Black Country Living Museum’s visitor centre wins architecture award

A image showing a view of the Black Country Living Museum from above
From a vantage point, the museum can be seen fully, complete with shops and visitors. Credit: Rosie Cowell

The Black Country Living Museum in Dudley has received an award from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) for their outstanding visitor centre.

It was awarded the 2024 RIBA West Midlands Award on May 10, alongside four other local projects celebrating modern and historic architecture before it goes to the national awards in July.

The museum consists of numerous restored buildings spanning 300 years of history with a particular focus on 1850 to 1950 and aims to celebrate the history of the Black Country.

The Black Country is an area of the West Midlands comprising the boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton and it is seen as one of the main origins of the Industrial Revolution. 

It was historically so named due to the smoke polluting the air from the ironworks in the region, though other theories suggest it is due to the ample supply of coal found there.

In 2022, a new visitor centre was designed by Napier Clarke Architects and was launched to act as a welcome point for up to 5,000 tourists a day where they can also visit the cafe and shop.

Fraser Bishop (21) from Oldbury in Sandwell visited the museum with his girlfriend.

He said: “I visited the visitor centre on the way in and out and the facilities were very good like the gift shop for example.

“I would say the award is deserved because all of the staff are really friendly and the actors are good at helping create the experience by being in character and it gives you a sense of going back in time.”

Fraser went on to say that the museum’s buildings and activities were a key part of his enjoyment as a visitor.

“There’s something for everyone there. It’s really accessible as you can go around at your own pace and just wander in and out of any of the buildings.

“There’s a good range from the school, the pub, the old sweet shop. Everywhere you look there’s just history.”

An image showing the doors of an old pub with the words wines and spirits.
Visitors are invited to enjoy some food or a relaxing drink at an old pub. Credit: Rosie Cowell

“The main standout part of the experience was going down the coal mines, which were really fun and safe.

“You learn a lot about people’s livelihoods and it’s an eye opening experience when you take into account how dark and difficult it would’ve been down there.

The celebration of the West Midlands’ culture and history was also important for Fraser.

“They do a great job of capturing the heritage of the area because the actors and actresses have local accents and there were cuttings of the Express and Star, the local paper. Also the use of the canal and the coal mining industry which are things people associate with the area

“Everywhere you look there are homages to it. It makes you proud to be from the area really. 

“There are definitely negative stereotypes around the accent so it’s nice to have somewhere that encourages local pride.”

Pedro González-Anta, known as Peter, is a 22-year-old from Barcelona, Spain who visited the museum.

He praised the overall experience of the museum and believes that their award win is well earned. 

He said: “I’m not surprised about the award as it really made me feel like I was in the early 20th Century from the staff to the architecture. Everything made me feel that way.

“As soon as you cross the entrance after the ticket checks, it’s like going back in time.

“I could see they were building new attractions such as a library which is brilliant as it’ll make me want to visit it again as soon as it’s finished.”

Coming from Spain, he had a unique perspective on the experience. He added: “Coming from Barcelona all the way to the Black Country, I’d say it’s definitely really good for the region as the region itself didn’t catch my attention but the museum did and made me want to visit there. 

“It helped me understand how The Black Country was back in the day and I probably wouldn’t have visited if it wasn’t for the museum

“I’d recommend it to people who enjoy history, especially British history. I did recommend it to my family, especially my parents who like learning about history. It’s a great option for a day out where you can learn more about the UK.”

Peter also enjoyed some of the activities from the past.“There were many that stood out but the best experience was going through the real mining tunnels, it was quite the experience.

“I also enjoyed watching the blacksmith showing how they used to make chains in the forge and explaining how they made the anchor chain for the Titanic, as well as the traditional fairground and a shopkeeper explaining how the prices and currencies have changed over the years for clothes and everyday items.”

“It is definitely good value as there were a few things I didn’t get to experience such as the cinema, the bus and traditional fish and chips but knowing that I can go back at any time during the year with a standard ticket is definitely a good thing”.

The award from the RIBA underpins how the effective architectural feats aid the museum in preserving and celebrating the unique and special heritage of the Black Country.

It is almost certainly worth a visit for those in the area and with the Spring Bank Holiday on May 27, it may be the perfect opportunity to dive into the rich history of the West Midlands.