A Week In Necropolis – lessons learnt from the dead
My name is Elli Szarka and and today is the last of 5 days I have spent working with the Birmingham Conservation Trust as part of my post-GCSE work experience, just as everyone was getting even more caught up in the restoration of the Newman Brothers Coffin-fitting Works on Fleet Street in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.
It isn’t something you think about so often when you’re visiting what a conservationist might call ‘the finished product’. In my short lifetime I’ve spent what I’m pretty sure is an unusual amount of time in old houses, with their richly coloured carpets and sumptuous artwork (and comfortable lack of health and safety risks); those kinds of places feel so alive, buzzing with human activity and hidden but ever-imposing modern technology, you forget that almost everything we know about them, what they looked like and what life was like for the people living in them, came from records left behind by people who are now dead.
But when you’re watching the restoration of a coffin works – despite the fact that the building itself looks like so many others in the Jewellery Quarter, and most of the machines they used and skills they practiced weren’t unique to the production of coffin fittings that thought spends a lot of time at the forefront of your mind.
Not that Newman Brothers is anything like a graveyard. I’ve told people I spent a week working on site at an old coffin works and they seem almost taken aback, but despite the ever-present connotation of death that comes with the place, it’s a hive of activity – even before its open to visitors, it’s alive just like the old houses are but in a different way. It’s full of people working hard towards a common goal, people who are all passionate about what they do, and I can’t help but hope it stays that way for a long time. It really has been lovely to get to spend time there, and I’ve learnt a lot, about a great many more things than I thought I would.
One of the skills I’ve definitely honed over the course of the week is the art of listening. That’s not saying I previously lacked the concentration to carry even a simple conversation, but I feel as if I’ve learnt just as much this week from listening to the experiences and aspirations of the people I’ve been working with on even the most mundane of tasks, as I have on guided tours of working factories like Toye & Co., seeing the same dusty machines that are hidden away in dark rooms at Newman Bros. come to life. I even picked up a few things from conversations I wasn’t actually part of, though I suppose that’s why they call is ‘shadowing’.
It’s been so interesting, as well, to really get a good look at the ins and outs of not only restoring and revamping a historical site, but also opening a public attraction, like the intricacies of sign placement and picking out what to put into your gift shop and the collaboration and community attitude it takes to work with and around each other as best you can. It’s given me an insight into the wealth of careers available in the field of history and restoration. For years I’ve been visiting historical sites on family days out, so I’ve always been interested in them; standing in a place, surrounded by a modern world, yet still able to catch glimpses into the past and echoes of centuries-old whispers in back corridors. It’s a connection you make, but that’s even more prominent in a place that’s not quite open to the public yet, where nothing’s cordoned off, and you have a chance to stop for a second and properly feel all that history around you. If there is something that eventually calls me back to this line of work, it would be that. That feeling.
This whole experience has been eye-opening. It’s shown me the true extent to which social media can be invaluable to promoting yourself as a worker and any projects you’re working on; I’ve tried to get very involved in the Coffin Works’ twitter network, and I’ll be sure to keep checking this blog to keep up to date with everything and everyone.
The Jewellery Quarter is full of historic gems, hidden underground or behind factory walls and I’m thankful that I’ve been given the opportunity to explore some of them, because I know it’s changed my outlook on my hometown – it’s changed how much I value and take pride in its history. What’s also great is that I got to spend even a little time this summer doing some actual good. I’ve learnt so much from everyone I’ve been working with this week, I’m so grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve been given. Everyone’s been so wonderful, and I can only hope I’ve given just as much back to them as I’ve gained and I can’t wait to get involved again as soon as I can.