Tag Archive | Birmingham Museum

Volunteering at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Art is something I have always had an immense amount of interest in; from an early age I was reading about artists, visiting galleries and getting involved in every art class I could find. Pursuing courses in art at school, I became more interested in looking at other’s art works rather than creating my own, and thinking about the historical, biographical and social contexts of works. When the time came for me to leave school I stumbled on information about courses of History of Art. This seemed perfect for me, so I decided to take the plunge. Once I had finished my course I moved back to Birmingham and for the first time was at a loss for what to do with my future. I greatly missed the challenge of academic study, and spent a while thinking about my future and what I wanted to achieve. I knew it would have to be something art based, but I wasn’t sure what job it was that I wanted exactly, or even how to embark upon a career in which I had no practical experience. After many unsuccessful job applications, I decided the best course of action was to go back to what I knew I enjoyed the most: visiting art galleries. It was then I saw the vacancy for volunteer positions at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and I sent an application without any real hope that I would be accepted due to my lack of experience. However, I couldn’t believe my luck when I was told I had been successful!

Kendall enjoying a visit to an exhibition

Kendall enjoying a visit to an exhibition

Volunteering has become an essential part of my weekly routine. Being at the gallery twice a week has renewed my interest and passion in art; spending time talking to the public and answering their questions about pieces in the collection pushes me to constantly expand my knowledge. Many questions and opinions that arise in general conversation are things I had not considered myself, and I love being educated by others who are as enthusiastic about the works in the gallery as I am. Volunteering in a gallery like the Staffordshire Hoard often draws in people with specialist knowledge, and it is so inspiring and reassuring to see the passion and sense of pride that local people feel for their art gallery. I really try to pass on any small amount of knowledge I may have so that others might find the same appreciation for the art as I do.

Recently I spent an afternoon at an object handling session with Ancient Egyptian objects. It was a fantastic experience for me to engage with families, and in particular children, in one of my areas of great interest. Using the objects to interact with the public was a really rewarding experience for me, as it helped to draw people in for conversations. The opportunity for us to touch actual artefacts was a real treat, and it really helped to create a strong connection and understanding of the art, especially for children. It was so gratifying to see people really understanding the objects on show, not only on a visual level but by physically exploring the objects to reaffirm their understanding of them, for example, being able to examine a kohl pot with remnants of makeup in it expanded understanding of the object on a deeper level than being told of its use by display information.

Every day volunteering at the gallery is enjoyable, spending time around such beautiful and amazing works of art has led me to develop a deep appreciation for all the works, and it is a real pleasure to speak to all the staff and hear their own experiences of working in the gallery. The building itself is a work of art, and a pleasure to spend time in. I hope to volunteer until a more permanent career path becomes more obvious to me; until then I will continue to enthusiastically drag my friends and family, such as my sister pictured below, to the gallery to experience what amazing things Birmingham is lucky enough to be home to.

Kendall's sister at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Kendall’s sister at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

For more information about volunteering at Birmingham Museums visit: bmag.org.uk/support-us/volunteer

By Kendall Russell,
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Volunteer


Talking buttons

We recently acquired a set of button sample books from James Grove & Sons Ltd in Halesowen. James Grove were world famous for making horn buttons. They also made buttons out of casein, polyester, and nylon.

Book of button samples from James Grove & Sons Ltd

As part of the acquisition I arranged to interview Roy Taylor who worked for the company from the 1960s until it closed in 2012.  The first part of the interview we discussed what it was like working at James Grove. I wanted to know what the atmosphere or character of the factory was like (the sights, smells and sounds), how long he trained for, and who worked for there.

Buttons within a sample book from James Grove & Sons Ltd

The second part of the interview Roy came into the museum to look at the button sample books. A button sample book was used in a number of ways. Firstly it was designed to show prospective clients the range of buttons made by the company. Clients would also bring their own button designs for Grove’s to make, therefore this would also go into the book. A duplicate book would be kept in the warehouse as a reference for the machine tool makers, and button makers. Each button sample had a unique reference number. Roy still remembers the reference numbers for each button he designed or made regularly. It was fascinating listening to Roy talk about the buttons, how they were made, as well as how fashions and the materials used to make buttons changed over the decades. I originally assumed many of these buttons were moulded but in this video Roy discusses how most were machine and hand made:

Jo-Ann Curtis
Curator (History)

Planning in Public: tackling the Curation Game

Tomorrow we are launching our first public consultation event looking at ways of reinvigorating the ceramics displays on the balcony above the Industrial Gallery.

Two years ago we overhauled the Industrial Gallery displays and instead of showing separate cases of glass and ceramics as we had done previously we grouped the objects into mixed media displays exploring subjects such as the natural world and the human image.

The Industrial Gallery

Now it is the turn of gallery upstairs. At the moment we have a very object-rich display which looks at the development of European ceramics from the 17th century onwards. It is a great resource if you want to get your head around the difference between a piece made in Lowestoft or Liverpool or see a selection of de Morgan tiles and Ruskin pottery. But these displays were originally put together in the 1980s and now their time in the spotlight is coming around again.

We want to find out what our visitors would like to see in a new ceramics display. We could ask questions but we thought it would be much more fun (and we hope much more productive), to invite people to have a go at arranging their own display. And that’s what the Curation Game is all about. We’re not using actual museum objects, so no need for gloves, but visitors will be able to make a 3D mock up of a case using images of the objects from the collections.

I don’t want to give away too much, or perish the thought, put ideas into people’s heads but I can guarantee there’s lots of opportunity for you to have your say in how you would like to see the new gallery displays develop, and, as we are doing this in the Industrial Gallery, there’s also the chance to pop upstairs and see the current displays, too.

Would any of these objects feature in your display?

The Curation Game

Come along to one of the sessions in the Industrial Gallery and play the Curation Game:

  • Wednesday 13th March   1-4pm
  • Tuesday 19th March   11-3pm
  • Sunday 24th March   1-4pm

Sylvia Crawley
Curator (Applied Art)

Give a personal touch to the Sikh Fortress Turban!

2005,0727.1  Sikh_Turban LOW RES

Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery hosts the magnificent fortress turban, on loan from the British Museum (26 January – 28 April 2013). The display gives visitors from Birmingham and beyond a rare opportunity to explore the intriguing story of Sikh warriors and learn more about Sikh faith and history. You can get involved with the museum’s work and help us unravelling the mysteries of the dastaar boonga to our visitors. Join our enthusiastic group of wonderful volunteers and act as a gallery interpreter. If you can help us, come along to one of the Info Sessions on Saturday 16 February, 11am-12pm or Saturday 2 March, 11am-12pm. You can also contact Josefine (Josefine.Frank@birmingham.gov.uk) for more information. We look forward to meeting you.

What does a gallery interpreter do?

As a gallery interpreter you can play a crucial part in enhancing our visitors’ experience of the Sikh Fortress Turban exhibition. Gallery interpreters engage visitors in discussions about the turban and help them discover how and why turbans symbolise Sikh faith and identity. We want to provide informative, engaging and meaningful experiences for our visitors that explain why the turban remains important for the Sikh community in Birmingham today. Gallery interpreters are vital in helping us achieving this.

How is the volunteer programme organised?

Gallery interpreters work in pairs and are asked to sign up to a flexible rota and commit to a minimum of 2-3 sessions throughout the duration of the exhibition. Sessions take place on Saturdays between 11.00am–1.30pm or 1.30pm–16.00 pm. Before you start we ask you to attend a training session where we will tell you more about the Sikh Fortress Turban and what to expect as a gallery interpreter.

Are there any requirements?

You do not need to be an expert on Sikh history or faith. All that is needed is being enthusiastic about sharing your own experience and knowledge of Sikh faith and culture with visitors.

What’s in it for you?

Benefits include

  • gaining in-depth knowledge of the Sikh Fortress Turban
  • developing customer service and interpretation skills
  • easy access to all events around the exhibition
  • seeing how a museum works behind the scenes
  • up to £4 daily reimbursement towards your travel
  • possibility to attend other training courses (e.g. on customer service, disability awareness)
  • potentially become a long-term volunteer
  • Lots of fun!

Get involved with the Sikh Fortress Turban exhibition at BMAG and give the display a personal touch!

If you can help us, please contact Josefine (Josefine.Frank@birmingham.gov.uk).


On the Quest for Jewelled Creatures

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.

1922 M342 (2)

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.

1981 M550

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.

1982 M230

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.

Sylvia Crawley,
Curator (Applied Art)

How to present 19th century Birmingham in a nutshell?

The new Birmingham history galleries cover 900 years of history.  One of the biggest challenges was deciding what to put in, and what to leave out.  When designing a display like this you have to decide what your themes are going to be, and then ruthlessly stick to them.

So how did we go about selecting our 19th century displays?  First of all, we had to identify the most significant stories.  What made Birmingham stand out from other towns?  Secondly, the strengths of our collection had to be considered.  What objects did we have that could tell those stories?  Thirdly, we had to think about the displays in the context of the architectural space.  The area designated for the 1830-1909 period was split into three spaces – the spectacular domed gallery, with smaller and rather awkward spaces before and after it. 



The abolition of slavery is our first 19th century theme and our portrait of Joseph Sturge provides the centrepiece.  We faced a challenge, however, when trying to tell the story of women’s anti-slavery campaigning and the contribution of black campaigners who visited Birmingham.  We had no objects to represent either of these groups, so we approached them in different ways.  An object made during a recent project on female abolitionists makes a great link between past and present.  A joint project with George Dixon J&I School resulted in some inspiring artwork and creative writing about black abolitionists.



We wanted to use the domed gallery in a theatrical way, and decided to aim for the atmosphere of a trade exhibition.  This enabled us to focus on particular companies or industries, rather than showing ‘a bit of everything’.  We incorporated aspects of Birmingham’s cultural life into this space as well.  Keeping to our theme in this section meant that some objects were interpreted in interesting ways.  We selected costume made in Birmingham so that it could be tied into the ‘trade exhibition’ theme.  If an item was simply owned by a Birmingham person it had to be excluded.  Similarly we could include the poignant child’s hearse and coffin as part of the trade exhibition because of the importance of Birmingham’s coffin industry. 



Our third theme has the overall title of ‘Unequal Birmingham’, and looks at poverty and reform.  Many different topics had to be brought together here, in quite a small space.  One of the challenges of representing the poor is that very few objects survive, so we had to make the most of what we did have.  The spectacular objects from the workhouse chapel provided a good starting point.  Famous Birmingham reformers make their appearance here, including the political campaigner Thomas Attwood, and most famous of all, Joseph Chamberlain. 


Choosing the themes and the objects is not, of course, the end of the process.  One of the key elements of designing any display is to decide what messages you want to put across.  We hoped to enable our visitors to make links between past and present – hence the screens in Unequal Birmingham which compare conditions in 19th century Birmingham  with those in the 21st century.  And we wanted to question some common assumptions, for instance by pointing out the negative aspects of Chamberlain’s improvement scheme.  Consulting with our community action panel and with experts on Birmingham  history helped us not only with the historical facts but also with our approach to emotive issues such as enslavement.

The displays can only scratch the surface of 19th century Birmingham. We hope they inspire people to find out more.

Henrietta Lockhart
Curator of History

Volunteering in the Staffordshire Hoard Gallery

“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?


My name is Donna, and I’m only one of a group of volunteer interpreters who staff the Hoard at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  Our primary role involves answering questions about the Hoard and encouraging visitors to engage with the objects on display. Volunteers are all passionate about the collection, for different reasons. Most of us are graduates; some of us are still studying. We all give our time freely, well almost freely – we do get a cuppa and a biscuit during breaks!


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!

Donna Taylor
Staffordshire Hoard Volunteer

For more information about the Staffordshire Hoard please visit: staffordshirehoard.org.uk