Cultural Face-off part 2: Birmingham

So weekend two of the cultural face-off was Birmingham. I haven’t actually been in to Birmingham for years, and I’ve only been shopping (Bullring, Oasis, Christmas Market) or to concerts at the NIA or ICC. Back in September, the new Library of Birmingham opened in Centenary Square. Their motto is ‘Rewriting the Book’, which they say means redefining the way libraries work and responding to the needs of a modern and diverse community.

The building itself is certainly very striking, a glass box with a steamship-like gold funnel, covered with steel scrollwork. You could easily miss the black script running vertically up the side of the building that tells you it’s the library! It’s certainly as far as you can get from the former library building, a 1970s Brutalist carbuncle in neighbouring Chamberlain Square, now sitting rather forlorn and empty with out of date posters in the windows and due to be demolished.

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It was a bit strange visiting a library where you aren’t a member, but it was still interesting to browse the collections, and they have done a good job of making it a truly public space. There’s a roof garden, which I can imagine is a popular lunch spot for local office workers, and on the very top floor a panorama room with interactive screens picking out various city centre landmarks.

Rather incongruously, there’s also the Shakespeare Memorial Room, created in 1882 and designed by John Henry Chamberlain, founder of the Shakespeare Club and rebuilder of the original central library following fire in 1879. All wood panelled with Elizabethan details, with skilled marquetry and metalwork, it was dismantled and moved to Sheepcote Street depot in 1974 when the library was demolished in 1971 and stored in poor conditions until it was reconstructed as part of the School of Music in 1986. And now it’s been dismantled and rebuilt again, at the very top of this extremely modern building.

As far as their mission statement goes, they seem to be achieving it with a wide range of services and materials on offer – you can borrow CDs, DVDs, sheet music (there’s even a piano to try it out on), pre-loaded MP3 players, as well as all the books you could imagine, a large reference section and family history research. There are plenty of different spaces in the library, and my particular favourites were the pod chairs which I could completely curl up in, and cleverly insulate the occupant from outside noise.

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Just next door to the old library is the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, with a wide range of collections both classic and modern, and plenty of local pottery, silverware and jewellery. They also host the Staffordshire Hoard, although we only saw the last few pieces of a much reduced display, just before they close until September to relocate to a newly funded gallery space. They also seem to be studying and conserving many pieces at the moment. I’ve seen it before, at the Potteries museum, but it was still interesting to see it after some years of study and soon after having seen The Cheapside Hoard.

I have to say that a number of the galleries were closed or empty, and overall the museum was difficult to navigate coherently, with lots of dead ends and apparently wrong signage. However, they did have some fascinating pieces, and a large and very interesting gallery all about the people and culture of Birmingham today and in years past. My favourite quote was the fact that at one time, three quarters of the world’s handwriting was written with a Birmingham steel pen nib.

So who won in the face-off – London or Birmingham? Well really, I don’t think it’s right to pick a side, I think the MoL wins over the BMAG but the Birmingham Library was truly impressive, and inspired me to go and join my local library this weekend!

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