From its attractions to its art galleries, theatres and libraries, Birmingham has plenty for culture vultures to sink their teeth and talons into. However, we think it's the Birmingham museums that are perhaps its best selling point when it comes to a spot of culture. Whether it's big old Brummie beasts like the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery or smaller curators such as JW Evans or the Pen Museum, we've got historic hordes of which to be very proud. So if you're partial to whiling away an afternoon surrounded by artefacts, antiquities and insights from yesteryear, the very fine establishments below should keep you very entertained indeed. Just watch out for the school trips...
Prepare to run around like a hyperactive child who’s ingested too many E numbers at this wonderfully eclectic museum. The main attraction at the Millennium Point centre, Thinktank is separated into four floors of scientific endeavour. The ground floor features a suspended Spitfire planes and gigantic steam trains, while a trek to the top level will be rewarded with the digital planetarium and the chance to fiddle about with robots. Many of the displays link back to Birmingham’s industrial past, and it seems the museum has been built with both kids and childish adults in mind (you get to push lots of buttons and pull even more levers). Visitors can also engage with some of the regular science workshops – featuring variations on the sorts of science experiments you’d get to do at school – or solve crimes using modern-day detective work. As you might have guessed from its design, which resembles a kid’s jumbled up toy box, it’s easy to get a bit lost, and getting to the outdoor science garden isn’t easy if you’re on one of the higher levels. If you’re looking for the fabled blend of education and entertainment, though, Thinktank is the museum for you.
Get your walking shoes on if you’re planning a visit to the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, because this exceptional cultural space offers a wealth of exhibits to explore. The domed Round Room – often the location for free musical performances and watched over by Jacob Epstein’s striking bronze statue The Archangel Lucifer – is a good starting point. Visitors can peruse one of the largest pre-Raphaelite collections in the world, delve into the treasures found in the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found or head up to the third level for a detailed, hands-on history of Birmingham and its people. There are also a number of finds from Greek, Egyptian and Roman culture, and guided tours are regularly available if you’d like a more informed account of the building’s offerings. We also heartily recommend you make time for a slice of cake at BMAG’s refurbished Edwardian Tea Room. If you’re looking for something a little more contemporary, head round the side of the building to Gas Hall and the Waterhall Gallery in Edmund Street (entrances opposite each other). These spaces host both touring work from international artists and pieces from local artists, the latter often displayed during the biennial West Midlands Open. Most of BMAG’s wonders are completely free, although some exhibitions have a small entry fee.
The Brummie tendency to downplay any grand achievements means it’s not as well known as it should be that the city effectively helped invent the modern world – and not just with its industrial advances. One of the most fascinating aspects of Birmingham’s history is the Lunar Society, a group of eminent 18th-century thinkers led by Matthew Boulton that included the likes of physician Erasmus Darwin, inventor James Watt and theologian Joseph Priestley among its party. Soho House was where they most often met for their enlightened dinner parties, and this Handsworth mansion has ensured their legacy has stayed fresh in the public memory. Bolton’s home from 1766, Soho House largely stands as a monument to him and his work, although there’s also information on the building’s other incarnations, including periods as a hotel, a hostel for police officers and a school (one of the rooms has been transformed into a Victorian schoolroom for visitors). Exhibits of note include two stone sphinxes that were recently returned to the building after being shipped off to a private estate, Boulton’s collection of fossils and the ornate sidereal clock in the drawing room, which tells the time using the stars.
Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter is awash with history, having been at the centre of the UK’s jewellery trade for much of the 19th century, and great pains have been made in recent years to preserve the area’s extensive past. The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter in Vyse Street is one such example – a former jewellery manufacturing firm known as Smith and Pepper, it has since been transformed into a museum that gives an informative outline of the area and its sparkling history. As with the JW Evans site only a few streets over, there’s a definite sense of stepping into the undisturbed past. Parts of the building have been left untouched since it closed in the early 1980s (complete with dirty coffee mugs scattered about), and your tour guide will most likely pick up some tools and give you a demonstration on the jeweller’s bench. There’s also a free gallery that showcases jewellery using materials found in the natural world, and don’t miss out on the museum shop either, which gives a taste of Birmingham’s talented modern-day designers by offering some of their delicate jewellery for sale. In fact, it’s worth taking a walk around the area after your museum visit, as some of the finest craftspeople in the country still work there today.
Peter Jackson’s blockbusting adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth fantasias have increased interest in the author tenfold, and the city where Tolkien spent much of his childhood – one that inspired the vivid imagery found within both ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ – has sensibly capitalised on the association. One of the key places that helped formulate Tolkien’s stories when he was a child was the Sarehole Mill, a watermill dating back to the 16th century. Located near the Moseley Bog, which he and his brother used to explore, the mill now stands as both a tribute to a former way of life and also a working watermill that produces flour, which visitors can also buy. The venue naturally makes much of the Tolkien connection (and acts as one of the stops on the official Tolkien Trail that the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has put together), but there’s also plenty of information about the past working life of the building – from the original mid-19th century bread oven to the waterwheel, steam engine and millpool. It’s a fairly short tour, but there’s a charming tea shop and the mill is also slap bang next to the Shire Country Park – a huge chunk of beautiful greenery in the middle of the Birmingham suburbs.
Sure, it might not sound like the most exciting of locations, but Birmingham’s Pen Museum is more than just a collection of writing implements. Sitting in the Jewellery Quarter’s historic listed Argent Centre (once a pen factory itself), this beautifully British museum is actually a tribute to the city’s once burgeoning steel pen trade. It delves into the surprisingly multifaceted history of the dip pen, and looks at other forms of writing – including typewriting and Braille – and there are even regular calligraphy lessons to be found. The complete antithesis of sterile museums that keep all their exhibits behind glass, interactivity is encouraged – especially in the Victorian schoolroom section – and the esoteric, slightly cramped environment is a large part of the Pen Museum’s charm. The volunteers who give tours transpose their own passion for a seemingly niche topic to any visitors who come through the door, doling out fascinating stories, including the fact that Rip Van Winkle was actually written by Washington Irving while he was in Birmingham. Entry is free but donations can be made upon leaving to help keep the place running. Such is the infectious enthusiasm for everything pen related, you’ll leave the museum irritated by how the humble ballpoint pen destroyed one of Birmingham’s most prosperous industries. Damn you, Biro!
Operated by the National Trust, the Birmingham Back to Backs is the last surviving example of the kind of buildings that housed the scores of industrial workers that were once the lifeblood of the city. Stretching between Hurst Street and Inge Street, with the main tourist entrance opposite the back of The Glee Club, the back to backs have been painstakingly restored to give visitors an example of life in different decades, starting with the 1840s and working up to the 1970s. Each house has been decorated as if the families still live there, with tables made up for dinner and washing pegged on the line, and special candlelit tours are given in the winter months featuring roaring open fires and freshly toasted bread and jam. You can only go around the houses with a tour guide, so booking is essential, and bear in mind that older visitors might find the steep staircases and tight corridors taxing. Round off the tour by stuffing yourself silly at Mr Chill’s Traditional Sweet Emporium, a similarly restored sweetshop next to the back to backs that offers humbugs, gobstoppers and many more sticky treats arranged in jars around the store. If you’re feeling mean, ask for the jar at the top.
Death comes to us all, but to some it comes more stylishly than others – as you’ll learn if you visit the former Newman Brothers Coffin Works in the Jewellery Quarter. Opened in Fleet Street in 1894, the Newman Brothers site operated for more than 100 years, producing coffin furniture for the funerals of Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill, as well as esteemed figures from the community. It closed in the late 1990s, and the Birmingham Conservation Trust spent 15 years working trying to reopen the site as a museum – now visitors can have a guided tour of the venue to experience one of the more unique parts of Birmingham’s industrial past. From intricately designed crucifixes to frilly robes on display in the shroud room, the focus here isn’t on the macabre but rather the nuts and bolts of a thriving business, as visitors are shown the machinery and tools used to make top-of-the-range coffins. In keeping with the atmosphere, a traditional café is replaced by a tea lady, who brings her trolley around for any visitors thirsting for a brew. The Coffin Works also has an exhibition space and occasionally hosts ‘Death Cafés’, where people can gather to talk about death over cake, while the gift shop displays some appropriately shaped coffin handle confectionary.
With a lot of museums that open in former factories or workshops, you get the sense that some of it has been modified by the restoration team, or at least moved to a place where the inquisitive tourist might see it better. Not so with JW Evans, a 19th-century silver factory that has been meticulously preserved by English Heritage to the point that it feels like the workers are just off on their lunch break. Nothing is labelled within the building, and everything is laid exactly where it was when the factory closed down, making it one of the most complete historic factory sites in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. As such, your tour guide is essential as he takes you through the many warrens, pointing out the various tools of the trade that were used to create everything from butter knives to elaborate plaques. If you time it right, your guide might well be former owner Tony Evans, whose grandfather opened the factory in Albion Street in 1881, although the building is only open on specific dates so you need to book online to take a tour. And you should, because this is a slice of Birmingham history that hasn’t been catalogued, condensed or correlated to within an inch of its archaic life.
The Birmingham suburb of Bournville is a true rarity, offering tranquil village life within easy access of a bustling city centre. The brainchild of chocolate emperor George Cadbury, the area has its own village green, historic rest house and rare carillon bells (although still no public houses, what with Cadbury being a devout Quaker), but perhaps Bournville’s most treasured building is Selly Manor. A timber frame Tudor manor dating back to the 1300s, it was saved from demolition by Cadbury in the early 20th century, when it was moved from its original Bournbrook site piece by piece. It still resides there now, open as a museum run by the Bournville Village Trust and giving visitors the chance to experience a small taste of the Tudor era. Guided tours and family activities look at work, food, clothing and even the Tudor methods of crime and punishment, along with a large collection of furniture donated by George’s brother, Laurence. It doesn’t take long to look through the house, but you can also take a stroll around the gardens, complete with tiny hedge maze for young ones to get dizzy in. There’s also a smaller medieval hall house known as Minworth Greaves set within the manor’s grounds, also saved by Cadbury.