5 Dec 2016

Introduction to Birmingham Manufactures

Greetings from the Birmingham Manufactures camp! We are a brand new project funded by Arts Council England's Designation Development Fund  to increase knowledge and documentation on the wonderful manufacturing history of Birmingham, aka ‘The City of a Thousand Trades’. Both Tessa Chynoweth (Research Assistant) and I (Sophie Misson, Documentation Assistant) will be giving regular blog post to give insight into what we’re doing and all of the exciting objects we come across.

Manufacturing and industry are central to Birmingham’s history; shaping individual lives and the geography of the city as much as the reputation of the place. Although Birmingham’s history as a centre of industrial production (particularly of metalwork) goes back to the medieval period, Birmingham achieved global significance through its leading role in the economic, social and political changes associated with the Industrial Revolution. Birmingham Museums owe much to this industrial heritage. Not only was the museum collection designed to inspire the local artisan population and raise the quality and design of workmanship in Birmingham, but was itself the product of investment of local manufacturing firms – most notably, perhaps, Richard and George Tangye, Birmingham-based engineers whose philanthropy was an important aspect of the instigation of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery as well as the School of Art.

Tangye Brothers trade card

The project began little over a month ago but we have now finished the training stages of our posts. In just four weeks we have become museum database wizards, blossoming photographers, object markers extraordinaire, been able to visit studios in the Jewellery Quarter and, most importantly, formally presented the project to our group of lovely researchers, who will be supporting us and helping increase our knowledge of different manufacturing techniques throughout the project. 

After all our training was complete, the first port of call for this project was to complete a survey of the collections. The result of this was to find out just how many things the museum owns that were manufactured in Birmingham, which comes in at a cool 16717 objects across a number of different departments! And this doesn’t even include the objects associated with Birmingham that have unknown makers or locations! Now that the survey is complete we are looking through all the different departments (Science and Industry, Social History, Applied Art and Coins/Medals) and deciding which objects and manufacturers we focus on. As we will only be looking at 3000 objects in detail, it’s very important that we have a good overview of all the different manufacturing techniques that represent our local history and help put Birmingham on the map, whether it be buttons, engines, glassware or the iconic Bird’s custard collection.

Bird's Custard collection

We wanted to start our project with a collection that was recognisable and that everyone could relate to, and in these winter months Bird’s custard seemed like an excellent and appropriate choice! Most locals will be familiar with the Custard Factory in Digbeth, but sometimes we forget that is was literally that; the Bird’s custard factory! Known as the Devonshire Works, it was purpose built and commissioned by the son of Alfred Bird, the inventor of egg-free instant custard powder. We have been cataloguing the collection in detail, marking the objects in accordance with conservation standards and have started taking professional museum quality photographs in order to make these records more accessible for the public and researchers. 

Object marking the Bird's Custard collection

Photographing the Bird's Custard Collection

In addition to this blog we have set up a Facebook group (Birmingham Manufactures ) and a twitter account (@BrumMfr ) which we update regularly if you would like to get involved! We’ve already had some fascinating responses to our posts, met people with wonderful stories, and would love to hear more! We’ve had a great start to the project and have plenty more exciting things to come so stay tuned, and watch this space for more updates and behind the scenes secrets!