majority of the buildings, is no more –  the majority of the Museum structures having now gone.

The demolition and clearance workd at the Museum site began in October 2006 and is now virtually complete as can be seen below.  ThinkTank has been up and running for 8 years now as a fee-paying sideshow for those with an attention span of a goldfish containing ‘interactive exhibits’ of the kind of which my 6 year-old would tire within seconds . . . hardly a replacement in any way, shape or form for the splendid Museum of Science and Industry.  Furthermore, it is a ‘Science’ museum . . . no mention of ‘Industry’ so hardly a replacement for what has been lost and at £9.00 a throw to get in hardly serving the people of Birmingham in quite the manner they once were!

The complete lack of Birmingham City Council’s investment and interest in promoting a knowledge of the City’s past has been highlighted elsewhere but for the City of a Thousand Trades to not have a dedicated – and adult – Museum of Science and Industry is something of an embarrassment.  Jon Price at Made in Birmingham has fought a tireless campaign to get the Council to reconsider its options regarding a museum and the fact that a large proportion of the old museum’s exhibits are not available for viewing by us, the public, who surely own them as Council Tax payers but to no avail: pop over to Jon’s site for more details.

Birmingham City Council – you should be ashamed of yourselves!


25 comments for “Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry – Newhall Street”

  1. As a schoolboy in the early ’60s I spent many a fascinating hour in the old museum. I particularly remember the recreated craftsmens workshops along an upper corridor overlooking the canal and John Cobb’s world speed record breaking car. Then there was a huge glass contraption which I think was a mercury arc generator, sending purple liquid violently around the inside of a glass bulb. Much to my surprise I found another, some years later, powering the Peter Pan Railway in Teignmouth. It was my student vacation job to start it up each morning and operate the train! I was greatly saddened, on a visit to Birmingham a few years ago to find the museum no longer there – and I don’t much like the sound of the Think Tank, from your description. Thanks for stirring old memories.

    Posted by Chris Denny | April 22, 2009, 5:59 pm
  2. Thanks for the contribution Chris, I’d forgotten the ‘craftsmens workshops’ until I read your post. I recall a silversmith’s workshop that I think had been moved piece by piece from its original location elsewhere in the Jewellery Quarter and a few other workshops, including a diorama of an alchemist at work. Anyone else remember particular exhibits that caught their interest?

    Posted by Andy Doherty | May 2, 2009, 5:21 pm
  3. An appropriate and final closure, to the demise of a great city, our elected counil snuffing out any memory of our once glorious past, as if it had never existed, remembered only by us engineers, once schoolboys in awe of the exibits, we are now the only ones who remember, but alass they are only memories, the reality has gone and can not be expeirienced by the present generation, and for what purpose, Birmingham doesnt need kids to be inspired anymore. Thinktank, do they realy think that children are that shallow? I hope it made Birmingham council and the developers afew quick bucks….

    Posted by mike concannon | August 14, 2009, 10:55 pm
  4. I cannot believe that nobody has mentioned the Spitfire and Hurrican airplanes, with that step ladder that was so tempting!! What ever happened to all those wonderful motorbikes, which was next to the tram?

    Posted by Richard Lockley | October 26, 2009, 10:21 pm
  5. I remember the museum as a kid and what a treat it was, a cornucopia of exhibits. Birmingham City Council supposedly has global ambitions and is always keen to promote Birmingham as the “Second City” and it just does away with it’s heritage in this way. Birmingham is now so far behind other more forward thinking cities that it is a joke. Ok, we have the Bullring, but so what? It’s a shopping centre at the end of the day and the rest of the city centre is dead as a consequence.

    Posted by dave hodge | November 24, 2009, 10:57 am
  6. It’s a long time ago, but I seem to remember a gun gallery with exhibits that looked a if they were from ‘Lorna Doone’.

    It’s very sad that this place has closed.

    Posted by Christine Kendell | November 30, 2009, 4:00 pm
  7. I am absolutely disgusted everytime I think about this whole issue. As a child in the 80’s I have many a fond memory of strolling around the museum with my Dad. I went back as an adult in 1996 and was still entranced! As well as all of the other fabulous exhibits already mentioned Does anyone else remember the telephone exchange, the spinning wheel that demonstrated centrifugal force, and the hugely impressive steam hammer? I now have a son myself and I am really really disappointed that I won’t be able to share these experiences with him. As for “Thinktank”, it only has a few of the exhibits that the Science Museum used to have – (why can’t we still see the other exhibits)? – and basically I would not wish to refer to Thinktank as a museum, as I would not wish to insult museums! It is a very poor attemp at a childrens interactive play area. I very much doubt my son will wish to visit it more than once, unlike the Science Museum that it has allegedly replaced. Shame on you Brimingham City Council.

    P.S. Does anyone remember the dinosaur exhibit in the Art Gallery in Birmingham. Apparently they were slung in a skip during a refurb! Amazing, they were superb and one of the best things in the Art Gallery for children.

    Posted by Dennis Mitchell | December 2, 2009, 11:33 am
  8. Well done Andy!

    What amazes me is no one on the council even wants to discuss a possible industrial museum for Birmingham but the main problem is the apathy within Birmingham. Birmingham seems to be now populated by people who have no pride or interest in their industrial history.

    Posted by JP | December 2, 2009, 3:09 pm
  9. Yes I do recall the dinosaurs at the Art Gallery – took my young son to see them a few years back and they were sadly nowhere to be found

    Posted by Andy Doherty | December 3, 2009, 3:14 am
  10. Sadly the list of such examples of the Council’s myopia is endless!

    Posted by Andy Doherty | December 3, 2009, 3:15 am
  11. Tragedy!! I have been in the Army for 15 years now and have lived away from the second city for that period. I visit Brum for Villa games with no time for much else. It does pain me to read about the demise of such iconic stuctures such as the old museum (don’t get me started on Longbridge). Many a day was spent ogling over the exhibits on display at the museum – such a great way to get educated!. Heritage is not a dirty word……….

    Posted by Neil Huston | December 9, 2009, 8:46 pm
  12. I spent every Saturday afternoon there between 1975 and 1979 – until I left Bham for Uni. It was fantastic – the model atomic reactor, the musical boxes, the fox and geese game, the steam engines, the little shop, the WITCH computer (now being restored of course), the models of circuits (flips-flops) etc. I went back to BHam to sign the protest over it being closed. Sad day for Bham.

    Posted by Kevin Murrell | January 31, 2010, 5:58 pm
  13. We used to spend hours at the old museum in the school holidays it is such a shame it has gone.

    When we went to thinktank it was a real dissapointment. The huge train from the old museum that took pride of place in the old building where someone must of spent hours polishing the brass. Now stuck in a corner at Thinktank covered in dust, all dull and doesent move.
    We went when it had first opened and already some of the modern exhibits were broken!

    Dont even get me started on the price to get in!

    Posted by Seb | March 16, 2010, 11:16 am
  14. It is a great shame this museum no longer exists. I thoroughly enjoyed my visits there from primary school in the mid to late 80’s.

    The two exhibits that I remember were the previously mentioned steam train that periodically moved a metre or so and the Spitfire which really fascinated me. I remember even as a child thinking the cockpit was tiny and too small for an adult. I also remember being in the coach outside and eating a Toffo which pulled out one of my teeth!

    Also, I agree with the post lamenting the loss of the dinosaur exhibits at Brum Museum. I loved the huge T-Rex who’s tail swept around the edge of the room.

    Posted by Paul | May 27, 2010, 3:39 pm
  15. Growing up in the fifties and sixties I have fond memories of the Science Museum. I especially remember playing the ‘computer’ checkers or dominoes machine which always won, and the steam engines. Does anyone know what happened to the City of Birmingham locomotive and the huge industrial steam engines. They must have been relocated somewhere!

    Posted by Gerald | June 28, 2010, 3:49 am
  16. City of Birmingham is languishing in ThinkTank on Curzon Street.

    Posted by Andy Doherty | June 28, 2010, 5:09 pm
  17. I remember it form university days – 1971 to 1974 – and always enjoyed a wander round when I had an hour or two to spare.
    Nobody’s mentioned the operating days when many of the steam and gas powered engines were working all with pipes connected to take the exhausts out of the building. Wonderful atmosphere – would they get away with that now I wonder?
    I also have some photos of steam engine rallies that were held in Newhall Street in conjunction with the museum.
    As for 46235 City of Birmingham this could have found a good home at the Tyseley Loco Works where it might even have been restored to running order. Now that would have been a fine sight!

    Posted by Tim Barber | July 1, 2010, 2:49 pm
  18. Does anyone have a poster for the ‘sight on sound’ section of the real museum of science and industry. Required for family of Bill Brookes who set it up.
    Many thanks

    Posted by M R Francis | August 2, 2010, 6:19 pm
  19. As the daughter of an engineer I was a regular visitor to the old museum of science and industry. I always enjoyed the steam and traction show which was held once a year outside. The music, the smell of steam and the general excitement are all still very vivid to me. I remember the museum with such fondness. However can it be that such important pieces of our heritage have been removed from the public domain?

    Posted by Helen Bowden | August 25, 2010, 10:17 pm
  20. I am currently on holiday in Shrewsbury and had planned to visit the Birmingham Museum of Science aand Industry which I last visited in the late 1980’s and have been extremely disappointed to find it no longer exists. I trained as an engineer in the late 1960’s and it was wonderful to see something from the history of the famous companies of the Midlands so familiar to me. I live in Tavistock in Devon and you can imagine my delight in seeing a small narrow guage steam engine that worked at Wilmingstone Quarry in Tavistock. I can understand the need to modernise but surely this could have been done alongside the original exhibits as is done elsewhere in the Midlands, Irongorge being a fine example. I have a message for Birmingham Council which you might like to pass on or let me have a contact to use and that is if they do not want these exhibits then there are individuals and organisations willing to take them off their hands. I certainly would be ineterested in the Tavistock Steam Locomotive to return it to its home

    Posted by Steve Cryer | September 11, 2010, 8:11 pm
  21. The old Museum of Science & Industry was a never-ending source of delight for me as a child- along with the cavernous ruins of snow Hill nearby, where we’d dare each other to go down the subway, and the tiny but excellent model shop at the bottom of the hill. The roundabout mosaics depicting GW steam are (I hope) still with us. I well remember the tune played by the different radios in the museum, the big model railway carriage nearby (sectioned, I think- or with the roof raised so that you could see inside) and the bike wheel with covered sides that you could spin to investigate centrifugal force. I think the wonderfully complex button making machine made it to Think Tank but boy was that place disappointing. Children pushing buttons and running off too bored to wait & see what happens next. Think Tank really is the worst of Britain’s new dumbed-down “museums”. I can’t think of any other museum that can compare with th old Museum of Science and Industry- the hall with all the steam and hot air engines all working at once, all with detailed and informative descriptions, aimed to stretch slightly the intellect and imagination and inform, using the written word. On to happier things- “Secundus” I saw recently at Corfe Castle (what an old friend! I didn’t realise how painful nostalgia can be!). I did love the T Rex and I remember the excitement in the Birmingham papers when it arrived. Why do we throw away so willingly so much that is good?

    Posted by John Minter | September 28, 2010, 8:32 pm
  22. Just echoing much of the above,really. As a child growing up in Warwickshire in the sixties and seventies it was a frequent treat to go to the Science Museum.
    I returned last weekend with my family to find it had been shrunk and moved to the Thinktank. I wasn’t too keen on the new one. Too much of my childhood had vanished. But nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. The collections of exhibits were fine as far as they went. Quite a few fond memories returned. The new interactive bits I thought superficial (much the same as the Eden Project – so much potential wasted, but I digress).
    Particularly sad to not find the fox-and-geese game, which was less interesting for the game itself, but more for the fact it was a ‘computer’ built from relays which made a most impressive noise.
    The other big computers which were in the old museum I am pleased to discover by the power of Google (other search engines are available) have been moved elsewhere and are being restored by groups of enthusiasts.

    Having said all that, my children loved it ( 6 and 4 years old, which supports one of the previous comments). And the staff bent over backwards to help me recapture my youth.

    If I may comment off-piste slightly, the Science Museum isn’t the only Brum landmark to vanish. Went to a family reunion recently, and all I needed to remember was ‘turn left at the Maypole’
    Somewhere in the last thirty years someone nicked a whole pub! Needless to say I got very very lost.

    Posted by Tim Down | October 30, 2010, 11:26 pm
  23. My father Keith used to work at the museum and I have very fond memories of getting covered in coal dust and helping with the steam engines particularly the Burrell tractor Busy Bee.My fondest memories are of the annual traction engine rally held outside the museum every year in may from 1960 to 1995.All my memories are loved ones of the museum.

    Posted by ANDREW ROFFEY | November 26, 2010, 2:37 pm
  24. i cannot believe this. i went here as a lad some 20 years ago aged 8 with my dad sister and brother on a sunday not long after he and my mom had split up. it was an emotional time but i have such a fond memory of spending the day there with him, having a go building the foam arch bridge in the science area trying to get it to hold my weight, playing with the air tube holding the beach ball aloft in mid-air… and seeing the big train just had me mesmerized…. 20 years on i also am a single father but to a 2 year old, and he has such a fasination with trains, i have been searching online for ages to find out exactly what this place was called and where this place was so i could re-live the happy memory of being there with my dad at such a hard time, and so i could take my boy not only to let him feel the same as i did back then when being confronted by this amazing train, but to let him know that daddy still loves him…. To find out this no longer exists has literally bought a tear to my eye.

    Posted by Adam Jeynes | February 11, 2011, 9:51 pm
  25. I am very sad to see that this great institution has closed. I was looking forewarg to taking my two grand children to see some of the great things that have come out of the black country. I used to visit every school holiday and had much fun and also learned many things about out heritage.

    Posted by RONALD EVANS | February 23, 2011, 1:11 pm

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