We are lucky at Birmingham Museums to have hundreds of volunteers support us each year. By the end of 2014 we will have had the help of over 600 volunteers! As the Volunteer Development Officer I feel incredibly lucky to work with such talented people and as an organisation we are so grateful for the generosity of our volunteer team!
Some volunteers join us for a day, like our fantastic Experts who run our Meet the Expert Days at Thinktank, inspiring the scientists of the future. Others are with us each week running guided tours, documenting our collections, working on conservation projects and much much more. You can read about many of our volunteers’ personal experiences through this blog.
So it was a real pleasure for us to host over 100 of our volunteers on 10th December at our annual Thank You party.
This year the event took place in our newly refurbished Edwardian Tea rooms at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. For us, this event is a chance for us to thank our team for all that they have done over the course of the year, but also a lovely opportunity to bring together volunteers from across all nine of our museums.
We had some lovely speeches of thanks from Ellen McAdam, Director of Birmingham Museums and Simon Cane, Deputy Director, and a fantastic team of 15 members of staff volunteered to make sure our team were well looked after!
This year we had a photo booth (with plenty of fancy dress options) and asked our team to tell us why they volunteer. The results were heart warming and are a true demonstration of the passion and enthusiasm in our volunteer team!
Our goal for this event was to make sure every single one of our volunteers was thanked and understood how much they are valued within the organisation. So this blog post is for the members of the team who were unable to make the party.
You are part of the life and soul of Birmingham Museums and we are so grateful for your time. We hope that you enjoy volunteering with us as much as we enjoy having you.
We also created a Thank You Board with messages from staff across the organisation who could not join us on the night. There are so many people at Birmingham Museums who wanted to thank the volunteer team who have made so much possible for us over the course of 2014.
So, to all our wonderful volunteers – thank you for everything you do for us and we look forward to 2015 with you all.
Volunteer Development Officer
In July 2014, two volunteers were recruited for an exciting summer project at Birmingham Museums Trust. The aim of the project was two-fold: to reorganise the hard-copy documentation system of Birmingham’s Science & Industry loans collection, and to begin the process of improving the digital documentation of the science & industry permanent collection (via the museum’s digital collections database).
Helen Scadeng and Matt Sharman, both with backgrounds in research, volunteered their time to carry out the project. After only two short summer months, Helen and Matt not only fulfilled the aims of the project but they exceeded the project milestones with speedy gusto and enthusiasm!
Based at Thinktank Science Museum and each working one day a week, Matt and Helen completed the reorganisation of the hard-copy documentation system ahead of schedule. Despite working on separate days, together they were able to successfully refile the hardcopy entries of over 100 loan objects – a huge achievement when working as a ‘remote’ team!
Ahead of schedule, they were then able to start improving the digital records of the permanent science & industry collection. Collating information and images of 70 objects, this is the single largest project to improve the digital records of the science & industry collections in over a decade. But Helen and Matt didn’t stop there, they delved into further research of the objects, and found out some weird and wonderful facts in the process! For example, Helen uncovered a ‘six-degrees-of-separation’ between a bust of the renowned inventor William Murdock and the famous landscape artist David Cox. The Murdock bust was gifted to the museum by prominent Birmingham businessman George Everitt (the Director of a Smethwick engineering firm). George Everitt’s cousin was the artist Allen Edward Everitt, who was schooled by David Cox!
In September, we were incredibly pleased to hear that Matt had been offered a full-time position in a local authority Archives Service, but were very sad to see him go! At the same time, despite the completion of the summer documentation project, Helen decided to single-handedly extend the life of the project and to expand its scope to a greater level of research on specific collection areas – and this was all despite the fact that Helen was also just about to complete and submit her postgraduate thesis!!
A HUGE thank you to both Matt and Helen for their enthusiasm, their skills and their sheer hard work over the summer. And since September, a MASSIVE thank you to Helen for continuing to research the collection and for uncovering some fascinating histories. I’m looking forward to continuing to work with Helen on some exciting curatorial projects planned for the coming months!
Science & Industry Curator
Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He walked them up to the top of the hill,
And he walked them down again.
And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half way up,
They were neither up nor down.
Just like the grand old Duke and his men, we all face our ups and downs in life. Now unlike the Duke and his men, I rarely get to enjoy the middle ground, instead I have the unenviable ability to sublimate directly from high to low and back again in a heartbeat, completely skipping out the wonderful moment of being centred and experiencing serenity, harmony and tranquillity. So I was intrigued to explore how our very own, 2014 West Midlands Open, artists handled their own personal highs and lows and how they balanced them whilst creating their various works.
Robert Neil indulged my intrigue by meeting up with me to discuss his entry for the 2014 WMO ‘John’ and some of his other inspirational works.
Robert is an inspiration in himself, he comes across as a very pragmatic and rational soul who radiates confidence and belief in himself but in an extremely demure, charismatic, convivial and natural way; and this is reflected in his approach to his art.
Robert explains that his own journey of creating art has been one of growing confidence and comprehension in his work. Initially Robert found that he would accept more of his work because it was nice rather than right, but as his confidence and capabilities grew, he found he was able to sacrifice works that were not quite right for him. Robert admits that at the start it was difficult to make these sacrifices but goes on to enlighten me that his growing confidence enabled him to appreciate when to stop, when to go back and when to ‘scrap.’ Robert kindly laughs in endorsement of my paraphrasing him when I say, ‘so it’s like when you are less experienced; you don’t know what you don’t know.’ ‘Yes’ he retorts, ‘You have to forget about moments that have not gone right.’ ‘I used to get frustrated when things were not going to plan but now I am more confident to turn it against the wall and come back to it.’ I am intrigued and ask Robert if he literally ‘turns his art against the wall’? ‘Yes.’ He says. ‘I really do turn it against the wall. Actually, I now prefer to turn it upside down to get a different perspective, I can still see the general composition but not the detail, that way I can look at it as a whole and focus on the overall colour, texture and balance.’
Conrad Pack (‘9 collages’) agrees, ‘If I get stuck on a piece I just walk away, I will leave it alone and go and read.’ ‘It makes it worse if you keep on trying. Leave it and come back to it, then it will come around naturally.’ Conrad continues in his astuteness ‘Don’t stress if it goes wrong, if you do it all goes to pot!’ ‘You can get lost in your own anger and it becomes a vicious circle if you keep on trying.’ Conrad explains that he doesn’t work on just one piece at a time so if one piece is not working he leaves it and works on something else. That way he gets inspiration to perceive a different direction or angle to take and returns to it.
Enlightening me with her own personal outlook, Barbara Gibson (‘Streets of my City #1’) divulges, ‘What frustrates me the most is when I see others copying my work or ideas. It has happened to me a few times and it was not actually something I enjoyed.’ However Barbara still manages to find consolation in this. ‘It is not something that makes me feel angry, it is rather something I take into consideration. I can understand that my work has inspired others and even though I do not necessarily like to see my work being copied, I always take it as something that allows me think of new and improved ways in that my own work could be done and presented.’
Finally, Nita Newman (‘Far above the clouds #1’) affably amuses me when she discloses that she finds it worse when people like her work that she didn’t think was any good! Even with Nita’s intense passion for her work, she does sometimes resort to, also, ‘dumping’ some work she is not entirely happy with. Nita, however, is still valiant and prepared to show her works she is not fully happy with, just to get a reaction and feedback, facilitating her development and next step forward. Now that, I feel, is inspired! Nita enthuses that her work ‘feels like a friend or pet’ and she knows when to keep going in order to get it right. When it’s right, Nita knows it is right by illuminating expressively, ‘You just know when it is right, you just get a feeling, you know, that moment you go, woo woo!’
So it appears that our 2014 WMO artists, at least the ones I have spoken to, have an innate aptitude and talent for being pragmatic and level-headed when it comes to their emotions regarding their work.
These artists are successful in consciously vetoing their vexes and focusing on the practical and positive. They rebuff the path of despair and carve a new course to success. They recognise their frustrations and use this as nourishment to fruit new opportunities.
Perhaps if I spend long enough with these artists, I can climb that peak of potential along with them and absorb some of this optimistic sanguinity through osmosis! Now where are my boots?!…
By PDB Mellanby
(Phil is a volunteer with Birmingham Museums Trust as a fund raiser and house guide at Aston Hall. He has a penchant for West Midlands arts and heritage.)
The West Midlands Open exhibitions is free to visit and is on from 25th October – 15th February 2015 at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, more information: http://www.bmag.org.uk/events?id=3425
In 1644, only a century before Soho House was built, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas! Carols were forbidden and anyone caught cooking a goose or baking a Christmas cake or boiling a pudding was in danger of fine, confiscation or worse.
By the 1800s it was once again a time of celebration, having been reinstated by Charles II. The Georgian Christmas season began on 6th of December (St. Nicholas Day). Gifts would be exchanged both then and on New Years Day and the main feasting occasion was 6th of January (Twelfth Night, Epiphany). St Stephen’s Day was 26th of December and is now better known as Boxing Day as this was when servants would be presented with gifts and donations made to charity.
The gentry spent the Christmas season in their country houses and didn’t return to their London addresses until February. It was a time of high celebration with gift and charity giving, balls, parties, games, gifts and lots of food. As families were already gathered together it was also an opportunity for weddings.
The Georgian Christmas menu would have included soup, turkey, goose, duck, and cheese. Mince pies have been eaten at Christmas in England since the sixteenth century, however they were made of minced meat. Only later was this replaced with dried fruit and spices. During this period Christmas pudding was better known as lum pottage.
The star of the show would have been Twelfth Cake, a version of present day Christmas cake. It was sliced and given to all members of the household including servants and guests. It contained a dried bean and a dried pea. The person whose slice contained the bean was King for the night; a slice with a pea indicated the Queen. Whoever won, regardless of their social standing and position in the household, was recognized by everyone as the evening’s King and Queen. By the Regency period, Twelfth cake became elaborate with added icing, trimmings, and figurines and it remained popular until the late Victorian period.
Decorating the home with holly, evergreens and mistletoe was well established and practiced throughout the Georgian period, however the Christmas tree was a tradition not yet adopted. It is widely believed that Queen Victoria is responsible for the popularity of the Christmas tree, as a tree would be placed in her bedroom each Christmas. After Victoria’s marriage in 1840 to Germany’s Prince Albert, it grew in popularity amongst the middle classes after the British press reported on the trees adorning Windsor Castle. However, it was George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, who brought the first version of the present day Christmas tree to Britain in 1800. She had it decorated it with gifts, dolls and tapers after her German traditions.
The yule log was chosen for the fire on Christmas Eve. Wrapped in hazel twigs and dragged home it was the centre piece and would burn in the fireplace during the Christmas season. Traditionally a piece would be kept back for the following year.
As part of the season’s celebrations British Pantomime grew in popularity during the Georgian period, particularly among the upper classes. Carols as we understand them didn’t exist although some such as ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks at Nights’, ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ were beginning to gain in popularity.
This Christmas there are festive tours of Soho House which offer the rare opportunity to see the House decorated for a Georgian Christmas and to hear tales of how the season was celebrated over two hundred years ago (for details visit: http://www.bmag.org.uk/events). There is also a special evening at Soho on 13th December where there will be carols and readings, followed by an opportunity to look around the historic House decorated for Christmas with a choir singing in the world famous Lunar Room (for details of this event visit: http://www.bmag.org.uk/events?id=3501.)
Visitor Services Assistant
Fly press, drop stamp, jeweller’s wig, Archimedes drill, draw bench; a few months ago these terms would have been completely alien to me but that was until I started volunteering at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter (MJQ). My name is Beth, I have a degree in medieval history, and every Tuesday can be found at MJQ being a volunteer guide.
As a recent history graduate I knew that if I was to entertain any hope of forging a career in Museums and Heritage I had to be willing to volunteer. With this in mind I began scanning the local Heritage sites and Museums for opportunities. There’s no lack of them I can tell you but I quickly stumbled upon an intriguing advert on the Birmingham Museums and art Gallery website (http://www.bmag.org.uk/support-us/volunteer). The advert was asking for guides to help out at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. I must confess before seeing this advert I’d never heard of the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter but having volunteered and worked in a range of places from being a medieval wench at Warwick castle to a custodian at the Great Hall in Winchester whilst I was studying for my degree I knew the importance of leaping at an opportunity when it presents itself (one such leap has also seen me gallivanting around as an authentically dressed Elizabeth I). What I can say is I’m glad I took that leap and I will tell you for why…
Right from my first visit to MJQ I was impressed, partly because it involved the most enjoyable interview I’ve ever had (that’s right, an enjoyable interview! Who knew?). By my second trip I was determined to be impressed and that’s before I’d even set foot in the museum. When I did get my much anticipated tour I was not disappointed.
For those of you reading this who’ve never visited the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter I feel that to call it a museum is a bit of a misnomer, its more like a giant time capsule taking you back to the golden age of jewellery manufacturing in Birmingham. My role as a volunteer is to take our guests around the abandoned works of a former jewellery firm, Smith and Pepper, including demonstrating some of the machines and techniques that would have been used when it was a business. After trading for 82 years they abandoned their premises in 1981, locking the doors and allowing all the old equipment and records to gather dust for the next 9 years at which point it was turned into the museum. The former owners even kindly left behind a jar of marmite just in anyone gets peckish during the tour. Of course I could go on in great detail, but if you want to hear the rest of Smith and Pepper’s intriguing past you’ll have to come and visit us in person for the full tour (for details on how to find MJQ click on the link: http://www.bmag.org.uk/museum-of-the-jewellery-quarter).
I can’t deny that preparing to do my first museum tour was quite a nerve wracking experience. Most people would find memorizing 45 minutes to an hour’s worth of material and regurgitating this on demand a daunting experience and I was no different, although it helped knowing that no one was going to rush me into doing a tour before I was ready. As it happens I was pretty confident by my second week thanks to the constant prompts around the museum that help me to memorize all the stories of the people who used to work in this busy manufacturing business. I was a little more anxious when it came to working with the machinery in the factory but under the careful eye of the museum staff I’m getting there.
One of the joys of working at MJQ is how much I’ve learnt even in relatively short time I’ve been there. I now know a fly press can be used to cut out shapes in metal, for example those cute little charms you might find on a charm bracelet, if you want to impress a pattern into metal you’ll need a drop stamp and for those fine, fiddly holes to thread things through you’ll want an Archimedes drill (no electric drill here, thank you!). But is not just the information for the tours, but also from the many guests to the museum who share memories of working in similar factories or trades when they were younger.
For those reading this and wondering whether volunteering is your kind of thing, my advice to you is give it a go, you never know what exciting things you might find out.
Volunteer Tour Guide at MJQ
If you’re interested in volunteering for Birmingham Museums Trust, then find out more at: http://www.bmag.org.uk/support-us/volunteer
How do you deal with rejection? Some, enviably, accept it, shrug it off and move on. If, however, you’re like me at the other end of the scale, you not only throw your toys out of the pram, but hurl them with indignation across the room and anyone in the vicinity should duck and cover! But that’s me, an emotional ‘pick & mix’, you never quite know what you’re going to get next, but you can be sure it’s always going to be something interesting!
I was initially inspired to write this article by Dan Auluk’s work, ‘”I am sorry to inform you…”’, showcasing his crumpled 2010 West Midlands Open rejection letter. I was perversely excited to envisage Dan on the day he received his rejection letter, crunching it up and hurling it in the bin in a frenzied act of emotion. Only later, pensively feeling remorse, retrieving it, tenderly smoothing it out and truly reflecting on the words.
But upon meeting Dan and listening to his story, how wrong could I have been. Dan explains to me how, from the age of 18, he used to keep all his job application rejection letters, taking pride in watching the pile grow, knowing he was being productive in applying for job opportunities rather than wasting his time procrastinating. So keeping his 2010 West Midlands Open rejection letter was a natural reaction to him. In fact, Dan kept his 2010 West Midlands Open rejection letter in pristine condition, right up to the week prior to the 2014 West Midlands Open, when he was inspired to crumple it up, fully embracing his enactment of frustration by actually throwing it in the bin, before finally submitting it as his entry.
Dan continues to explain how surreptitiously, he longed for another rejection for his 2014 West Midlands Open entry as Dan now ironically feels that the message of his work has been negated, simply in the act of being accepted into the exhibition. Go figure! The inspired mind of an artist is always a marvel.
Rejection is ‘part of life’, says Dan and should be ‘collected’. He never gets overly concerned about rejections for his art, ‘as at the end of the day it is solely down to the choice of the selectors’ and not a reflection of his art. As rational as Dan is, he does, however, admit to me, a slight feeling of hurt, when upon seeing a review of his work in the 2014 West Midlands Open he suddenly became aware that the 2010 West Midlands Open rejection letter was simply addressed as ‘Dear Artist’ and left unsigned. It took four years for Dan to notice that one, which he now finds rather amusing; as do I! Did you notice the cold, soulless style to such a potentially emotive letter? Go take another look.
I also met with Nita Newman (‘Far above the clouds #1’) who exudes absolute passion for her work as she explains the inspiration of viewing the world from so many different perspectives with multifarious layers. Despite her enthused and effusive fervour, Nita still does not allow rejection to affect her. Nita is surprised when people get upset about a rejection to a particular exhibition, ‘It’s not because your work is bad, it’s just not appropriate for them’ she explains, ‘just take it with a pinch of salt’. Sometimes Nita does feel that her work would fit into an exhibition she visits but has the positive outlook of ‘hey ho, there is another day!’ ‘Is art important?’ she asks rhetorically, ‘not in the greater scheme of life, family and friends are more important’, ‘it’s better to focus on the best bits in life’. I love this about Nita; passionate yet practical.
John Thirlwall (‘Rockface – N. Spain) enlightens me with how ‘rejections make me feel a wee bit low, but it passes quite swiftly. It’s not important enough to worry about, it’s just someone else’s (misguided! – he say’s tongue in cheek) judgement after all’. ‘Acceptance and rejection goes with the territory, it’s a case of ‘c’est la vie’ in my case’.
One of our other amazing artists, Steve Evans (‘Shadows) describes how he has also experienced his work being rejected for open exhibitions but reveals that ‘whilst I found it disappointing, I didn’t have an overly emotional reaction. During my engineering career I had been involved in countless bids and interviews, some successful some not. So, I guess I realised that you just have to dust yourself off and carry on.’
So where are the ‘Drama Queens’, Van Gough ear slashing, crazed Salvador Dali, eccentrically emotional kind of artists I expected to find? Well it appears that our artists are still deeply passionate about their work but have developed a much more peaceful, pragmatic and positive philosophy for towards rejection, which I very much admire, respect, envy and now aspire to.
I came away from my encounters feeling humbled by these artists progressive and sanguine attitudes and in a nice way, somewhat chastened! So come on Phil, time to put this learning into practice; deep breath….. aaaand, relax!….
By Phil Mellanby,
Phil volunteers at Birmingham Museums Trust as a fundraiser and house guide at Aston Hall. He has a penchant for West Midlands arts and heritage.
The West Midlands Open is a FREE exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from 25th October 2014 – 15th February 2015, for more details visit: http://www.bmag.org.uk/events?id=3425
Contributing artists websites:
Early in October I received a letter stamped by the British Museum. I was, of course, excited before I even opened it. The contents didn’t let me down, inside was a letter announcing that the Millers of Sarehole Mill were to be announced in November as the regional winners of the Marsh Award for Museum Learning 2013.
At Sarehole Mill we have a truly fantastic team of volunteers. We have a large team of Gardeners who keep the gardens looking wonderful and in the summer months, if you visit the site, you’ll be greeted by our Welcome Hosts who do a wonderful job of provide information on the history of Sarehole Mill for those who show interest. We also have a team of Miller’s who have been a pivotal part of bringing our working water mill to life. The whole of the team at Sarehole Mill could easily be award winners for the way they have dedicated their time to making Sarehole Mill a very special place to visit. However, on this occasion was the Millers who caught the judges attention.
Over the course of 2013 the Milling team were demonstrating the mill “in action” to visitors, showing people how flour is produced and teaching about the history of this beautiful heritage site. They went above and beyond to make a difference at Sarehole and it is because of them that we are now able to regularly produce our own flour on site. This achievement is exceptional in itself but the Millers were still not satisfied! To take the visitor experience to the next level they built a functional clay bread oven for the Mill! This now allows the team to demonstrate the production of bread from grain to loaf.
We are regularly told by visitors how much they enjoy seeing the mill in action, smelling the fresh bread baking and being able to sample the miller’s own “Sarehole Signature loaf”. This signature creation of theirs is made using Sarehole flour, honey from our beehive and lavender from our gardens (cared for by volunteers) on site.
We have seen first hand the difference this volunteer team have made to the site and were thrilled that the judges also saw the impact their work has been having.
So, on Thursday 13th November we set off to London to collect the award. We received a lovely welcome at the British Museum with a chance to meet some of the other winners and hear about projects across the country. The British Museum and the Marsh Christian Trust have been working in partnership for six years on the ‘Volunteers for Museum Learning’ award and this year, as ever there were a large number of applications from across the UK. This year we share the Midlands Award with a volunteer from our friends over at Erasmus Darwin House so congratulations to them also.
During the awards the Millers were presented with their certificates and their prize money of £250. For many this might be seen as a nice opportunity for a big celebratory dinner (how to spend the prize was entirely in the hands of the volunteer team) so it was wonderful and touching to find that the team have decided to spend their winnings on a flour grinder for Sarehole Mill! This piece of kit will allow us to produce even more flour!
It was a lovely event to be part of and the award goes to a very deserving team of dedicated, fabulous volunteers. It’s not all hard work though! Allan has been volunteering at the mill for the past year and says, “Sarehole Mill is such magical place to work, and makes you feel privileged to be part of the team that brings so much pleasure to the local community, as well as to the visitors the travel from afar.”
His words are echoed by Dave who tells us “I enjoy trying to make the visitor experience a more complete one by helping to bring to life the process of milling, sieving and baking. I also feel privileged to give something back to the community that gave me so much as a headteacher of a local school.”
Congratulations to Midlands Marsh Award for Museum Learning winners, The Millers of Sarehole Mill!
Volunteer Development Officer,
If you are interested in joining us as a volunteer please email firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to our email interest list. You can view the current opportunities we have available here: www.bmag.org.uk/support-us/volunteer