Apart from being one of the most striking architectural features, the gas lights that hang over the Industrial Gallery are an important reminder of the Museum’s roots. They are beautiful to look at and vital to telling the story of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. However, they are also mysterious and we are still trying to find out exactly how they functioned.
The gas lights have a number of different names. The term ‘Gasoliers’ comes from French ‘chandelier’ and is frequently used in literature about the museum. However, my favourite name is ‘Sun-Light Burners’. This was used to describe them in the minutes made at meetings about opening a gallery. Apart from being vaguely poetic I prefer this term because it accurately reflects their job.
There are seven gas lights in total. Two in the Edwardian Tea Room, three in the Industrial Gallery, one in the Round Room and one above the Vestibule reception area (in every room of the original gallery). They were manufactured by Messrs. Strode and Company from London for the cost of £488.
The purpose of having gas lights was revolutionary. It reinforces the argument I made in my previous blog entry about how Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was an institution designed by the people and for the people. In the 1880s Art Galleries were the domain of the middle classes. As well as being a place to see beautiful objects they were also a place to be seen by your peers. Because museums were lit only by sunlight they were only worth visiting during daylight hours. Working class people, generally, did not finish work until the evening and therefore would not be able to see the exhibits.
By providing gas lights Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery enabled these people to view the exhibits too. This explains why the term ‘Sun-Light Burners’ applies so well. The Museum was established specifically to inspire the artisans, therefore it would have been a huge mistake if they could not view the things specifically displayed to inspire them.
When the gallery opened in 1885 it was on top of the newly municipalised city gas offices. Nowadays there are only two things to remind us of this: the Foundation Stone in the main entrance and the gas lamps.
So the practical considerations: how were these lights lit? Naively, when I first considered this question I imagined a Victorian man leaning over the iron work on the balcony of the Industrial Gallery with a large wooden stick, prodding the lamp from a distance and hoping for the best. Obviously, this was not the case. In the case of the lamps above the Vestibule and Round Room, they were winched down to a gentleman below who would light it, shout up to say it was ready, and then be winched up again very early in the morning. It is clear to see that the entire structure would have moved because today they are hidden away in the ceilings. When stood in the roof space this sort of movement is also evident from the design of the lamps themselves.
For the lamps above the Edwardian Tea Room and Industrial Gallery the procedure less obvious. There are winching mechanisms in the roof space but the outer structure of the lamps is clearly static. I am currently waiting to see the original blue prints, which will reveal the procedure but at the moment my best guess is that an internal part was winched down to the floor where it was lit and then brought back up.
The one question we, as Visitor Assistants, always get asked is ‘do they work?’ As the lamps used Town Gas, which is no longer used, it is impossible to tell. Also there are a plethora of conservation issues connected to having gas lamps and oil paintings in immediate proximity so it is probably for the best that we don’t use them today!
So the importance of these architectural features is huge. They remind us of the connection to the gas offices. They are a visual symbol of the equalising effect Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery had on the cities communities when it opened. They also fill everyone who sees them with curiosity and invite questions that we still cannot fully answer.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
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.
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:
- To provide healthy recreation for the Working Classes
- To improve workers’ satisfaction in pleasurable labour and industrial design by providing objects of study
- To help workers to lead more fulfilling lives by showing them the grace and beauty of the world
- 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’).
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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