Above: The Argent Center, location of the Pen Museum, photo credit: Oosoom
I used to run a gallery in the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, UK (Brum for short), and as part of my programming I wanted to highlight some of the local stories from the area - as it was so rich in history. My gallery, TROVE, was where metal plating was invented and the Elkington Metal Plating Factory was, and I curated exhibitions that often featured metal or some of the stories from the time that Birmingham was a thriving city of industry. Namely a story that jewellery factories when they were being sold would sell their floor separately to the building as they would often be worth more. This was due to all the metal dust in the floorboards that could be burnt and the metal reclaimed. I worked with an artist, Vicky Cull, who once covered my gallery floor in five kilos of silver glitter, hoping that the same would happen, that silver dust would seep into the creases of the building.
One of the other great stories of the Jewellery Quarter was that of the pen manufacturing history, which I got to discover at The Pen Museum round the corner from TROVE.
In the 19th Century if you were writing with a pen nib, the chances were it was made in Birmingham, UK, the city of a thousand trades. At the time Birmingham had approximately 100 companies in the city that made pens and pioneered many of the processes in their manufacturing.
What made these 100 companies even more interesting to me is that all the operatives in the factories were women. This was very unusual at the time, to have an industry with mainly female operatives, with each woman (approximately 8000 women workers) having to ‘punch’ 18,000 pens a day - that was the worldwide demand.
The Pen Museum can be found at The Albert Works, the site of an actual pen factory in the Jewellery Quarter of ‘Brum’ that was constructed in 1863 to manufacture gold pen nibs.
“The building is a Lombardic renaissance Italian style building built in 1863 as a pen factory. Originally called the Albert works, a sister factory the Victoria works was across the road. When the silversmiths came into the area it became the Argent Centre.”
The mass produced, fairly cheap to buy pens meant that the world began to have easier access to learning to read and write. This pen movement helped education and literacy around the world thrive, all because of these women.
A lot of this research is thanks to Brian Jones MBE (1936 - 2014). He was a keen historian, pen enthusiast (editor of ‘People, Pens and Production’ a definitive take of Birmingham’s Steel Pen Trade) and he spearheaded the establishment of The Pen Museum as well as continued to volunteer there after it had been set up in 2001 with the help of fellow enthusiasts (Larry Hanks, Colin Giles and Ray Handley).
In the words of the Museum, “The Pen Museum promotes and preserves the important legacy of Birmingham’s pen trade.”
Since I used to visit it back in the early 2000’s it has now expanded into three galleries that accommodate the extensive and unique collection of pens, nibs, machinery and artefacts related to the pen trade. And you can also have a go at punching your own nib!
“The Museum’s exhibition displays are complemented by trails, videos and interactive equipment that help bring to life the history of one of Birmingham’s most famous industries and to narrate the lives of entrepreneurs, manufacturers and workers whose expertise placed Birmingham at the centre of this worldwide trade.”
Sadly by the late 19th Century only 12 pen factories remained thanks to Laslo Biro's ballpoint pen invention in 1938. However, Brum never forgot it’s importance in the writing movement and celebrates now with the wonderfully enchanting The Pen Museum.
Argent Centre - 60 Frederick Street - Birmingham - B1 3HS
PRICES - INDIVIDUAL
Adult + Donation: £7.70
Concession + Donation [Adults 65+]: £6.05
Concession [Adults 65+]: £5.50
Students + Donation: £6.05
Child + Donation [5 to 15]: £3.30
Child [5-15]: £3.00
Child (under 5): FREE
Essential Carer: FREE
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An independent Curator and Artistic Director, Charlie Levine works between the West Midlands, London and Mumbai. She obtained an MA in Critical and Contextual Art Practices from Birmingham City University (2006) and started her curatorial career as founder and curator of TROVE, an independent art gallery in Birmingham (2009 to 2013). She has since worked on projects with British Museum, Historic England, Crafts Council, Roundhouse, British Library, Central Saint Martins, UCL Culture, Government Art Collection, ITV, Camden Arts Centre, Artangel, National Portrait Gallery, Wellcome Collection, Sluice__ and RIBA
Key current projects: Director of Welcome to Ladyland; Artistic Director of The Show Windows, a public realm project for Coventry City of Culture and Coventry BID; Co-Director and co-founder of SqW:Lab, an international fellowship for creatives in Mumbai; Curator of St. Pancras Wires, a new public art project in St. Pancras Station.