I’m Zoe and I volunteer with the curatorial team at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I’ve recently graduated with my MA in museum studies, and I’m using my annual leave to volunteer once a week at BMAG (I otherwise work in an academic library). The museums sector is so incredibly competitive so I’m focussed on doing all I can to ensure I become a curator one day… and that means volunteering!
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) was the obvious choice when I was looking to volunteer. I’d previously worked as a Visitor Services Assistant at Aston Hall and as an intern with the exhibitions team at BMAG, and had loved every second of it. The curatorial team in particular are extremely experienced and incredibly supportive. They have so much knowledge and expertise between them, and they always have time to share what they know. It’s a pleasure to work with them.
Since starting my volunteering in March, I’ve been researching and blogging about the museums’ Ancient Near East collection. I was lucky enough to assist with the Near East Gallery install whilst interning in the summer last year, so it’s been good fun to learn more about the objects I got to handle back then, and to share what I’ve learned by blogging. Back in March Adam (Curator of World Cultures) and I installed a selection of ornately carved Nimrud ivories in the gallery. They are some of the oldest objects in BMAG’s collection and are even more amazing because they may have been cleaned by famous murder mystery writer Agatha Christie. She was in Iraq helping out at the archaeological dig that uncovered them back in the 60’s.
I’ve also been helping to digitise images of the ethnography collection to add to the museum’s collections management system, so that we have a visual record of what’s what in the collection. Images of cannibal forks and Fijian ancestor figures – complete with detachable grass skirts – are amongst my highlights so far. Helping out with this project has been a really valuable experience as it’s given me the opportunity to learn how to use professional scanning equipment and software in a museum context, and to get to grips with collections management systems. So many curatorial and collections based jobs are asking for these skills, so I’m really pleased I’ve had the opportunity to do this.
I hope to continue to volunteer with the curatorial team into the summer, until I run out of annual leave. The team at BMAG try to tailor my volunteering projects to suit me, so that I can build up my skills and gain experience in things I want to do, which is brilliant. Hopefully they’ll have some exciting projects lined up for me over the summer!
Curatorial Team Volunteer
For more information about volunteering or to be added to our volunteer list please visit: bmag.org.uk/support-us/volunteer
Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack jump over the candlestick
November 25th is Catterns day; the feast day of St Catherine who is the patron saint of lacemakers, spinners, ropemakers and unmarried women in general (spinsters). It was a day of celebration for lacemakers who had reasons to be thankful to two Catherines on this day; the patron saint Catherine of Alexandria and also Queen Katherine of Aragon who did much to invigorate England’s lace industry whilst she was living at Ampthill Castle, Bedfordshire, in the early 1530s.
In the 1800s lacemaking was a major part of life in the counties of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire and many children went to lace schools to learn the trade. Lace was a luxury product often selling for extortionate amounts of money but the people who made it lived in poverty with many of them suffering from sight related problems owing to the intricate nature of the work. November 25th marked the beginning of the winter season and meant that candles could be used to give them some extra light. However, because they were making such expensive items, lacemakers needed to be very careful not to get any dirt on to the lace they were making. One well-placed candle is better than many; plus as candles were themselves costly items, one candle was often as much as a lace school would wish to pay for. To improve the quality of light from a single candle it was placed in the centre of a number of flasks which held pure water. This helped to refract the light and illuminate a much wider area. Traditionally the water in the flasks should be from melted snow, which perhaps gives us a clue to a time when colder Novembers were the norm.
One feature of Catterns day celebrations was the jumping of the candlestick. One student leapt over the stick whilst the others chanted the rhyme: Jack be nimble; Jack be quick… given that our candlestick is over a metre tall this called for some pretty spectacular athletics.
Curator (Applied Art)
As it is Halloween it’s timely to look at a rather unusual bowl currently on display in the Industrial Gallery at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It is a small, deep bowl, about the diameter of a pudding dish and all over the external surface there are carvings of animals and curious oval mounds which look a bit like walnuts. The carvings are both technically proficient and full of emotional appeal. The backs of the animals are smooth from handling over the years and the snake’s body curves round the bowl in a way which almost gives the impression that it is alive. All in all it is an intriguing object but sadly that does not mean that we can be 100% certain about what it is.
The bowl came to the Museum as part of a collection of over 7,000 wooden objects built up over several decades by Edward Pinto. He called it a Witches’ Brew Bowl and put its date at somewhere in the 18th century. This may all sound rather vague but wooden objects are notoriously difficult to date with pin-point accuracy. They do not tend to reflect changing fashions in the way ceramics or textiles can and unless they come with a supporting historical context it is possible to end up attaching quite a wide range of dates to them.
Although he did not acquire the bowl from a Witch he had good reasons for giving it this name. All the creatures carved on the bowl represent remedies used in medicine before the middle of the 19th century. Powdered toads and snake flesh were believed to be a cure for poisoning and dried toads were used to treat plague victims. Syrup made from snails was good for coughs and colds and blood from dragons, or perhaps more usefully lizards, was said to clear boils. The curious ‘walnut’ shapes probably represent brains. Powdered animal brains were used for a number of complaints; mice were believed to be especially good for the teeth.
However, the carvings also represent animals which were associated with witchcraft. Belief in traditional cures, methods and witchcraft were still very much a part of life in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was especially true in rural areas where people were not so influenced by the fashionable, new ideas about medicine which were starting to gain a foothold in the larger towns. A bowl like this could therefore not just represent traditional medical practices; possibly, drinking from such a carved bowl could act as a protection against witchcraft.
We will have to leave you to make up your own mind…
Curator (Applied Art)
For more Halloween themed images please look at the spooky x-rays on our BMAG Facebook page.
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.
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?
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
Curator (Applied Art)
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.
Curator of History
We’re in the process of mounting costume for our new history galleries. I’ve been working on a shooting suit made by a Birmingham tailoring company called Allports in the early 20th century.
When you’re mounting costume you first have to order a mannequin (sometimes called a ‘bust form’) that is slightly smaller than the garment and then build it up if necessary to support the garment. This mannequin needed a little bit of padding around the hips and the back and shoulders. We use wadding first of all – I had to create what looked like a pair of wadding shorts with an extra bit for the bottom! (images 1 & 2).
Once the wadding is the right shape for the garment, we cover it with jersey, which protects the garment from fragments of wadding and also creates a smooth finish (image 3).
Rolls of wadding create the arms and one leg (the pole supporting the mannequin goes through the other leg). Undressed, the mannequin looks extremely odd – but once the shooting suit is mounted on it, it looks quite a natural shape (image 4). Mounting a garment like this can take two or three days to get right.
You can see this suit on display along with other Birmingham-made costume in Birmingham: its people, its history, which opens on 12 October 2012.
Curator of history