Established for over 20 years the site is reaching a degree of maturity, although continually developing. Uniquely the 26 acre site contains a well preserved bank of lime kilns and has wharves on the local the canal network which served the Earl of Dudley's lime pits by tunnel to nearby Wren's Nest, as well as the local underground workings of Castle Hill. The canal is on the north of the site, it was originally Lord Ward's Canal, and eventually was extended via the Dudley tunnel to connect up with the Dudley (No1) Canal south of Dudley. It provided lime to the Iron works leased from the Dudley Estate, and other works around Pensnett, Netherton and Brierly Hill, and Stourbridge, as well as connecting the northern areas of the Black Country with the Stour Valley. The estate had a near monopoly in supplying limestone to the blast furnaces in the region, controlled from this lime works.
Site of the Black Country Museum 1901 1:2500 OS map
Many disused mine shafts from coal, ironstone and lime workings are known to have existed on the site, and some are shown on the above map as well as the remains of tramways, and rail links to the Earl of Dudley's Castle Mill works, (top left). This workshop was the engineering works for the whole estate, and undertook the construction and repair of steam engines, locomotives, mining machinery, in fact all the equipment required by the Dudley Estate. It had been built to replace its forerunner the "Level Yard" which had become part of the Round Oak Iron Works. The timber yard alongside the railway produced the pit-head gear and pit props etc. for the collieries on the estate.
These three works, Lime, Engineering & Timber, helped to make the estate self-sufficient and its tenants were often contracted to take estate coal, lime and other consumables for their Ironworks & Collieries. As a consequence the wharves on the site would have been in constant use.
Around the beginning of the 20th century the lime workings were becoming exhausted and production had ceased at Wrens Nest by 1924, the Lime Works went into disuse and were covered over and the majority of the museum site became a sewage works.
Close by other areas of land, particularly the "Worcestershire County Cricket Ground" were abandoned because of subsidence and are only now beginning to be re-used after years of work trying to stabilise and consolidate the ground, with millions of tons of concrete grouting being pumped into underground workings.
So the site for the Museum is particularly apt because of its past history, close proximity to the historic castle and the links with the Earl of Dudley,
The Museum tells us in its literature that it "creates a living tribute to the enterprise of the people of the Black Country". This is brought about in a number of ways. Primarily by the relocation of typical regional buildings and artifact, reconstructed in a way that purports to represent a cross section of the regions history, This has been carried out well except a Village would not have been sited between the canal and the canal arm to the lime kilns.
A second type of tribute to the past is the Castlefields Iron Co, Racecourse Colliery and the Newcomen engine, and these need to work in a very different way. The Iron works when working provides an invaluable insight 'into the way people worked little changed for most of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. The Colliery is more problematic, the pit-head gear looks authentic in appearance, but its context is very false, the mine entrance and tour fools only a few. For very little cost, but with a lot more imagination a far more impressive mine tour could be devised. The Newcomen engine has brought new insights into the early development of the steam engine. By building a full-scale replica much valuable knowledge has been acquired of the skills and techniques that were in use at the beginning of the 18th century. The engine is a particularly apt feature as it is a replica the original 1712 Newcomen Engine, which was located at Lord Ward's Coneygree Coal Works less than 1/2 a mile away
Finally to bring the whole village to life period costumed staff re-enact a lifestyle of the past, unfortunately what cannot be shown, due to staffing levels, is the true number of people who would have been working and living in these buildings.
The Museum uses the famous quotation from Elihu Burritt "The Black Country, black by day, and red by night, cannot be matched for vast and varied production by any other space of equal radius on the surface of the globe". However more importantly in the same book "Walks in the Black Country and its Green Borderland" Burritt gives us important descriptions of the working conditions in the region, particularly the families of nail makers, often the husband working as a collier, the wife and daughters making hand made nails, four to a hearth, or the women in the brickyards with teenage and younger girls fetching the raw materials and taking the formed brick to the drying floors. None of this is shown but perhaps a brickyard could be reconstructed and children (or adults) could make hand-made bricks with help and supervision. Brick making was always a major industry in the Black Country and continues today. Unfortunately the "Health & Safety Executive" would probably veto children trying their hand at making hand-made nails, or chain making.
The Black Country Museum is on one site and comparisons can be made with Blists Hill, However Blists Hill is part of a group of Museums, which together provide a far greater understanding of early industry, & the Ironbridge Gorge and its surroundings. In comparison the Black Country Museum should be providing a far broader overview of the Black Country in a number of ways.
First by the reconstruction and restoration projects - these it has undertaken well, except perhaps the village should not have been located between the canal and the former lime works arm of Lord Ward's canal. This is a an extremely unlikely setting for a village, if it had been built surrounding "Racecourse Colliery" that would have been an extremely authentic representation of the region. Blists Hill is far better laid out.
Secondly by providing an overview of the historical development of the area, this is handled extremely poorly, and the resources and research required would only require a small budget.
Thirdly by relating the museum to the existing landscape of the region. Apart from a very small offshoot of the museum, the Mushroom Green Chain makers shop, which is only open one Sunday each month over the summer, nothing else is put forward by the Museum. However the local authority, Dudley Metropolitan Borough, has provided money to improve attractions and facilities, particularly by opening up the canal tunnels to a greater number of visitors by funding the construction of a gyratory relief route. In addition they are marketing the Museum as part of a package of attractions in Dudley, along with the Castle and Zoo, under the title of "Black Country World".
The Museum is fulfilling its stated function of portraying the past, but primarily by operating as a theme park, rather than a museum continuing to develop a greater and evolving understanding of the region. As such it is mainly seen as popular entertainment as opposed to being historically accurate, although fortunately not as inaccurately as the Model T Ford or the Victorian "Digital photographic studio" currently to be found at the Victorian Village at Blists Hill.
The logical development would be to evolve a way of showing a far broader overview of the industrial and social development of the region, from the early industrialisation of the region in the 17th century to the present day. This would provide additional exhibits and displays to complement what already exist at the museum site. But perhaps more importantly the museum should make an effort to forge links with the community, and also encourage its visitors to visit others sites in the Black Country.
Only two miles away a new visitor's centre at Bumble Hole has just opened, manned by local volunteers, and operating on minimal funds, The museum could forge links with this centre at almost no cost, to the mutual benefit of both. Canal boat trips could be run from the museum through either the Dudley or Netherton tunnels to visit the centre and interpret the landscape South of Dudley, and many people would have an extremely enjoyable day out, while making money for the museum. But this should be the first of many new links with the community,
To conclude the Museum needs to radically rethink its purpose and direction, be far more accessible at different levels and become a true Museum and archive of the region.
These are my own personal views of a museum, which I feel lost its way a few years ago.
However more recently the Museum has begun a new program
of construction based around the rebuilding of Smethwich Rolfe Street
Baths at the site, this will provide new facilities which may well address
many of my criticism. (2000).