The Birmingham Lunar Society and attitudes to slavery in the eighteenth century – a more inclusive and engaging Birmingham history

What’s next after “Watt’s Next?”            October 2021

Notes on ways forward following the Watt’s Next event, delivered as part of Birmingham Heritage Week on Saturday 18th September 2021. The inspiration for the Watt’s Next study day was the work of Legacy West Midlands heritage walking tours, particularly ‘Roots, Rights and Resistance’, which examines more challenging aspects of Handsworth’s history. The work of the Black Heritage Walks Network has also been a key influence, which looks at celebrating influential black figures, and giving them rightful prominence during heritage walks. The work of BRIG (Birmingham Race Impact Group) has also been an important inspiration for the study day, and it is hoped that the session was the beginning of a broader conversation about Birmingham heritage. 

The study day looked at the links between the Lunar Society and slavery in the eighteenth century, but also discussed wider issues regarding how inclusive Birmingham’s heritage offer currently is, and the next steps in order to move forward in a positive way. 

Before the study day: a pre-planning meeting took place to examine key themes for the day. The meeting was attended by Dawn Carr, Marcia Dunkley, Raj Pal, Nathaniel Coleman and Malcolm Dick. Although Rachel Gartside from SAMPAD Arts was not able to attend, she submitted her some notes on the session, which informed the direction of the meeting. 

Points raised during the pre-planning meeting included:                                                                                    – The study day should not pre-empt any conclusions of the day, and the direction of the discussion should be dictated by participants.                                                                                       – The connection of some members of the Lunar Society with slavery should be set within the context of the eighteenth century.                                                                                                               – There should be acknowledgment of difficult aspects of Birmingham’s history, along with the amplification of migrants’ stories from across the world whose history has been marginalised up until now.                                                                                                                                                 – Removal of pieces of art from public display may be a possible consequence of an open discussion regarding Birmingham’s history                                                                                           – We should be careful that though these discussions, one particular narrow version of history does not replace another narrow version of history.                      

The structure of the study day: The study day’s structure looked at the past, present and future of Birmingham arts and heritage offer. The schedule of the day is included overleaf:                                                                                                                            

10.00 – 10.30: Refreshments                                                                                                                           10.30 – 10.45: Welcome, housekeeping, overview of day Dawn Carr                                                        10.45 – 11.30: Raj Pal overview of Birmingham’s history and links to slavery and empire            11.30 – 11.45: Break                                                                                                                                                   11.45 – 12.45: Lunar Links to slavery tour around Soho House Rachel West                                               12.45 – 13.15: Lunch                                                                                                                                                       13.15 – 13.45: Discussion                                                                                                                                       13.45 – 14.30: Marlene Smith                                                                                                                                  14.30 – 15.15: Don’t Settle- Amirah Harvey Head and Tia Horton                                                                 15.15 – 15.45: Discussion                                                                                                                                 15.45 – 16.00: Closing remarks

Following an introduction by Dawn Carr, a member of Black Heritage Walks Network, Raj Pal set the context for the study day, showing that developing a more nuanced understanding of Birmingham history does not diminish it, but rather enriches it, and makes it more inclusive and welcoming to all. Rachel West delivered a guided tour around Soho House which looked at different members of the Lunar Society, showing the wide range of attitudes to slavery which were included in the group. After lunch, Marlene Smith, the noted Birmingham artist, discussed her work and inspiration. The final part of the day included a discussion with Amirah Harvey Head and Tia Horton, which included their experiences of being taught history, and their experience of Birmingham’s cultural offer. 

What’s Next? Following a positive and constructive day, it was agreed that there was much more to do to achieve a more inclusive and open heritage offer in the city. All participants during the day agreed that they wished to be included in future planning to make this inclusive vision a reality. 

Short term: Pogus Caesar to deliver a further study day focussing on his photography (possible date 26th October)

Short term: Black Heritage Walks Network to deliver a programme of Roots, Rights and Resistance walks, also to receive training to deliver the Lunar Links walking tour

Short term: Black Heritage Walks Network to deliver a Gun Quarter walk for Raj Pal and any other interested participants

Short/Medium term: Black Heritage Walks Network to set date for consultation on the Underground Railroad project. Possibly to be delivered at Soho House. 

Short / Medium term: Marlene Smith to liaise with Black Heritage Walks Network regarding a further project

Medium/Long term: Modern day Lunar Society and Legacy WM/Black Heritage Walks Network to liaise regarding a Commonwealth Games project. 

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