Past meets future at Newhall Square

Birmingham’s former Science Museum may have been demolished but its legacy will live on, thanks to a ground-breaking public arts programme.

The former museum, on Newhall Street, is to be transformed into a mixed-used scheme, called Newhall Square, by property developer RO St Bernards. The scheme will comprise 235 new apartments, shops, cafes, bars, offices and galleries set around a new public square. On acquiring the site from Birmingham City Council, RO St Bernards discovered the fondness the people of the city had for the museum, and has pledged more than £100,000 to fund a project designed at researching, salvaging and documenting the site’s heritage.

Lawrence Parnell, managing director of RO St Bernards, said: “Despite the fact that the site had been mothballed for more than six years when we acquired it, we found that there is a huge affection for the old museum. Many people grew up with it; it is part of their childhood. We therefore decided that we would do what we could to preserve its memory.” To kick-start the initiative, the developer has commissioned five artists to celebrate the former Science Museum in words, pictures, film and on-line. Alistair Grant, a Birmingham-born poet and sculptor has worked with conceptual artist Stuart Mugridge to salvage and document more than 2,000 items – from health and safety signs to abandoned filing cabinets – left behind following the re-location of the Museum to Think Tank. Japanese artist Reiko Aoyagi has been commissioned to design a permanent external lighting installation that will illuminate the main façade in Newhall Street and the proposed public square at the heart of the scheme.

Photographer Michael Collins has taken pictures of the original nineteenth-century Elkington Works, the company that pioneered the development of mass-produced electroplated goods. Ravi Deepres, who has an international reputation for his film photographic and digital media work, was commissioned to produce a film chronicling the site’s transformation from dereliction, through to demolition and the start of construction. To direct the programme, RO St Bernards has joined forces with Amanda Harmer of Newhall Square architects Associated Architects, Julie Sneddon Jones of arts consultancy Artmatters and Neville Topping of surveyors Elias Topping. Together, they have set up a non-profit making organisation called the Museum of Lost Heritage (MoLH). The organisation has already been successful in attracting £40,000 of funding from the Arts Council and Birmingham City Council, and is planning further grant applications to boost its coffers. This will allow MoLH to appoint up to 12 new artists to work on the programme across the four year build-cycle of Newhall Square. Lawrence Parnell said: “One of the conditions of Newhall Square’s planning permission was that we set aside a budget for public art within the scheme. But rather than commissioning a single piece of art, which many developers do, we decided on this more innovative approach. “From the outset, we’ve been keen to make sure as much as possible of the unique site’s culture and history has been maintained.”