Despite the property having opened back in 2004, and having lived in Birmingham for most of the time since, I must confess to having never visited National Trust Birmingham’s Back to Backs before.
This changed the other weekend, when I dropped by on Sunday afternoon (I had meant to go the day before when I was in the city centre for Flatpack’s Wonderland Cinema Walk – but forgot that you had to book visits to the Back to Backs at least one day in advance).
The reason for my visit was the Home from Home exhibition, which National Trust Birmingham has developed in partnership with Mykal Brown (MBE) of the Wassifa Sound System. It comprises part of the current Birmingham 2022 Festival and is on until 30th October this year. Unlike the Back to Backs as a whole the exhibition is free to enter, and can be accessed on days it is open via the National Trust second hand bookshop on Hurst Street.
Home from Home recreates the front room of Mykal Brown’s family home as it appeared around 40 years ago. In doing so, it brings a domestic element of contemporary African Caribbean and Black British history into the Back to Back’s narrative – spanning two centuries – representing and exploring the story of working people’s domestic lives in modern Birmingham.
Due to their cramped nature, and the inherent health and safety risks in allowing visitors to clamber all over 200 year old buildings with steep uneven staircases, the Back to Backs can only be visited on guided tours. This means that whilst Home from Home is in the property’s dedicated events space fronting onto Hurst Street, the rest of the museum can only be accessed by booking onto a guided tour.
Whilst I had come along to see Home from Home I was also interested to see what the guided tour was like, which takes attendees through well informed, imaginative recreations of what the property may have looked like under different tenants in the 1840s, 1870s, 1930s, and up until 2001 when the final business using the premises – a tailors shop – moved out. There are also interesting displays throughout about how the property came to be in the National Trust’s hands and the conservation and curation process.
The volunteer guide I had on the tour was very impressive. Gently erudite and engaging, pitching the tour appropriately and engagingly at a small group which ranged in age from eight to around eighty. They clearly had extensive knowledge of the wider social history of Birmingham during the modern period, which they wove into their narrative about the properties and their inhabitants’ lives. The guide also seemed very well informed about the origins of Shelter, housing activism in mid-20th Century Britain more broadly and early documentary photography in the UK – which was interesting.
At the end of the tour participants were invited to head up to the Home from Home exhibition.
Walking up a staircase as steep as any other in the property you emerge into a recreation of Mrs. Dotty’s (Mykal Brown’s Mum) front room in the 1980s. The first impression is of a room which is comfortably furnished and meticulously kept, full of knick knacks and keepsakes significant to the family.
The exhibition’s tightly written and illuminating interpretation panels and accompanying leaflet explain that during the early days of mass African Caribbean settlement in Britain racism amongst the white British population made it hard for incoming migrants to find places outside the home to socialise. This meant that as the community set down roots in parts of Birmingham like Handsworth, their homes became important places to gather and socialise. Interestingly the exhibition observes that during these early decades when the African Caribbean community was establishing itself in Britain, the traditional distinction in lower middle and working class terraced houses between the day-to-day living space of the back room, and the special entertaining space of the front room, was strongly adhered to.
This was clearly the case in the home where Mykal Brown grew up. There is a cocktail bar stocked with a connoisseur’s eye for fine spirits, perfect for socialising, along with comfy sofas and armchairs for guests to recline in. Equally well stocked is the record player which stands in pride of place in the middle of the room. The television set by contrast is relegated to the corner of the room next to the drinks cabinet.
Nods to what was important in the life of the family adorn the walls, adding to its cosy, homely, feel. Photographs of family sit next to landscape paintings depicting popular sights and scenes in Jamaica where the Browns had moved from. A few political etchings celebrating Jamaican national heroes and the cause of Jamaican independence from Britain also make up the ensemble, alongside religious images. The overall effect of this bricolage is to give a sense of how the family and their friends and neighbours perceived and grounded themselves in the world.
Beyond the cosy front room, in the back room, sits a fine example of the culture of the first generation of African Caribbean people to grow up, and in many cases be born, in Britain. It is equipment and memorabilia, like flyers and event posters, from the early years of the long life of the Wassifa Sound System. Mykal Brown was one of the founders of the sound system in 1972 which continues performing to this day.
The inclusion of the Wassifa Sound System – which had its headquarters at Mkyal Brown’s family home in 1970s and 1980s – attests to how African Caribbean culture evolved in the 1970s and 1980s as a new generation which had few memories of life anywhere other than Britain came of age. They asserted themselves through creating their own counterculture, one which was not understood by the powers that be, or in many cases their parents or other community elders. The cultural scene they created looked to the Rastafari religious tradition, Jamaican and other Caribbean music styles and reaction against their own experiences of mariginalisation and discrimination in Britian to forge something defiant, assertive and creative.
In displaying, explaining and seeking to celebrate both the everyday domesticity and sociability of Mrs. Dotty’s front room, and the avant garde youth culture represented by the Wassifa Sound System Home from Home represents a brilliant bringing of recent Black British history into the Back to Backs.
As well as representing a vital strand of contemporary British history which needs celebrating, especially in Birmingham, exhibitions like Home from Home point ahead to how traditional social history museums like the Back to Back will have to adapt in the years to come. On the tour of the Back to Backs that I undertook, all of the punters beside myself and the granddaughter of two of the other attendees were over 70.
At least one of the attendees had been born and spent the early part of their life in a long demolished back to back court in Aston. For them a visit to the Back to Backs was nostalgia as much as anything, the same to a lesser extent for the other older attendees who could relate directly to aspects of the social history on display.
Which raises the question, what will be the appeal of such properties in two or three decades once they have passed out of living memory? Telling new stories, uncovering, exploring and celebrating the narratives of the African Caribbean and other communities that settled in inner-Birmingham in the post-war period is clearly an important way forward. Hopefully the current temporary exhibition proves a successful model for the future.
This said there is clearly a fascinating wider story about Birmingham and its international connections which can be drawn from the Back to Backs as they are. This can be seen in the narratives about the settlement of Jewish and Irish people in central Birmingham during the 19th Century present in the property and its current interpretation.
It is also especially apparent in the final section of the tour which focuses upon when part of the property, after it was condemned as unfit for human habitation, was George Saunders tailors shop. Part of the Windrush Generation who migrated from St. Kitts George Saunders had a nearly 30 year tenancy in the property, moving out only when it was purchased by the National Trust for conversion into a museum in 2001. He established a highly successful business there which included customers from London, including the British royal guard, and more bizarrely the brutal Libyan dictator Colonel Gadaffi who commissioned him to produce school uniforms.
The National Trust’s preservation, display and celebration of George Saunders’ tailors shop vividly shows that there are everyday stories connecting locations in Britain to interesting positive stories about Black history and Britain’s interconnectedness with the rest of the world. Taken together with the Home from Home exhibition they point towards how the Back to Backs and other National Trust properties can continue to adapt, bring their stories up to date and remain relevant to the people of Birmingham into the future.
Home from Home is open and free to visit during the times that the National Trust bookshop on Hurst Street is open (usually 10:00-17:00) up until 30th October 2022. The Back to Backs are open Tuesday – Sunday for guided tours 10:00-15:00.