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ANALYSIS: Keeping history alive; Ian Walden, Director of The Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, explains why he thinks Birmingham and the West Midlands needs more of a vision.

Byline: Ian Walden

As Birmingham and the West Midlands look to the future - with an optimism which is to be admired - it is sensible not to forget or, at worst, ignore the lessons which can be learnt from the past, or ignore past reputation.

The future is only relevant if it builds on the past and if we learn lessons from our forefathers and, in the case of our great towns and cities, our city fathers also.

We are adept - some would say too good - at producing visions and long-term strategies but too many of them concern themselves with only the present and the future - instead of starting with our roots, our history and our souls.

That is why institutions such as our museums, galleries, archives and libraries are so important to us. Not because they necessarily bring the past to life - although I would hope the Black Country Living Museum, as its name implies, does just that - but because they are reminders of where we have come from and where we might go to.

Here, our 'living heritage' - such as The Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, Ironbridge near Telford and Thinktank in Birmingham - are so important and so essential for our children and for us.

They all remind of us of how our villages, towns, cities, and the sprawling conurbation we now call the metropolitan region of the West Midlands, emerged.

When we talk of 'City Regions' how many people know that in 1868 Elihu Burritt, the 'Learned Blacksmith' and United States consul in Birmingham wrote: "Plant, in imagination, one foot of your compass at the Town Hall in Birmingham, and with the other sweep a circle of twenty miles radius, and you will have, 'The Black Country'." Even then the economic and social cohesiveness of the region was well understood.

Later historians may have more correctly identified the Black Country as being to the west of, and excluding Birmingham, but Burritt's further comment that "Birmingham is the capital, manufacturing centre, and growth of the Black Country" is nearer the truth. The Black Country was the source of coal and iron, the products of its foundries and forges, and of glass, leather and other wares on which Birmingham's wealth, and reputation as the 'Workshop of the World' was founded. The same is true of the products of Coventry and Kidderminster.

The canals enabled the coal and heavy products of the Black Country to be moved to expanding markets, and even after the coming of the railways these waterways, particularly through Birmingham and the Black Country, were often gridlocked. (Do we see a similar pattern of under-investment in transport projects today)?

This was the time when the foundations of today's towns and cities were being built: visionary leaders such as Joseph Chamberlain, forefather of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and working at his uncle's screw making factory, J S Nettlefold, had ambitions that far exceed those of today's leaders and industrialists.

In the mid-nineteenth century, one in every five children died before they were old enough to walk, and the streets were frequently awash with water, sewage and refuse. In Dudley, the average life expectancy at birth was only 16 - lower than many of the poorest nations today.

In consequence, the great municipal schemes - including water, sewage disposal, medical facilities, libraries and places of learning - were considered fundamental to the stature of both cities and towns and an essential component if they were to be home to thousands of migrants, both from overseas and the hinterlands.

It is hard to imagine the economic pressures and barriers that these leaders would have faced, although the archives in the Midlands hold much information which could tell us a great deal.

What we know already is that it took great vision, leadership, drive and significant philanthropy, together with the help of nature in providing significant resources of coal and iron and other minerals, to establish the reputation of Birmingham and the Black Country as an international city and a great manufacturing region.

The Vision Statements and Forward Plans of today start from a different position, without mineral resources but with a significant workforce and a great history. We must use this to our advantage.

The swelling number of visitors to The Black Country Living Museum - some quarter of a million each year of which some 72,000 are schoolchildren taking part in educational visits - is evidence of the enormous interest in our past. This, I would argue, is not just a question of wallowing in nostalgia but of understanding our roots and our heritage.

That is why we are shortly to embark on a programme that, paradoxically for a museum, is designed to take us into the 21st century. There will be more working demonstrations and the opportunity to preserve fast-disappearing craft skills which otherwise will be lost.

The reconstructed canal side village will be extended with a complete High Street concentrating on the story of the Black Country, and the region, in the 1930s.

There will be greater emphasis on transport and manufacturing reflecting the fact that back in those days the reliance for longer distance travel was public transport and, for shorter distance, shank's pony.

It's interesting that in the 21st century our ambitions for transport are largely reflections of where we were: more use of efficient public transport and leaving the car I the garage for short trips.

In a world that has shrunk in time but not distance, these lessons from the past are imperative as we plan our future.

"It took great vision, leadership, drive and significant philanthropy to establish Birmingham's reputation

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it Philospher and essayist George Santayana


The Black Country Living Museum keeps history alive by recreating it every day
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 29, 2007
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