What was the building before it was a Museum?

This is one of our most frequent questions and the response always fills me with great pride. The simple answer is that it was purpose built as a museum and art gallery, and when it first opened its doors on November 28th 1885 it was as full of art as it is today.

Exterior illustration of Birmingaham Museum and Art Gallery

Perhaps a broader question would be ‘WHY did Birmingham build a Museum and Art Gallery?”

The answer to this question is best understood as a series of steps beginning in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.

STEP 1 – Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham were competing to become England’s ‘second city’. The Middle Classes began to use art galleries as a means of expressing their identity and to raise the civic profile of the cities they lived in. However, in order for public museums and art galleries to be built local councils and governments had to change their attitudes towards the arts – this was a slow process. Groups of Art Reformers sprung up in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. They championed the idea of setting up galleries and had four main aims:

  1. To provide healthy recreation for the Working Classes
  2. To improve workers’ satisfaction in pleasurable labour and industrial design by providing objects of study
  3. To help workers to lead more fulfilling lives by showing them the grace and beauty of the world
  4.  To help audiences see the ugliness created by industrial capitalism and make them change the modern urban environment

STEP 2 – Birmingham School of Design was established in 1843. Those involved with the school wanted an Industrial museum to display objects that would inspire the artisans. They wanted a gallery that would make art accessible to the greatest number of people. Suddenly there was an institution devoted to creating beautiful things but the setting was far from inspiring. The city centre was crowded with filthy slums. Chimneys churned out black smoke and people worked around the clock in unhygienic factories. (For a more fleshed out description of how bad conditions were for the average worker Charles Dickens gives some great descriptions of Birmingham and the Black Country during the 1840s in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’).

This is the ‘long gallery’ in the twentieth century, which is now the Edwardian Tea Room. This photograph reflects well what the Art Reformers were trying to achieve by opening an industrial museum and gallery.

This is the ‘long gallery’ in the twentieth century, which is now the Edwardian Tea Room. This photograph reflects well what the Art Reformers were trying to achieve by opening an industrial museum and gallery.

STEP 3 – Birmingham’s local government had a reputation for ‘penny-pinching narrow-mindedness’ (Stuart Davies, ‘By the Gains of Industry Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 1885-1895’). As evidence of their lack of interest in culture, they failed the Free Libraries and Museums Act when it first came into being in 1845. It was finally passed on the 21st February 1860 and a committee was formed to create a library and Museum and Art Gallery. Around this time leading citizens remade the local government and the city was in a position to embrace some of the ideas advocated by the Art Reformers.

STEP 4 – The Birmingham Midland Institute opened a small exhibition of objects and pictures in 1860. The exhibition included the Bust of David Cox (so I like to think of this as the beginnings of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery!)

The Bust of David Cox

The Bust of David Cox

STEP 5 – Over the next 15 years the collection grew rapidly. There were numerous successful exhibitions including one of amour and jewellery, which attracted 160,000 visitors in 1868. There were huge donations from Philanthropists such as the Tangye Brothers, which amounted to millions of pounds in today’s money. The Public Picture Gallery Fund was launched in 1871 to collect and commission paintings. Frederick Leighton’s ‘A Condottiere’ was the first to be purchased in 1873. Mayor Joseph Chamberlain gave £1000 of his own money for an industrial museum in 1875. All of this interest meant that the council was under pressure to find a site and funds to build a gallery in the centre of the city.

‘A Condottiere’ by Frederick Leighton still hangs in the Round Room

‘A Condottiere’ by Frederick Leighton still hangs in the Round Room.

STEP 6 – Joseph Chamberlain municipalised Birmingham’s failing gas works and made them highly successful.The company grew and had to move out of its offices. The council used the profits from the gas company to build new offices on the land acquired through the Free Libraries and Museums Act and put an art gallery on top.  This is why there are so many stairs in the main entrance to the museum, as most of the galleries are on the second floor. Henry Richard Yeoville Thomason won a competition to design the building and Whitworth Wallis was selected to be the keeper. This meant he was responsible for collecting, displaying and securing the collection.

Whitworth Wallis in his office

Whitworth Wallis in his office at Birmingham Museum and Art Galley

Saturday November 28th 1885 – The permanent Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was opened with a celebration at the Town Hall and an address by the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII). It consisted of the main entrance, the Vestibule and Round Room, the ‘long gallery’, the Wedgewood and Italian galleries (no prizes for guessing what was in those) and the Industrial Hall. Nowadays the Italian gallery is the shop, the Wedgewood gallery is the Buddha gallery and the ‘long gallery’ is the Edwardian Tea Room.

Round Room and old Italian Gallery

This shows the view from the Round Room through the Italian Gallery (now the shop) and into the Industrial Hall in the early twentieth century

I hope this goes somewhere to explaining – in a simplified way – how there came to be such a grand building in the centre of Birmingham and why it is such an important institution to the city and its people. In fact the simple answer to ‘Why did Birmingham build a Museum and Art Gallery?’ is for the people.

Olivia Bruton
Visitor Assistant,
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

For more information about the History of BMAG read the previous blog post: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery History Project.

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