Hidden Treasure Trail 5 - The People's Museum In The Midlands

By Caroline Lewis | 15 May 2006
People's Museum logo

Welcome to the Hidden Treasure Trails on the Culture24, exploring the hidden treasures of the People’s Museum.

The BBC2 series People’s Museum explores the most fascinating objects on show at museums all over the country and asks the viewer to vote for their favourites - what they would put on display in a museum. A masterful portrait, a scientific first, or perhaps a touching journal? It's up to the people!

The test Supermarine Spitfire from Birmingham's Thinktank centre has already made it into the People's Museum. The Spitfire is arguably the most famous fighter aircraft of the Second World War and helped to win the Battle of Britain in 1940 and save the country from the threat of invasion.

photo of a test version of the world war two spitfire fighter plane

A test version of the iconic Supermarine Spitfire

Culture24 is revisiting the featured venues and more, taking another look at at some of the amazing artefacts also featured in the People's Museum programme.

We have arranged them into region-by-region trails. Read on to discover some of the Midland’s rich collections and surprising finds – we hope it inspires you to get out there and visit them for yourself.

Transport enthusiasts can see one of the oldest British cars and compare it with the 763 mph land speed record holder at the Coventry Transport Museum or step back into the 1920s with Thinktank’s Birmingham tram.

The region’s manufacturing heritage can be explored at Black Country Living Museum – what about a hollow-ware spittoon or cast iron chipper for starters?

Blists Hill at Ironbrige Gorge lets you literally walk into a Victorian town, and you can find out how a simple sewing machine changed the lives of thousands of women.

black and white photo of a decorative moulded object with a hole in the middle
Find out what this intriguing exhibit from the Black Country Living Museum is in this trail! Courtesy Black Country Living Museum

Coventry Transport Museum has the largest collection of British cars, motorcycles and bicycles in the world with exhibits from their very early days right up to the most modern vehicles. The early hobby horse bicycle is the museum's nomination for the People's Museum.

Its 1897 Daimler Wagonette is one of the oldest surviving British cars, made in Coventry, with a top speed of 15-20mph and a contemporary price tag of £325. With tiller steering, rubber tyres and headlights powered by candles, this was cutting edge technology at the time.

photo of a streamlined vehicle with a sharp nose and two large engines
Land speed record holder Thrust SSC (taking it easy these days). Courtesy Coventry Transport Museum

Thrust SSC, the current land speed record holder, shows how far motor technology has come, and was clocked at 763mph when it claimed the record in October 1997. It has the power of 145 Formula One cars and can go faster than a jumbo jet!

The museum is also home to several well-known royal cars, like the Mini Metro that Lady Diana was famously snapped in during her engagement to Prince Charles, Queen Mary’s 1935 Daimler and King George VI’s Laundelette, used on all major state occasions between 1947 and 1949.

Coventry may have the current land speed record holder but a vehicle that held the title in a different era can be found at science museum Thinktank over in Birmingham. The Reid Railton-designed car clocked 394mph in 1947 and was powered by two bomber aircraft engines, one each for the front and rear wheels.

photo of a double decker tram
The last Birmingham tram in service, built in 1912 and finally withdrawn in 1950. © Thiktank

A more utilitarian form of transport can also be found there - the once iconic Birmingham tram. There were 843 trams in their 1920s heyday and the tram on display was the last in service, built in 1912 and finally withdrawn in 1950.

Birmingham’s industrial heritage is demonstrated with the museum’s button shank-making machine. Machines like this one, which could produce 750,000 shanks (the metal pieces that fastened buttons to clothes) a day, fuelled Victorian Britain’s industrial dominance. The machine, patented in 1794, was one of the first powered machines designed to make a specific product.

engraving of an engineering system in a cross section of a building
The Newcomen engine. Courtesy the Black Country Living Museum

The Black Country Living Museum also has many reminders of the region’s important role in the early days of the industrial revolution. Here you can see the Stour canal boat, up for nomination to the People's Museum, and Thomas Barney’s engraving of the groundbreaking Thomas Newcomen engine, built near Dudley Castle in Staffordshire in 1712.

Newcomen’s engine used atmospheric pressure, rather than steam, to pump water and was used to drain mines and transport water to waterwheels.

The museum has many other examples of items made locally during Britain’s manufacturing boom, including such disparate exhibits as a tinned hollow-ware spittoon from the 1890s (pictured top) and a 1930s cast iron chipper.

photo of a Victorian manual sewing machine
A Singer sewing machine. Courtesy Blists Hill

The Blists Hill site at Ironbridge Gorge recreates a Victorian town, showing how normal people lived and worked in the 19th century. It contains a wealth of period objects within its faithfully recreated houses, shops and workshops. Its Abraham Darby cooking pot is one of the nominees for inclusion in the People's Museum.

The domestic sewing machine developed by Isaac Merritt Singer allowed Victorian seamstresses to complete their work much more quickly and increase their earning potential.

At the same time, the system of sewing machine hire purchase could lead to debt and a cycle of poverty. Although seamstresses were no longer working shifts of more than 16 hours, a 12-hour day was not uncommon.

photo of a decorated ceramic jug
Randall ewer and stand. Courtesy Blists Hill

As sewing machines became more advanced, they allowed some of the fashionable frills and extravagances of Victorian fashion to develop and paved the way for the adoption of mass fashion.

Another example of Victorian design is the ornately decorated ewer and stand made by leading china painter John Randall in the mid 1870s, a reminder of the Black Country’s long association with pottery.

Its turquoise ‘bleu celeste’ colour was perfected at the Coalport factory in 1849. It was developed in emulation of the striking colours originally used at the French Sevres factory and Coalport was the first British factory to successfully replicate them.

More museums and more fascinating objects to be found in the Midlands...

Many of the West Midland’s other museums focus on its industrial heritage. Ironbridge Gorge, already mentioned in this trail, has a whole cluster of museums and heritage attractions marking its importance in the history of the industrial revolution.

The Guildhall in Leicester dates from an earlier age – it is one of the best-preserved timber-framed buildings in the country, built in 1390.

New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, also in Leicester, is one of the region’s best, with collections spanning natural history and world cultures.

Click here to go to the BBC People's Museum website and find out more about the featured objects.

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The Hidden Treasure Trails have been produced for The Campaign for Museums by Culture24 with support from the Foyle Foundation.