Gulbenkian Prize Readers' Poll: National Trust Back to Backs

By Caroline Lewis | 28 January 2005
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Shows a photo of a terrace of redbrick houses with chimneys. There is a dark shop front on the corner with an old fashioned sign.

The last surviving Back to Backs in Birmingham have been restored as well as any stately home. Courtesy National Trust.

**Voting for the readers' poll has now closed**

Between now and March, judges will be visiting the museums shortlisted for the UK’s largest arts prize, the third Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year.

Here at the 24 Hour Museum, we want to know who you think should win the prize. Click here to see the full shortlist and vote for the museum you think should receive the £100,000, or read on to find out how National Trust (West Midlands) Back to Backs came to be on the shortlist.

Court 15 on Inge and Hurst Streets, a once unassuming set of Birmingham back to back houses earmarked for demolition, has become the city’s very own National Trust property. The Grade II listed court has turned out to be a real jewel since it opened to the public in July 2004, earning a coveted place on the Gulbenkian shortlist.

“It’s a real Birmingham project,” says Emma Hawthorne, NT Community Learning Volunteers Regional Manager. “The thing that’s special about them is that they haven’t been removed to another site. These little houses have managed to cling on in a piece of prime real estate – they’re survivors!”

Shows a photo of a man with a moustache, wearing a beige shopkeeper's jacket and flat cap. He is serving someone from behind the counter in a sweet shop. There are old fashioned weighing scales on the counter and shelves of jars containing sweets behind him.

Visitors enter through an old fashioned sweet shop. Courtesy National Trust.

The eleven houses that make up the Back to Backs, now a real visitor attraction, are the last remaining such ones in Birmingham. Amazingly, they sit in an area which has been largely redeveloped with modern city living apartments, serving as a reminder of the 19th century slums that so many Brummies used to live and work in.

The Birmingham Conservation Trust worked with the National Trust to raise £1.89 million to buy the site and restore the houses to reflect the different periods in which they saw life. The 1840s house has been returned to the home of the Levys, a family of Jewish watchmakers, while the 1970s house holds the recent history of tailor George Saunders, who only moved out of his workshop in 2001.

The Back to Backs have a really personal connection to many of the people who visit, who grew up or worked in similar housing before it was pulled down in the cull of the 1960s and 70s.

Shows an aerial photograph looking down at a row of houses. These are the back to backs before the restoration began.

Before the restoration, the houses seemed insignificant. Courtesy Birmingham City Council.

Emma explains that the Birmingham Conservation Trust received hundreds of letters pleading for the preservation of the Back to Backs: “There was a huge feeling about keeping them – we responded to that.”

It was probably local support for the project that got the Back to Backs on to the Gulbenkian shortlist, believes Emma.

She enthuses about the volunteer tour guides, who take groups of eight round the renovated dwellings every 15 minutes. Aged from 16-years-old to 86, the guides lead everyone up and down the steep stairs and into the courtyard, where washing hangs, to see the communal wash house and lavatories.

“They make it for the visitors – about a third of them have lived in back to backs and they’ve got their own stories to tell. By the end of the tour all the visitors are sharing their stories… Grandparents are telling children about how they managed to wash without hot running water. It’s a very lively, buzzy kind of property!”

Shows a photograph of a man working in one of the back to backs. This is clearly an old picture and the man is holding a half-finished jacket, while in the background there are various items of clothing hanging up.

George Saunders, born in the West Indies, ran his tailoring business in the Back to Backs from 1977 to 2001. Courtesy National Trust.

The NT worked with the court’s former residents and the local community to find the appropriate contents. In 2004 the 24 Hour Museum reported on the search for glass eyes to complete the 1870s house of glass-eye maker Herbert Oldfield and Emma describes how more accurate prayer books have been donated by Jewish visitors for the Levy house’s table.

“It’s part of the changing perception of what a museum is,” says Emma, “a good example of shared ownership. It’s got quite a democratic feeling… It’s very interactive and immediate, too – visitors can sit on the furniture and touch the objects.”

Like many museums, the Back to Backs are run by a very small staff and a large number of volunteers, who can work towards tour guide qualifications with the experience.

shows a view through an archway towards one of the back yards

The courtyard was the focus of communal life - shared wash houses and outside lavatories. Courtesy National Trust.

Emma enthuses about what it would mean to win the Gulbenkian Prize: “We would be ecstatic – a huge effort has gone into bringing this project together, it’s been an incredible journey. We’ve been on a high since the opening, so it would be the icing on the cake.”

There are plenty of things the trust could do with the prize money, too, says Emma, giving an example: “It would be fantastic to do outreach for people who can’t visit the Back the Backs, that would be great.”

The 24 Hour Museum is conducting a poll to find out who our readers want to win the Gulbenkian Prize 2005.

To vote for the Back to Backs, click here.

Between now and March, we will have features on each of the shortlisted museums, so if you haven’t decided who to vote for yet, make sure to read all about it on 24 Hour Museum.

To find out more about the Gulbenkian Prize, click on this link to visit the website.

**Voting for the readers' poll has now closed**

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