‘It’s a joyful space’: National Trust tells story of Birmingham’s Windrush generation

Home from Home exhibition at Back to Backs recreates Caribbean households of 1970s

Gazing around a recreation of his childhood home in 1970s Birmingham, Mykal Brown said he was overcome by waves of nostalgia.

“It’s emotional for me because when I look at different things, I remember things,” said Brown, whose parents Erick and Vera (known as Miss Dotty) travelled to Handsworth in Birmingham from the Caribbean as part of the Windrush generation.

“Like, the Bible is on the table in the front room, and that’s because when we were excluded from the church we had prayer meetings in here.”

The room has been recreated in meticulous detail for a new exhibition at the Birmingham Back to Backs, a National Trust museum celebrating the lives of working people in the city.

The Back to Backs are a museum of working people’s lives recreated by the National Trust in a row of homes in Birmingham.
The Back to Backs are a museum of working people’s lives recreated by the National Trust in a row of homes in Birmingham. Photograph: Andrew Fox/The Guardian

The project, Home from Home, also features the Brown family’s back room, which acted as the headquarters of Birmingham’s Wassifa sound system, one of the longest running sound systems in the world, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

There is the handmade 200-watt electric amplifier with glass valves, a bespoke Wassifa sound box, trophies from cup dances and a huge record box containing everything from Jim Reeves to Bob Marley.

Brown said he hoped the room will help young people learn about traditional sound systems, and older people will enjoy the trip down memory lane.

“What we find is that a lot of people who have got Alzheimer’s or similar, they can use rooms like this for them to reminisce,” he said. “A lot of Caribbean people like music, a lot of people came up as singers or players of instruments, so we’ve got the background music and the sound system to help them reminisce on their story.”

The two rooms were recreated using Brown family objects, as well as donations from the local community and his own memories.

The National Trust’s Back to Backs in Birmingham.
The National Trust’s Back to Backs in Birmingham. Photograph: Andrew Fox/The Guardian

“It’s about keeping the legacy of how we lived going,” he said. “A lot of people thought we lived in squalor, because they called Handsworth the ghetto, but this replication shows how my family and a lot of other Caribbean families lived in the UK. And it was a good standard.”

Lucy Reid, the National Trust’s assistant director for the Midlands, said the exhibition was particularly relevant with the Commonwealth Games coming to the city next month, and would help enable conversations about the Commonwealth “in a way that feels right and relevant for Birmingham”.

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“The Back to Backs is about the lives of working people and it has also told the stories of different migrations to Birmingham over the centuries, and this is a new way of doing that,” she said.

“Although there are some difficult conversations that we need to have, there’s also deep joy and legacy here. I just think it’s a joyful space. We want people to come and sit and be in the space, and think about what home means, think about music.”

Brown said he was really pleased to be working with a major organisation like the National Trust on the project.

“What’s happening now, it’s not just a story that we talk about in our homes, it’s a story that the National Trust has taken on to put out there,” he said. “We exist in England, so I think we should tell our story.”


Jessica Murray Midlands correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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