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!


11 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

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