The Black Country Living Museum is celebrating its 40th anniversary and plans for its future expansion.
Famed for its gas-lit cobbled streets and costumed characters it’s been telling the proud and distinctive story of the Black Country for 40 years. Visitors can experience the sounds and smells of the industrial revolution first-hand to learn how the area played a crucial role in the creation of the world we recognise today. They can wander through the canalside village and visit the houses and shops, take a ride on the tramway, go underground in the mines and sample the museum’s famous traditional fish and chips.
The museum is also excited about the future with a planned £23m investment in the “Forging Ahead” development, which will expand the site by up to a third and create 450 jobs. Taking place over the next four years, it will include the construction of a new 1940s to 60s town and visitor welcome centre.
Among those eagerly watching the progress of the project is former project manager Selwyn Owens, who was in charge of bringing history to life during almost three decades as the museum’s construction manager.
“Every building has a place in my heart,” says the 67-year-old who joined what was still a fledgling museum in 1987 and went on to mastermind many of the attraction’s most famous construction jobs.
This includes the entire 1930s-style Birmingham Road, which is one of the museum’s two main streets,the reconstruction of Cradley Heath’s Worker’s Institute, the Victorian St James’ School, which was originally in Salop Street, the Limelight cinema from Brierley Hill and the traditional sweet shop. Amongst the expansion plans is a replica of Wolverhampton’s Lea Road Infant Welfare Centre, which will be used to story of the formation of the NHS, as well as the relocation of Dudley’s Woodside Library to the museum.
This year marks 40 years since the museum first opened to visitors but the idea of an attraction dedicated to the Black Country was first mooted in 1950. Then in 1966 Dudley Council set up a ‘Black Country Museum’ section within its museum department. As the collection of items continued to grow so did public interest in having an attraction to showcase the area’s heritage. A proposal was put forward for an open-air museum where artefacts could be displayed in their true context. The Friends of The Black Country Living Museum group was founded in 1970 to help get the plans off the ground.
Work got under way and by May 1978 it was possible to hold a preview season to show how the museum might develop. It ran for just under five months and during that time 8,000 people visited to see the two bridges, a boat dock and a few boats, a bakehouse, an odd-work shop, a blacksmith’s shop, the rolling mill and the construction of the chapel, the anchor maker’s house and the chemist. There were also temporary exhibitions on mining, steam engines and a mock-up of a pub interior.
The museum continued to grow with the completion of the rest of the village and in 1980 the tramway system was installed to transport visitors the half mile or so to the canal arm. By 1985 visitor numbers had grown to 250,000 a year and in 1990 the underground mining display opened. A £10 million development of the 1930s high street, Old Birmingham Road followed in 2010.
Now the museum welcomes more than 350,000 visitors a year and the museum is supported by an army of around 50 volunteers.