Birmingham Revolutions: Protest in the Museum

Photography by David Rowan for BMT Photography 2019

With a very limited budget and under 12 months to complete, “Birmingham Revolutions – Power to the People” is a temporary exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery charting over four centuries of protest and activism in the city, from the Priestley Riots of 1791 all the way through to the anti-extremism campaigns of today. When I was given the task of curating this exhibition, I was already aware of the passion and dedication activists of both the past and the present have to their causes having been involved in activism myself since I was a teenager. This gave me a great sense of responsibility to deliver an exhibition that was both varied and detailed while also being inclusive of as many campaigns and protests as possible. However, trying to condense over 200 years of protest into a single room is by no mean feat.

With over 75 objects ranging from a single badge to one of the most important pieces of anti-war art, this exhibition is made up entirely of Birmingham Museum’s collections. While in some ways this restricted the stories that we could tell in the gallery space which has been a disappointment to some visitors, what this exhibition has revealed is that our collection contains far more stories and campaigns than many may think.

We hold hand-painted banners from the first political union in Britain founded in the 1820s, a plaque made from plaster scraped from the walls of Wormwood Scrubs by a First World War conscientious objector and over 100 badges collected by a local supporter of the miners’ strikes to name a few items, and this exhibition is presenting this hidden collection to the public in many cases for the first time.

This exhibition was one of the first of a new programme created by Birmingham Museums Trust to test out stories and ideas for the future Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery when it undergoes redevelopment in a few years’ time. A key stage in the exhibition’s development process was consultation and engagement with the activist community, academics, researchers and campaigners from a range of different causes, who contributed their definitions, opinions and ideas in presenting the subject of protest in a museum space. Their responses fed directly into the final exhibition.

However, the consultation did not stop once the exhibition opened. This exhibition was not designed to be static or complete: its purpose is to engage and include the visitors as part of the exhibition. Our engagement area offers visitors the opportunity to voice their opinions, choose their favourite object, state what could be improved, and even contribute their memories and current involvement in protest.

We are also actively looking for objects to expand the collection. While this project has uncovered the vast range of objects and campaigns that our collection holds, it has also highlighted the gaps and deficits. Nearly all our protest objects were given to the collection via donation since the early twentieth century and it was not until our recent award-winning Collecting Birmingham project back in 2018 that the museum began actively collected protest objects. We consciously state in the current exhibition that while our collection covers a lot of protest and campaigns throughout Birmingham’s history, there is a significant number that we have not been able to include.

At the time of writing this, the exhibition has been open for just over three months, yet I am already witnessing the effects that representing these struggles and events from history can have on people. A greater understanding of both the past and the present, a greater appreciation of what we have and have had to fight to gain, but also a sense of pride and achievement in ourselves, our communities and other communities as well. The inclusion of the miner’s strikes, disability activism, third world debt and black power for those visitors who have been involved in these campaigns we cover have been incredibly supportive and appreciative of what we have tried to create. Visitors from all ages, places and background are actively engaging in the museum, have been happy to see these stories given a space to be seen and being allowed a platform to contribute.

“Wonderful exhibition. Thank you to Birmingham museums for highlighting the fight of local people for freedom, justice and recognition. great concept covering various aspects of the struggle that touched the great city of Birmingham” – Comment left in the gallery

The debate around what protest is or what types of protest should or should not be included in a history exhibition such as this is a continuing debate within the museum community. While searching in a draw of political ephemera at our Museum Collections Centre I came across two stickers made by the National Front. Found in Erdington in the late 1990s, these two small square stickers speak of the more complex and difficult aspects of protest. When presented to our consultation group there was a resounding no to the possibility of being shown in the exhibition. The concerns around supporting hate speech, providing a platform for extremist ideologies in a museum and the suggestion that looking at this aspect of protest was not necessary for the exhibition was expressed by a few in our consulting group.   Yet on further reflection with my colleagues, we decided that while taking these concerns into account, we understood that a museum should not hide away from such difficult conversations especially when they open up the opportunity for productive discussions and debates within the public and museum spheres around far-right protest and extremism. To present these very real issues from both a historic and contemporary perspective can help highlight the reality of such groups existence while also supporting the activist work that is being done in the city to counteract extremism in its various forms. Similarly, I do not think it’s beneficial to shy away from addressing these more negative and difficult uses of protest and instead can help to understand why extremist groups form.

“I think it’s good that you included the far-right stuff. We know people like that exist so might as well learn more about them. We won’t get anywhere from being ignorant. Knowledge is power.” – Comment left in the gallery

The inclusion of protest as a single focus exhibition is becoming increasingly popular in many different museums and heritage organisations across Britain. Museum Activism published in 2019 and edited by Robert Janes and Richard Sandell contains a wealth of case studies and theories around bringing activism into the museum. These types of exhibitions and publications are slowly eroding the traditional archaic motto that “museums are neutral” and instead are striving to show that museums are not and should not be neutral. Museums and heritage organisations take a unique place within popular discourse and education around issues like racism, politics, gender or class. The exhibition space is an incredible opportunity to explore historic and contemporary issues using objects, art and oral histories to explore this powerful subject in history and figure out what we can learn from it.

Birmingham Revolutions – Power to the People’ is on at Birmingham Museum and Gallery in Gallery 13 until 7 September 2020.


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