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Uncovering Suburbia's Riches

Suburbia is not known for surrendering its secrets lightly. But thanks to the power of shared knowledge and a £282,000 grant from the AHRC, a collaborative research project in Birmingham has succeeded in exposing the remarkable depth and richness of an 80-year period in the history of the city’s south-western suburbs.

The legacy of the project, Suburban Birmingham: spaces and places, 1880-1960, is most visible in an interactive website (opens in a new window) that brings the heritage of the area to life through a multimedia array of digitised documents, objects, interpretive texts, video and essays written by the research team.

It has also had a profound influence on the development and content of the new Birmingham History Galleries at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (BMAG) which, like the new Library of Birmingham (opening in 2013) and the University of Birmingham research library, will include a multi-user Suburban Birmingham app running on 50-inch screens, similar to massive iPhones.

However, for the historians, archivists, librarians and curators invited from the University of Birmingham, the city’s Central Library and Archives Services, BMAG, and Cadbury Research Library to serve as Fellows on the project, the experience of collaborative research has been a revelation. Collections that previously existed as silos in individual institutions were shared – a condition of the funding, which was based on a call for knowledge transfer. The result, said Lead Investigator Dr Richard Clay, an art historian at University of Birmingham, was the realisation that between them, these institutions had access to a hitherto unexploited treasury of riches on their own doorstep.

“We could not take on the whole city, so we looked at where our collective strengths were and decided to focus on one quadrant in the south west,” he said. “We simply did not know that between us, we were sitting on this vast storehouse of goodies that belongs to Birmingham’s history. The Fellows found the project challenging, which it should be, and we expected a lot of work from them. But there was a delight in getting to know new things, and seeing how they all approached the evidence in different ways that were valid and valued. It’s important that the outputs from the project really demonstrate the excellence of the research, and the fact that it is much bigger than any one institution.”

The project was launched in October 2008. The professional researchers – each studying specific spaces, places, people and issues – committed one week per month of their time, with the aim of contributing a substantial article on their discoveries to the website. During the first year, their subjects included slum clearance and life on the new suburban estates, turn-of-the-20th-century life in Edgbaston, and the transformation of suburban institutions including the University. These were followed in 2009-10 by studies of adult education, the development of the co-operative movement, the rise of amateur photography, the impact of the Bournville Cadbury factory, domestic interiors, schooling, and the function and development of parks and green spaces, with work on the bombing of the suburbs during the Second World War in development now.

This range of topics mined the rich seam of the collections, Clay’s “goodies” allowing the researchers to get beneath the skin of a time of rapid change and evolution in the suburbs, exposing some startlingly similar concerns – as well as the chasm between the day-to-day experiences of residents during the period defined by the project, and 21st-century attitudes and experiences.

The unexpected soon began to emerge. The study of a purpose-built ‘dream’ suburban street during the slum clearance of the 1920s and 1930s revealed that a significant percentage of re-housed city dwellers moved back to their old habitats within three months, for example. The transition from inner city slum life to rural idyll was less than straightforward and rarely tallied with the stereotypical view of privet-hedged suburban perfection. Then, as today, a lack of infrastructure and public transport were the weak links in the rapid growth of conurbations.

Research on the parks exposed perennial anxiety about transgression in public spaces and the disruptive behaviour of youth. Less familiar today was advice for anyone inconvenienced by not receiving the latest issue of the Edgbastonian (check with your servants if it has gone missing), and the challenges of accommodating servants in relatively modest early 20th-century houses. And it was surprising to learn that despite Cadbury’s reputation as a progressive employer during the first half of the 20th century, female employees who married were required to leave.

“In many ways, the project has reinforced the notion of plus ça change, because there is so much similarity between then and now,” said Clay. “In others, it shows how little we knew of these people’s lives, and how strikingly different the world was in their day.”

For Helen Fisher, an archivist at partner institution Cadbury Research Library, who joined the project in its second year to research parks, the experience of collaboration meant that she became a lot more aware of the collections in other institutions.

“There is more material of an archival nature in the Museums and Art Gallery than we knew about before,” she said. “The project has given us better links with our fellow professionals at the museum, allowing us to share materials. It has been a real privilege to spend a substantial amount of time in the museum’s stores for my own contribution to the project. Usually I am doing research for other people – and with very limited time.”

Clay said that while the project’s digital legacy is important, the real-world delivery of its outcomes is equally exciting. It has also helped to energise the University of Birmingham’s relationship with the city and reinforce its role as a civic institution. The institution might have sometimes been perceived as out on a limb, but of late it has been actively emphasising that it is a resource for everybody and not just academics.

According to Toby Watley, Head of Programming at BMAG and a member of the project’s steering group, these outcomes are among the greatest benefits. During the project’s first year, as part of the development process for BMAG’s new Birmingham History Galleries, residents were asked what they would like from the facility. The response was unequivocal: less about the town centre and the great men of the city, and more about the places where they grew up, went to school and worked.

“It became clear that the research all the Fellows were doing was very relevant to the Galleries, and that we could include a lot the subject matter in the displays,” said Watley.

The displays will include large multi-touch interactive screens designed to engage a wider audience in the way Birmingham expanded during the 20th century. Visitors will be able to see elements of the collections, previously only available in the archive, in new ways.

“The agenda was always to encourage more cross-working between the museums and the partner institutions,” said Watley. “It has really empowered our staff. Usually you find a curator is supporting academics at the University to broaden their knowledge. But this has given them greater knowledge and the skills to expand it in terms of curating the collections here at the museum.”

For Clay, this is the key to the project’s future, and it is impossible to overstate the importance of the original funding from the AHRC. “It meant we could build something more ambitious without it costing a fortune,” he said. “We’re already working on the next step and talking about what we might do next, exploiting this new way of working, not just in terms of findings and outcomes, but also through stakeholder buy in and engagement with the public through the possible use of apps, and even user-generated content. And we’re already seeing other projects adopt some of our methods.”

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