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!