‘I started working at Moseley Road in 1970 and people were queuing up on a Saturday to use the slipper baths; we could do 400 customers on a Saturday, 150 on a Sunday.’
Gerard Whittle in S Beauchampé Pool of Memories, Birmingham, 2013.
The slipper baths are redundant in their stalls, unused for over ten years. Upended and emptied of their busy Saturdays past, yet the floor is carefully swept and shelves dusted. The baths are not yet a ruin, they remain caretakered by their community. Still-lives populate the stalls: a collection of books on water; small bottles; absences and cracked windows. Bloomed, decaying, reflecting the painfully uncertain future of this civic architectural wonder. Walk in and you cannot ignore the significance of curating Sharrocks’ ‘Museum of Water’ in this site. The Museum is formed by a collection of publicly donated water, that focuses the visitor into a series of narratives about scarcity and generosity, meshed together in the contents of the bottles is the fragility and resilience of human life.
Placed in the narrow corridors between the booths are a series of wooden display cabinets. They are softly lit containing the bottles and their complex web of stories. A child’s sparkling toy fish nestles on a bed of shells in a bottle labelled ‘Lili seawater’ placed next to a small vial that contains water ‘taken from my mothers garden in Wales’. Water is preserved and labelled in inventive and hasty containers: jam jars, specimen bottles, plastic drinks containers. Bottles that glitter, placed next to ones that are sombre; marking legacies of overcoming unimaginable grief. The Museum communicates its stories to you readily through its custodians. Through conversation they recount the moments that form the stories in the bottles, take donations and record the stories. Conversations with visitors drift communally, from the loan of a watercolour palette, the gathering of Rosewater and collection of water from the miraculous Zamzam well.
On Saturday afternoon a small girl has come in with her mother and is shyly explaining to a custodian that she has brought them water from a puddle that she loves to jump in. Her face is alive with the joy that you have when your desire to contribute creatively becomes a reality. She radiates an inner confidence that her story will be transcribed and preserved, becoming part of a wider recognised collection. Here the traditional barriers between the impervious formality of the museum collection and the passivity of the viewer are inverted, highlighting the donation as an act of exchange and live art. The community that exists around Moseley Road Baths has become an active contributor to the Museum of Water, igniting the space and placing you in a position where you cannot help to wonder why this does not happen everyday. Places for exchange, to offer gifts and conversation exist rarely. It is vital that we do not let them go the way of much public space when they have such a vast potential to contribute to the texture of our lives.