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23 Oct 2017

Exhibition brings new perspectives to Birmingham’s most significant stories

As Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (BMAG) continues to plan for an ambitious re-development project, Birmingham Museums Trust is taking an important step to bring new perspectives to some of the city’s most significant stories. 

The Past is Now – Birmingham and the British Empire, opening on Saturday 28th October, is the first in a series of prototype exhibitions in the ‘Story Lab’ gallery at BMAG. The gallery will see Birmingham Museums Trust work directly with the city’s diverse individuals, communities and activists to help define innovative new ways of understanding Birmingham’s collection of museum objects.

The city’s historic and encyclopaedic collection covers almost every imaginable subject area across art, human history, natural sciences, and science and industry, and this new approach will help Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery to reach new audiences and tell new stories.   

For this first exhibition, Birmingham Museums Trust has the taken the bold, experimental approach of collaborating with local activists to curate the exhibition. The co-curators include graphic designer, Abeera Kamran; artivist, Aliyah Hasinah; writer, Mariam Khan; cultural activist, Sara Myers; textile designer, Shaheen Kasmani, writer and researcher Sumaya Kassim.

The full history of Birmingham’s relationship to the British Empire has traditionally been under-represented and this exhibition aims to tell a different story about the outcomes of colonialism and encourage discussion.

Key topics of focus within the exhibition include; Joseph Chamberlain’s role as Colonial Secretary and his work to expand British rule in South Africa, which resulted in deepening divisions in the region, and the end of British colonial rule in South Asia and the Partition of India and Pakistan, which led to largest mass migration in human history.

Other themes include capitalism and Birmingham’s position as one of the manufacturing centres of the British Empire. While this role was celebrated in Birmingham at the time, many of the objects that were manufactured were shipped across the world to be traded for goods and people, as the colonies were exploited and oppressed.   

The new specially designed ‘Story Lab’ space within BMAG will be used to test new ideas and radical approaches over the next two years. Community groups and campaigners will continue to be involved in the process, and future exhibitions will tackle a range of topics. The displays will provide vital insight and feedback for the plans for the museum re-development. 

The ‘Story Lab’ gallery is an Arts Council England funded project and part of the Change Makers Programme. The programme is aimed at increasing the diversity of senior leaders within England’s arts and cultural sector, and included funding to host a training placement for senior museum professional Sara Wajid.

Throughout 2017 Sara has led the programme to reinterpret the collections on display at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery to reach a wider audience. A specialist researcher, Rachael Minott, was also recruited to work closely with co-curators on The Past is Now exhibition.

Sara Wajid, Head of Interpretation at Birmingham Museums Trust, said: “Story Lab builds on a powerful movement to democratise knowledge production within museums. The Past is Now could only happen in Birmingham, where we have the perfect cocktail of talented cultural activists, progressive curators and knock-out collections.”

The Past is Now – Birmingham and the British Empire, will be on display at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery from Saturday 28th October until Monday 12th March. Prototype exhibitions will continue in the space throughout 2018 and visitors are encouraged to share their thoughts and feedback. To find out more details visit www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/bmag/whats-on/the-past-is-now-birmingham-and-the-british-empire