Are you a fan of art? We’d like you to join us to play ‘The Curation Game’ at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
‘The Curation Game’ lets you have a go at curating your own display, whilst at the same, helping to shape the future appearance of the galleries.
The ‘Game’ is very simple: choose as many paintings and objects as you want, and arrange them into your own exhibition. Group works by theme, colour, place, date – it’s up to you!
Next choose your interpretation – do you want facts and figures, or videos and photographs? This is your chance to tell us what makes the perfect display.
By playing the ‘Game’ you will help us with our re-display of the 17th Century galleries. We want to figure out what people like and dislike about 17th Century art, and what helps visitors to make the most of their experience here.
You can play ‘The Curation Game’ in Gallery 25 at BMAG on:
Friday 22nd August, 2pm-4pm
Thursday 28th August, 11am-1pm
Come along and play, or just pop by for a chat and find out more about the 17th Century project.
More information can be found on-line at http://birminghambaroque.wordpress.com/
National Gallery Curatorial Trainee at Birmingham Museums
My name is Olivia and I work as a Visitor Assistant at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG). It is impossible to work in such a beautiful building without being curious about its history.
In May 2012 three colleagues and I began to research specific areas of interest as part of an ongoing project to discover, and make available, more information about an institution that is over 127 years old.
Rachael Yardley focuses primarily on the architecture of the building, Helen Roberts researches the people who were of vital importance to BMAG and Tomasz Kolisko’s area of interest is the collection itself. I have been engaged in the social and political history behind the museum’s foundation and development.
In this blog I intend to share the process of research we went through to get to the stage we are currently at, as well as keeping you up to date with any further developments.
‘The History of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’ is such a huge subject that even after splitting it into sections it still took the better part of a year to get to a stage where we all felt we had a good enough grasp of the topic to give a presentation to other departments in the museum. When the four of us first sat down to discuss the project, over copious cups of coffee, we had no idea of how consuming the research would be.
The first problem we encountered was where to start. We decided to simply wander around the museum asking colleagues for anecdotes or just quizzing them on everything they knew about the place they worked. However, this method proved incredibly problematic because all too often one of us would run to another with an interesting revelation only to be told “That’s not what I heard.” Clearly this wasn’t working. Too many ‘facts’ we got told were ‘certain’ directly contradicted others.
It would be impossible to undertake the project without first consulting Stuart Davis’ book “By the Gains of Industry: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 1885-1895”. This was easily accessible in the Museum shop and gave us a much better platform to start from (not least because it has a list of sources). However, in places it was slightly confusing and I found myself with a long list of citations with question marks next to them – a recurring theme. The next stage was obviously to turn to Davis’ sources and finally we felt we were getting somewhere. But books proved few and far between on the topic of the BMAG’s history.
A few months into the project we realised we had foolishly ignored something very obvious. BMAG is full of plaques revealing the important benefactors and gallery openings. The first two items to enter the collection are still on display; the Bust of David Cox and the Sultangani Buddha. The museum walls gave us yet more dates and names to bounce around the internet.
The internet proved to be the worse source of all. The digital world appeared to be almost a complete void of information regarding the history of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, aside from what was written on BMAG’s website. I even tried university journals to very little avail.
My pet peeve for those first few months was my inability to locate a concise list of previous directors anywhere. On the advice of Martin Ellis (Applied Art Curator) I spent a long and cold afternoon in the archive section of Central Library working my way through the volumes of ‘Who’s Who in Birmingham’ from the 1890s-1997. Usually pages 44-45 held a brief overview of the Museum and Art Gallery with the Keeper or Director’s name and a few details about what departments we had. There were two shelves within the date range I needed and I was reluctant to miss out a year just in case there was a Keeper or Director who only worked there for one year.
I left the library with a scrap of paper listing 6 names, 10 dates and 2 question marks – and a sense of achievement.
When we discovered the Social History Library within the museum itself the project finally took flight. We found boxes of photographs revealing the museum in the 1890s and the building of the extension in the early 1900s. A bit of detective work and was required to attribute dates to some of them. We uncovered old exhibition catalogues, newspaper cuttings, visitor reports, and meeting minutes. We also found a very helpful ghost unless the curators were playing tricks on us. Each time we discussed needing to find out something specific we would return to the library and magically it would appear. We would discover new photographs in boxes we were certain we had seen everything in before. Also, things we remembered seeing would mysteriously disappear one day and reappear a week later. We discovered biographies of all the important benefactors to the Museum and Art Gallery and huge catalogues of the collection hidden away in the darkest corner.
Over eight months we pieced together a document that aims to provide answers to most questions we, and visitors, have about the history of the building. These include: why it was built, where the funding came from, who designed it, how we came about the collection and who made it all possible. Most importantly we discovered an immense passion for the place we work. We presented our findings in a full staff briefing and were stunned to see our level of excitement and curiosity mirrored in our audience.
The research is, of course, ongoing. We still have broad questions and assumptions we need to prove. We each have very specific areas of interest that we are independently studying and sharing so hopefully the project will expand further and future employees and visitors will have an easily accessible information about the Museum and Art Gallery.
We have just begun to give guided tours for the public at £3 per person. The next one is on the 23th of July at 1pm – for more details please visit BMAG’s What’s On page.
Visitor Assistant at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
The University of Birmingham has pioneered a fantastic scheme with local cultural partners, where Birmingham graduates can apply for paid internships at partner institutions. Last summer I was absolutely thrilled to find out that I had been offered the place at Birmingham Museums Trust in the curatorial department of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG). I worked closely with Fine Art Curator, Victoria Osborne, who was my mentor. As part of the scheme, the nine other interns and I were in regular contact with the University; this included two training sessions held at Winterbourne House where we heard inspiring presentations delivered by representatives from a variety of cultural institutions and received invaluable career advice, media training and the opportunity to star in a radio play on our visit to the BBC!
Within the curatorial department my role involved researching the collection by responding to enquiries, facilitating print room visits, assisting with the care of objects by updating the collection management system and helping with exhibition planning. I was lucky to see the opening of the new Birmingham History Galleries as well as the contemporary art exhibition, Metropolis: reflections on the modern city. I was excited to be offered the opportunity to work with Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Lisa Beauchamp and Exhibitions Officer (and previous Cultural Intern), Katie Hall, on some of the interpretation for ‘Metropolis’. I wrote a Gallery Trail that guides visitors round the museum, comparing works in the exhibition with some of the more familiar images from the museum’s collection that relate to the theme of the metropolis. I’m really proud to have compiled the guide and, importantly, to see visitors reading it!
The main assignment that I was very fortunate to have been entrusted with was the wonderful opportunity to curate the re-display of 14th-16th century art in the permanent exhibition galleries (Galleries 26 & 27). Gallery 26 was due to be re-furbished with new lighting and decor and my role was to plan the re-hang of the works in this space, as well as to rotate some of the objects on display with those from the picture store or collections centre, as well as updating the interpretation. There are some important acquisitions in this part of the collection and I wanted to highlight them in a new light. I gave careful consideration to which images would work best next to each other and thought about the stylistic comparisons that could be made in relation to the Renaissance and the Reformation. For example, I decided to bring from the picture store, The Agony in the Garden, by Garofalo into Gallery 26 to be shown next to Bonifazio de Pitati’s Adoration of the Shepherds. While these works exemplify Italian Catholic imagery, Cranach’s Lamentation of Christ, which is shown in the same section, demonstrates the ideals of the Protestant Reformation.
I also wanted to bring some objects from Gallery 27, which included lots of small, precious objects, into a display case in Gallery 26 so that chalices and reliquaries could be seen with the altar paintings, therefore creating a better sense of their original display and function in a church. I also chose to display some metalwork by a contemporary artist within the display case – Adrian Hope’s Reliquary for a Traveller. This beautiful work was inspired by medieval reliquaries, therefore, I showed it alongside a 14th-century reliquary (see photo below).
In Gallery 27 I focused my display on two themes: women and craftsmanship. The objects in this gallery all relate to Christian worship and devotion, however, by grouping them into these two themes I aimed to show how they could be better understood and appreciated by today’s museum visitor. Thanks to Curator of Applied Art, Sylvia Crawley’s expertise relating to the Pinto collection (around 6,000 wooden objects collected by Edward Pinto), she brought to my attention a marvellous example of craftsmanship in the form of a 16th-century intarsia panel – an image created using a variety of pieces of wood. The panel depicts The Annunciation and therefore fitted perfectly into the display of religious imagery, especially being shown alongside a painting of the Nativity. I was also really excited to be able to show two prints by Albrecht Dürer, whose technical skill for making woodcut prints fitted into the theme of craftsmanship and the images that I selected included depictions of the Virgin and Child and St Anthony outside a City.
Selecting objects for the display focused on representations of women was fairly straightforward given that they had already been on show in Gallery 27, but they had not been grouped together in this way. I also brought a painting from Gallery 26 into the case that shows the Virgin and Child. The new display emphasises the fact that representations of women in the 14th-16th centuries highlighted Christian virtue through the example of female saints. Two statuettes representing Susannah and the Elders and Eve exemplify the way in which the artist could depict the female nude without causing scandal. Given that BMAG has a famous collection of Pre-Raphaelite works, of which, many represent virtue or sin through the female muse, by focusing on women in earlier works in the collection, visitors can consider how representations of femininity have changed (or in many cases not changed) throughout the history of art.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at BMAG – I’ve learnt so much and will never forget the fantastic experience I had there. I would recommend to any Birmingham graduates interested in working in the cultural sector to apply for this fantastic scheme.
University of Birmingham Cultural Intern
at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery
Good things come in small packages. Gallery 27 may be one of our smallest gallery spaces, but the new display of 14th to 16th century European art contains some gems which are worth spending time with.
One half of the room explores the way Christian art has used women to represent extremes of good and evil. A bronze sculpture shows Eve, who took an apple from the forbidden tree and caused humanity’s expulsion from Paradise. In contrast, Suzannah was a symbol of virtue because she refused to give in to the advances of two men who interrupted her bath.
The Virgin Mary, the ultimate example of female purity, is depicted with simple realism in Verrochio’s terracotta panel. This panel was made in the same workshop in which Leonardo da Vinci receiving his training as a young apprentice.
The other half of the room brings together examples of the technical skill and creativity displayed by the artists of this period. The tiny panel by Simone Martini is particularly moving: it shows a saint grieving over the dead Christ. The panel showing Christ no longer exists so we have to imagine the object of the man’s grief.
One of my favourite items is the painting of the nativity by an unknown Flemish artist known as the ‘Master of the Prado Adoration’. This miraculous scene is set in surroundings which would have been entirely familiar to a 14th century audience. The stable and Flemish townscape in the background would have created the impression that Christ was being born in the ‘here and now’. Joseph seems particularly real to me – the kind of elderly man you could meet on the bus.
Curator of History
As half term approaches I was reminded of a game I used to play with my daughter when she was young enough to be distracted by such things. “You’re making an imaginary farm can you find enough animals here to go in it?” It might seem an odd thing to say in a museum devoted to history and art and without displays of stuffed animals but BMAG is stacked full of creatures. You just need to know where to look.
I’ve begun my search in the Jewellery Gallery. Tucked away at the top of the stairs in the Industrial Gallery it is a space which often gets overlooked. It is arranged along two corridors: one with displays of jewellery from around the world and the other containing British and European jewellery collected and donated to the Museum by Mrs Hull-Grundy.
It doesn’t take long to spot my first animal: a dazzling golden peacock with a fringe of red paste rubies and emerald coloured tail feathers. He’s sitting on top of a French nineteenth century frontlet. Frontlets are elaborate bands fixed to the large combs needed to keep the equally large late Victorian ladies’ hair-dos in place. You could keep the comb and change the frontlet to suit the occasion. Many of them are made from imitation materials. This one uses pinchbeck to simulate gold and paste to suggest gemstones. But across a candlelit table the deception could go unnoticed.
Although peacocks do eat small snakes I think this one would prefer not to attract the attention of the earrings in the adjoining case – a pair of golden cobras from the Nilgiri Hills in southern India – which look like they are just about to pounce on unsuspecting prey.
If I was looking for something a bit more suitable to feed my peacock I might be tempted by the large blue enamelled butterfly from the London firm of Child and Child or even the waist-clasp made in the shape of a monster beetle in gilt copper, glass and paste.
I realise as I continue that it would be a hard task to stock a traditional farm from the jewellery here. Apart from a delicate gold stick pin decorated with a running boar attributed to the French maker Paul Robin in the 1870s and a Swiss ivory horse head brooch and earring set I would do better setting my sights on a wildlife reserve.
There are plenty of contenders here but there is one in particular which caught my attention: a French brooch in the shape of a flying bat made c. 1900.
I’m undecided as whether this bat is intended to be hungry or intimidating with his open mouth and bright, staring eyes. He would have been an attention grabber perched on a lady’s’ coat but I don’t think I would have chosen to wear him.
If you prefer dogs then you might like the enamelled sad-eyed pug on a brooch by the London firm of William Bishop Ford in 1875. Jewellery featuring animals was popular in the Victorian period and makers were often commissioned to produce brooches to commemorate a favourite pet.
He wears a red enamelled collar to symbolise his loyalty and obedience.
There are many other animals hidden away on pieces of jewellery in the gallery and of course if you want to take it further just about every gallery in the Museum will turn up animals both real and fantastic.
You might need to plan an extension to that farm.
Curator (Applied Art)
“Where’s the big stuff? I want to see the really big stuff”. It was a familiar request; visitors to gallery sixteen at Birmingham Museum are often a little thrown when they peer in to the glass cases for the first time and wonder what on earth they’re looking at. Small pieces of shiny metal, many of them studded with red gemstones – what are they? Who do they belong to? Where are they from? Why has such a fuss been made in the media about this find?
Photo: Two Staffordshire Hoard gallery volunteers at the 2012 Volunteer Party
So what do volunteers in the Hoard gallery do? Well, there’s a bit of housekeeping for starters. First thing in the morning we set the gallery up: we turn on the lights, set up the ipads and, last of all, fire up the short documentary which is a great introduction to the Hoard. Visitors often ask if we know the script of that film off by heart: we do! There is a small amount of paperwork, a gallery check to make sure all is working, clean and tidy for visitors and then…we wait.
There is never much of a wait before the first visitors arrive. The Staffordshire Hoard remains very popular, and totting up the numbers is another volunteer responsibility. We regularly log over 300 visitors, even on a rainy weekday. There is rarely a dull moment in the Hoard, and our visitors are always so interesting, as well as interested. For me this is the best part of volunteering: the opportunity to talk with such a diverse range of people. I started volunteering in the Hoard in January 2012, and since then I’ve learned as much from the public as I have from books and documentaries. I’ve been privileged to speak with jewellers who understand the intricate complexity of the filigree work; with metal workers who have explained how the swords would have been made and even an expert in marine life who enlightened me on sea horses off the south coast of England.
But you don’t have to be an expert at anything to appreciate the Hoard (I’m certainly not!) or to engage our full attention. There is still so much mystery surrounding the find and, as I often tell visitors, everyone’s interpretation is as good as anyone else’s when it comes to the Staffordshire Hoard. One of the really nice things about working in the gallery is hearing the ideas about how the gold came to be stashed there, and why. It seems unlikely that we’ll never know, but a very happy ten minutes can be passed debating it.
The day passes very quickly as a conglomeration of chatty, enthusiastic school trips, overseas tourists and mooching couples pass through the gallery. And there are quiet times too, during which we go around with a cloth and wipe the fingerprints off the cases. At five o’clock a call comes over the radio advising that it’s time to start closing down the interactive exhibits, and Terry Herbert utters his final ‘why me?’ of the day. The lights are turned down, the doors closed and it’s time to head home.
If you are planning a visit to the Staffordshire Hoard – and why wouldn’t you? It’s fab and free! – please take advantage of the volunteer interpreters in the gallery. We can’t promise to answer all of your questions, but we’ll have an interesting time together trying!
Staffordshire Hoard Volunteer
For more information about the Staffordshire Hoard please visit: staffordshirehoard.org.uk