An unforgettable peek at the treasure trove of Black Country history in Birmingham's museum collection

Reporter Adam Smith and photographer Tim Thursfield were given access to Birmingham's Museum Collection Centre, and were amazed at the Black Country history hidden from public view for years.

Colin Butler, from the collection team, stands among the million items
Colin Butler, from the collection team, stands among the million items

A veritable Aladdin's Cave of Black Country history is locked away in an anonymous warehouse in the back end of Birmingham.

The Birmingham Museums Collection Centre in Nechells has more than a million items, artefacts and memorabilia which cannot permanently take pride of place in the city's eight museums due to the lack of space.

One of the biggest undisplayed city museum collections in Europe, there are items from across the globe stacked on shelves, secreted in draws and forklifted several metres into the air.

Artefacts beloved and battled over during their time have been long forgotten as time marched on. However, the staff at the centre use state-of-the art technology to ensure every item is kept at the right temperature, under the correct lighting to prevent fading and in cushioned stands to withstand nearby HS2 underground construction.

Though it is the Birmingham Museums's collection, there is plenty of Black Country-made history - the story of scientific advances in the Industrial Revolution cannot be told without Smethwick, Wolverhampton and everywhere in between.

The closure of Birmingham's beloved Science Museum and the opening of the Thinktank in 2000 forced the relocation of the collection to Nechells and away from public eyes.

Industrial heritage which made the Black Country and Birmingham a global exporter of the "city of a thousand trades" was catalogued, photographed and stored away, only viewable on appointment.

However, with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) in Victoria Square closed for the foreseeable future to fix its electrics, which are older than some of its artefacts, the public are being invited to see their history.

Colin Butler, part of the Museums Collection team, said: "With BMAG closed we thought it would be the right time to get more visitors.

"Our guided tours have gone from once a month to every Friday, there are only 15 places and they have to be booked in advance, but we are also holding an open day in April where we will hopefully get up to 500 people coming along."

He added: "Not every city has something like this, there are over a million objects here from all across the world - from social history to natural history as well as private collections which individuals have donated."

The Express & Star was given an exclusive tour of the collection centre ahead of the first open day on Saturday, April 15.

Reporter Adam Smith describes his peek into the Black Country's history:

We were given two hours, but could have spent two weeks and not seen it all.

The first 10 metres of the first aisle of the Amazon-style warehouse took 20 minutes. There were busts of the kind of men who would be horrified to see they had been relegated to storage, lying next to a perfectly preserved Edwardian pill-making machine and a 10-tonne lathe, both of which would have been the revolutionary tech of its time.

Faces from the past, the collection has several busts of historical figures

Long-forgotten names of industrial greats were stamped on strange-looking machines, a reminder that this part of the world exported the Industrial Revolution across the globe.

We knew we had to pick up the pace if we didn't want to spend an unplanned night at the museum.

And that was just on the floor! A chink of light reflected off a piece of metal out of the corner of my eye, I looked up and there was an entire shelf of pedal bikes - Sunbeams from Wolverhampton, stacked like chairs at the end of a community centre play.

We had a quest, and that was to find Black Country items amid the cornucopia of collectables in front of us.

The rows and rows of antique furniture were not our quarry, neither was a Frank Whittle-designed Rolls Royce jet engine from Coventry. But a futuristic-looking cooker from a 1950s Smethwick kitchen was – the Bilston-built Cannon cooker would have transformed the life of the housewife who owned it.

The Bilston built Cannon cooker
Colin inspects a Frank Whittle designed jet engine

It was not hard to see stuff from the Black Country, such as the giant tilt hammer which cut huge sheets of metal in West Bromwich, now lying on the floor. You could only see the size of the tilt hammer from the mezzanine floor. The giant crafted metal looked 15 metres long. And it is not going anywhere fast.

The giant tilt hammer lies in pieces on the collection centre floor

Colin said: "Our forklift truck can only pick up 1.5 tonnes and just part of this tilt hammer is seven tonnes heavy. We work with specialist heritage moving companies to shift stuff like this."

Packaged in wood casing next to the tilt hammer was a ceramic female bust which adorned the front of a bygone ship, which had just been returned from London's Tate Gallery after starring in a folk art exhibition.

This ship's statue is being lent to the Tate Museum in London

Back to between the shelves which stretched as far as you can see, and stacked to the ceiling there was a collection of pianos, including a pianola which still had the sheet music it played automatically to amazed Victorians.

But this was no Supermarket Sweep-style trolley dash as we could not touch a thing, which was hard, for the safety of the collections but also our safety.

Colin was forever putting on or taking off gloves, and he didn't mince words about the danger close by.

He added: "We have items containing arsenic which we have to dress in head to toe in PPE, we store radioactive material from old x-ray machines and the dials of early aeroplanes which is up near the roof in the corner as far away from where the public go, however twice a year we have to get it all down on the floor for tests.

"And obviously there is plenty of asbestos around."

Irishman Colin has been working in the centre for four years and is part of the collections team who have the eternal job of auditing the collection. It's like painting the Forth Bridge - when it's finished it needs starting again.

One colleague photographed a fraction of a collection from a room in BMAG - over four years, she snapped 55,000 items and did not make a dent. As well as items collected by museum staff the collections centre includes numerous private collections donated by members of the public and hobbyists.

A couple from Castle Bromwich donated their entire collection of stuffed birds which took decades to amass. Some are from Birmingham residents but others have no link to the city. A much sought after collection of wooden sculptures whose owner took out an advert in the national press inviting museums to apply for it by a certain date. Legend has it national and regional museums sent their bids by post, however, due to a postal strike only Birmingham's was there on the day as it was the only organisation to send a letter by courier instead through Royal Mail.

Colin said: "My favourite piece was a model of Aston Hall made out of mother of pearl, however it has gone now because Aston Hall wanted it to display, which means more people are seeing it.

"Now my favourite part of collection is the transport history."

What about those lucky few who visit the collection centre?

Colin said: "The social history collection is popular because people have memories of either working in the factory or having the appliances in their homes."

When Colin flicked on the lights of the next room I totally got where his passion lies.

From darkness to a room so crammed with incredible colourful machinery it was hard to take in. My eye was caught by the metallic green and blue custom made low slung chopper motorcycle, donated to the collection in 1994.

But times change: the HS2 line is being built behind the collection so items are being moved to new cushioned stands which will withstand any tunnelling or superfast train rattling past.

Motorcycles, sidecars, horse and cart carriages, vintage cars, fire engines and even an electric refuse truck before Elon Musk was a twinkle in his diamond mine-owning father's eye.

But the stately Tipton-made Bean car was my favourite vehicle - it was a vision of mechanical silver and black beauty.

Bean Cars managing director Jack Bean wanted Tipton to rival Detroit in the first quarter of the 20th Century in the global race to create the first successful affordable, safe, mass-produced vehicle.

Mr Bean even visited America, bought US-built machinery and hired American designers so Tipton could compete.

Bean built cars in various Black Country factories before settling on a sprawling factory and works on Hurst Road, but was eventually eclipsed by other car-makers in the 1930s.

The historic vehicle was majestic and I could not help but think of the pride those Tipton men and women must have felt when this vehicle drove out of the factory.

Motor cars were on the cutting edge of technology in the 1910s and all the components and supply chain was Black Country-produced.

The array of Black Country machinery was fascinating. The collection has several machines with the two words "Tangye-Smethwick" which exported engines across the world from its Cornwall Works, near Black Patch. Their pumps were critical in helping Isambard Kingdom Brunel complete his Great Eastern steam ship.

Revolutionary hydraulic pumps made by Tangye-Smethwick were also showcased at the World's Fair in London, 1862 and its engines helped power factories in Russia, America and across Europe.

Brothers Richard and George Tangye were founding benefactors of the Birmingham Museums and Gallery in 1885, which meant the Black Country was integral to this giant collection from the start.

The poisoned tipped spears and arrows displayed on a cushioned stand funded by HS2

The upstairs storeroom where the animals stay is closed to the public and is not included in tours, however, visitors can request to see the taxidermy. Many of stuffed animals contain arsenic but that's not the only killer amid the shelves.

"Do you want to see some poison-tipped arrows?" Colin asked excitedly, knowing what the answer would be.

The rack full of wooden spears and arrows was impressive - but which ones were poisonous?

"Technically all of them, we don't know which ones are poisonous so it is safer to presume they all are."

But wandering among the collection alone can play tricks on the mind.

Colin said: "There have been times at night when I'm on my own and something can give me a fright, I usually put it down to whatever I'm listening to on my earphones."

Each storeroom smelt different, from the fustiness of stacked ledgers to the unmistakable aroma of animals, stuffed animals.

The collection has shelves full of taxidermy

In the taxidermy section there were shelves full of animals, side by side, rigid and bearing facial expressions which seemed to be pot luck whichever taxidermist was on duty when the beast croaked it - angry aardvarks, puzzled-looking pitbulls, cocked-eyed cats and spread-eagled bats.

Some of these once proud stuffed creatures were obviously Birmingham Museum Collection's animal B-Team.

Proving his collection's strength in depth, Colin said: "We've got 25 foxes – we moved the natural history collection upstairs and kept on finding them in different places."

If herding cats is difficult then moving a collection of species from across the world and from a different century is fraught with danger, for both the artefacts and the museum staff moving them.

Colin said: "A lot of these stuffed animals contain arsenic so we have to be very careful.

"We dressed in complete PPE to move them as arsenic is very dangerous."

An outstretched female lion was on a stand away from the rest of the collection with a note "danger ARSENIC" pinned to it.

Colin said: "We are in no rush to move her yet."

And with a million items under one roof there is always another job to do before moving the arsenic-riddled lion.

Danger! A lioness containing deadly arsenic

To book a tour or attend an open day at the Museums Collections Centre visit birminghammuseums.org.uk/museum-collection-centre.

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