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Birmingham Council House

The Birmingham Seen exhibition has already been hailed a great success. Dave Woodhall pops along and finds the hype justified.

It’s created a healthy debate on our forum so I may as well get straight down to telling you about the Birmingham Seen exhibition, which is being held in the Gas Hall of the Museum and Art Gallery, Chamberlain Square.

As you enter the room you’re looking straight at a turn of the century (the 19th/20th century, that is) photo of where you’re standing before the council buildings that became the Gas Hall were constructed.

You should really turn left then and not do what I did, which led to me viewing the exhibition in reverse chronological order.

Assuming you’ve the sense you were born with, the first highlight is the 1821 Samuel Line Snr oil ‘Birmingham from the Dome of St Phillips’, which shows how much of what is now the city centre remained untouched at that point.

This was a point made repeatedly during the first half of the exhibition – watercolours depicting areas such as Handsworth and Northfield as rural villages well into the mid-Victorian era showed just how quickly industrial Birmingham expanded. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century Digbeth appeared semi-rural while Ferdinand Caulkin’s watercolour ‘Preparation for the Flyover at Hockley Brook’ portrayed what seemed a tranquil backwater as late as 1970.

If the exhibition has a centre piece it’s the William Hayward model of what was intended to be the city’s civic centre. Originally proposed in 1919 and eventually scrapped in 1944, this would have been built on the area where Centenary Square now stands, but would have been on a much, much grander scale. We can only imagine how the city might have developed had the plan come to fruition.

Derek Fairbrother’s time-lapse photos of the Rotunda construction were of great interest, and equally fascinating are Vanley Burke’s photos of Handsworth in the early seventies. I wonder if the emerging black population of the time would find the current hysteria about immigration depressingly familiar?

Terry King’s photos have the ability to put nineties buildings into a thirties setting and Paul Hill’s reflections on modern life in Castle Vale are in equal measure touching and disturbing.

If I could make a criticism it’s that there’s not enough information in the hall. I couldn’t see a single leaflet and there really should have been better signage. But minor quibbles apart, Birmingham Seen is well worth a visit. It runs until the end of the month and there are guided tours on the 8th, 22nd and 29th of the month.



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