We are lucky at Birmingham Museums to have hundreds of volunteers support us each year. By the end of 2014 we will have had the help of over 600 volunteers! As the Volunteer Development Officer I feel incredibly lucky to work with such talented people and as an organisation we are so grateful for the generosity of our volunteer team!
Some volunteers join us for a day, like our fantastic Experts who run our Meet the Expert Days at Thinktank, inspiring the scientists of the future. Others are with us each week running guided tours, documenting our collections, working on conservation projects and much much more. You can read about many of our volunteers’ personal experiences through this blog.
So it was a real pleasure for us to host over 100 of our volunteers on 10th December at our annual Thank You party.
This year the event took place in our newly refurbished Edwardian Tea rooms at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. For us, this event is a chance for us to thank our team for all that they have done over the course of the year, but also a lovely opportunity to bring together volunteers from across all nine of our museums.
We had some lovely speeches of thanks from Ellen McAdam, Director of Birmingham Museums and Simon Cane, Deputy Director, and a fantastic team of 15 members of staff volunteered to make sure our team were well looked after!
This year we had a photo booth (with plenty of fancy dress options) and asked our team to tell us why they volunteer. The results were heart warming and are a true demonstration of the passion and enthusiasm in our volunteer team!
Our goal for this event was to make sure every single one of our volunteers was thanked and understood how much they are valued within the organisation. So this blog post is for the members of the team who were unable to make the party.
You are part of the life and soul of Birmingham Museums and we are so grateful for your time. We hope that you enjoy volunteering with us as much as we enjoy having you.
We also created a Thank You Board with messages from staff across the organisation who could not join us on the night. There are so many people at Birmingham Museums who wanted to thank the volunteer team who have made so much possible for us over the course of 2014.
So, to all our wonderful volunteers – thank you for everything you do for us and we look forward to 2015 with you all.
Volunteer Development Officer
In July 2014, two volunteers were recruited for an exciting summer project at Birmingham Museums Trust. The aim of the project was two-fold: to reorganise the hard-copy documentation system of Birmingham’s Science & Industry loans collection, and to begin the process of improving the digital documentation of the science & industry permanent collection (via the museum’s digital collections database).
Helen Scadeng and Matt Sharman, both with backgrounds in research, volunteered their time to carry out the project. After only two short summer months, Helen and Matt not only fulfilled the aims of the project but they exceeded the project milestones with speedy gusto and enthusiasm!
Based at Thinktank Science Museum and each working one day a week, Matt and Helen completed the reorganisation of the hard-copy documentation system ahead of schedule. Despite working on separate days, together they were able to successfully refile the hardcopy entries of over 100 loan objects – a huge achievement when working as a ‘remote’ team!
Ahead of schedule, they were then able to start improving the digital records of the permanent science & industry collection. Collating information and images of 70 objects, this is the single largest project to improve the digital records of the science & industry collections in over a decade. But Helen and Matt didn’t stop there, they delved into further research of the objects, and found out some weird and wonderful facts in the process! For example, Helen uncovered a ‘six-degrees-of-separation’ between a bust of the renowned inventor William Murdock and the famous landscape artist David Cox. The Murdock bust was gifted to the museum by prominent Birmingham businessman George Everitt (the Director of a Smethwick engineering firm). George Everitt’s cousin was the artist Allen Edward Everitt, who was schooled by David Cox!
In September, we were incredibly pleased to hear that Matt had been offered a full-time position in a local authority Archives Service, but were very sad to see him go! At the same time, despite the completion of the summer documentation project, Helen decided to single-handedly extend the life of the project and to expand its scope to a greater level of research on specific collection areas – and this was all despite the fact that Helen was also just about to complete and submit her postgraduate thesis!!
A HUGE thank you to both Matt and Helen for their enthusiasm, their skills and their sheer hard work over the summer. And since September, a MASSIVE thank you to Helen for continuing to research the collection and for uncovering some fascinating histories. I’m looking forward to continuing to work with Helen on some exciting curatorial projects planned for the coming months!
Science & Industry Curator
Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He walked them up to the top of the hill,
And he walked them down again.
And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half way up,
They were neither up nor down.
Just like the grand old Duke and his men, we all face our ups and downs in life. Now unlike the Duke and his men, I rarely get to enjoy the middle ground, instead I have the unenviable ability to sublimate directly from high to low and back again in a heartbeat, completely skipping out the wonderful moment of being centred and experiencing serenity, harmony and tranquillity. So I was intrigued to explore how our very own, 2014 West Midlands Open, artists handled their own personal highs and lows and how they balanced them whilst creating their various works.
Robert Neil indulged my intrigue by meeting up with me to discuss his entry for the 2014 WMO ‘John’ and some of his other inspirational works.
Robert is an inspiration in himself, he comes across as a very pragmatic and rational soul who radiates confidence and belief in himself but in an extremely demure, charismatic, convivial and natural way; and this is reflected in his approach to his art.
Robert explains that his own journey of creating art has been one of growing confidence and comprehension in his work. Initially Robert found that he would accept more of his work because it was nice rather than right, but as his confidence and capabilities grew, he found he was able to sacrifice works that were not quite right for him. Robert admits that at the start it was difficult to make these sacrifices but goes on to enlighten me that his growing confidence enabled him to appreciate when to stop, when to go back and when to ‘scrap.’ Robert kindly laughs in endorsement of my paraphrasing him when I say, ‘so it’s like when you are less experienced; you don’t know what you don’t know.’ ‘Yes’ he retorts, ‘You have to forget about moments that have not gone right.’ ‘I used to get frustrated when things were not going to plan but now I am more confident to turn it against the wall and come back to it.’ I am intrigued and ask Robert if he literally ‘turns his art against the wall’? ‘Yes.’ He says. ‘I really do turn it against the wall. Actually, I now prefer to turn it upside down to get a different perspective, I can still see the general composition but not the detail, that way I can look at it as a whole and focus on the overall colour, texture and balance.’
Conrad Pack (‘9 collages’) agrees, ‘If I get stuck on a piece I just walk away, I will leave it alone and go and read.’ ‘It makes it worse if you keep on trying. Leave it and come back to it, then it will come around naturally.’ Conrad continues in his astuteness ‘Don’t stress if it goes wrong, if you do it all goes to pot!’ ‘You can get lost in your own anger and it becomes a vicious circle if you keep on trying.’ Conrad explains that he doesn’t work on just one piece at a time so if one piece is not working he leaves it and works on something else. That way he gets inspiration to perceive a different direction or angle to take and returns to it.
Enlightening me with her own personal outlook, Barbara Gibson (‘Streets of my City #1’) divulges, ‘What frustrates me the most is when I see others copying my work or ideas. It has happened to me a few times and it was not actually something I enjoyed.’ However Barbara still manages to find consolation in this. ‘It is not something that makes me feel angry, it is rather something I take into consideration. I can understand that my work has inspired others and even though I do not necessarily like to see my work being copied, I always take it as something that allows me think of new and improved ways in that my own work could be done and presented.’
Finally, Nita Newman (‘Far above the clouds #1’) affably amuses me when she discloses that she finds it worse when people like her work that she didn’t think was any good! Even with Nita’s intense passion for her work, she does sometimes resort to, also, ‘dumping’ some work she is not entirely happy with. Nita, however, is still valiant and prepared to show her works she is not fully happy with, just to get a reaction and feedback, facilitating her development and next step forward. Now that, I feel, is inspired! Nita enthuses that her work ‘feels like a friend or pet’ and she knows when to keep going in order to get it right. When it’s right, Nita knows it is right by illuminating expressively, ‘You just know when it is right, you just get a feeling, you know, that moment you go, woo woo!’
So it appears that our 2014 WMO artists, at least the ones I have spoken to, have an innate aptitude and talent for being pragmatic and level-headed when it comes to their emotions regarding their work.
These artists are successful in consciously vetoing their vexes and focusing on the practical and positive. They rebuff the path of despair and carve a new course to success. They recognise their frustrations and use this as nourishment to fruit new opportunities.
Perhaps if I spend long enough with these artists, I can climb that peak of potential along with them and absorb some of this optimistic sanguinity through osmosis! Now where are my boots?!…
By PDB Mellanby
(Phil is a volunteer with Birmingham Museums Trust as a fund raiser and house guide at Aston Hall. He has a penchant for West Midlands arts and heritage.)
The West Midlands Open exhibitions is free to visit and is on from 25th October – 15th February 2015 at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, more information: http://www.bmag.org.uk/events?id=3425
Fly press, drop stamp, jeweller’s wig, Archimedes drill, draw bench; a few months ago these terms would have been completely alien to me but that was until I started volunteering at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter (MJQ). My name is Beth, I have a degree in medieval history, and every Tuesday can be found at MJQ being a volunteer guide.
As a recent history graduate I knew that if I was to entertain any hope of forging a career in Museums and Heritage I had to be willing to volunteer. With this in mind I began scanning the local Heritage sites and Museums for opportunities. There’s no lack of them I can tell you but I quickly stumbled upon an intriguing advert on the Birmingham Museums and art Gallery website (http://www.bmag.org.uk/support-us/volunteer). The advert was asking for guides to help out at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. I must confess before seeing this advert I’d never heard of the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter but having volunteered and worked in a range of places from being a medieval wench at Warwick castle to a custodian at the Great Hall in Winchester whilst I was studying for my degree I knew the importance of leaping at an opportunity when it presents itself (one such leap has also seen me gallivanting around as an authentically dressed Elizabeth I). What I can say is I’m glad I took that leap and I will tell you for why…
Right from my first visit to MJQ I was impressed, partly because it involved the most enjoyable interview I’ve ever had (that’s right, an enjoyable interview! Who knew?). By my second trip I was determined to be impressed and that’s before I’d even set foot in the museum. When I did get my much anticipated tour I was not disappointed.
For those of you reading this who’ve never visited the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter I feel that to call it a museum is a bit of a misnomer, its more like a giant time capsule taking you back to the golden age of jewellery manufacturing in Birmingham. My role as a volunteer is to take our guests around the abandoned works of a former jewellery firm, Smith and Pepper, including demonstrating some of the machines and techniques that would have been used when it was a business. After trading for 82 years they abandoned their premises in 1981, locking the doors and allowing all the old equipment and records to gather dust for the next 9 years at which point it was turned into the museum. The former owners even kindly left behind a jar of marmite just in anyone gets peckish during the tour. Of course I could go on in great detail, but if you want to hear the rest of Smith and Pepper’s intriguing past you’ll have to come and visit us in person for the full tour (for details on how to find MJQ click on the link: http://www.bmag.org.uk/museum-of-the-jewellery-quarter).
I can’t deny that preparing to do my first museum tour was quite a nerve wracking experience. Most people would find memorizing 45 minutes to an hour’s worth of material and regurgitating this on demand a daunting experience and I was no different, although it helped knowing that no one was going to rush me into doing a tour before I was ready. As it happens I was pretty confident by my second week thanks to the constant prompts around the museum that help me to memorize all the stories of the people who used to work in this busy manufacturing business. I was a little more anxious when it came to working with the machinery in the factory but under the careful eye of the museum staff I’m getting there.
One of the joys of working at MJQ is how much I’ve learnt even in relatively short time I’ve been there. I now know a fly press can be used to cut out shapes in metal, for example those cute little charms you might find on a charm bracelet, if you want to impress a pattern into metal you’ll need a drop stamp and for those fine, fiddly holes to thread things through you’ll want an Archimedes drill (no electric drill here, thank you!). But is not just the information for the tours, but also from the many guests to the museum who share memories of working in similar factories or trades when they were younger.
For those reading this and wondering whether volunteering is your kind of thing, my advice to you is give it a go, you never know what exciting things you might find out.
Volunteer Tour Guide at MJQ
If you’re interested in volunteering for Birmingham Museums Trust, then find out more at: http://www.bmag.org.uk/support-us/volunteer
Early in October I received a letter stamped by the British Museum. I was, of course, excited before I even opened it. The contents didn’t let me down, inside was a letter announcing that the Millers of Sarehole Mill were to be announced in November as the regional winners of the Marsh Award for Museum Learning 2013.
At Sarehole Mill we have a truly fantastic team of volunteers. We have a large team of Gardeners who keep the gardens looking wonderful and in the summer months, if you visit the site, you’ll be greeted by our Welcome Hosts who do a wonderful job of provide information on the history of Sarehole Mill for those who show interest. We also have a team of Miller’s who have been a pivotal part of bringing our working water mill to life. The whole of the team at Sarehole Mill could easily be award winners for the way they have dedicated their time to making Sarehole Mill a very special place to visit. However, on this occasion was the Millers who caught the judges attention.
Over the course of 2013 the Milling team were demonstrating the mill “in action” to visitors, showing people how flour is produced and teaching about the history of this beautiful heritage site. They went above and beyond to make a difference at Sarehole and it is because of them that we are now able to regularly produce our own flour on site. This achievement is exceptional in itself but the Millers were still not satisfied! To take the visitor experience to the next level they built a functional clay bread oven for the Mill! This now allows the team to demonstrate the production of bread from grain to loaf.
We are regularly told by visitors how much they enjoy seeing the mill in action, smelling the fresh bread baking and being able to sample the miller’s own “Sarehole Signature loaf”. This signature creation of theirs is made using Sarehole flour, honey from our beehive and lavender from our gardens (cared for by volunteers) on site.
We have seen first hand the difference this volunteer team have made to the site and were thrilled that the judges also saw the impact their work has been having.
So, on Thursday 13th November we set off to London to collect the award. We received a lovely welcome at the British Museum with a chance to meet some of the other winners and hear about projects across the country. The British Museum and the Marsh Christian Trust have been working in partnership for six years on the ‘Volunteers for Museum Learning’ award and this year, as ever there were a large number of applications from across the UK. This year we share the Midlands Award with a volunteer from our friends over at Erasmus Darwin House so congratulations to them also.
During the awards the Millers were presented with their certificates and their prize money of £250. For many this might be seen as a nice opportunity for a big celebratory dinner (how to spend the prize was entirely in the hands of the volunteer team) so it was wonderful and touching to find that the team have decided to spend their winnings on a flour grinder for Sarehole Mill! This piece of kit will allow us to produce even more flour!
It was a lovely event to be part of and the award goes to a very deserving team of dedicated, fabulous volunteers. It’s not all hard work though! Allan has been volunteering at the mill for the past year and says, “Sarehole Mill is such magical place to work, and makes you feel privileged to be part of the team that brings so much pleasure to the local community, as well as to the visitors the travel from afar.”
His words are echoed by Dave who tells us “I enjoy trying to make the visitor experience a more complete one by helping to bring to life the process of milling, sieving and baking. I also feel privileged to give something back to the community that gave me so much as a headteacher of a local school.”
Congratulations to Midlands Marsh Award for Museum Learning winners, The Millers of Sarehole Mill!
Volunteer Development Officer,
If you are interested in joining us as a volunteer please email firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to our email interest list. You can view the current opportunities we have available here: www.bmag.org.uk/support-us/volunteer
In 1596 William Shakespeare began to write his tragedy Romeo & Juliet, inspired by a narrative poem which had been popular while the Bard was still a boy in Stratford upon Avon. In nearby Birmingham a remarkably similar tale was being lived out between two prominent families: the Smalbrokes and the Colmores.
The problems between the Capulets and the Montagues were, in the original story, based merely upon mutual envy. Shakespeare escalated the grudge into a full-scale feud, which mirrored the running battles and hatred which divided the townsfolk of sixteenth century Birmingham into two camps – those who supported William Colmore and his sons, and those who favoured the brothers Richard and Thomas Smalbroke.
The origins of the feud concerned libel actions; accusations of usury and nepotism; disputes over wills and even a disputed marriage settlement: Thomas Smalbroke’s wife Elizabeth was the sister of William Colmore and of Ambrose Colmore who was a joint defendant against a charge of embezzlement brought by his brother against him and Richard Smalbroke.
A complicated web of suspicion and lies which led eventually to the Court of Star Chamber – the highest in the land – and even to an armed stand-off at Blakesley Hall in Yardley.
Blakesley Hall is the house which Richard Smalbroke built in 1590 on land which he had inherited from his father. Richard divided his time between his main residence The Ravenhurst at Bordesley and Blakesley Hall which was also the matrimonial home of Richard’s only son Robert.
On 1st July 1604, at Bordesley Thomas Smalbroke was attacked with a hunting staff by William Colmore’s son Thomas. Colmore then tried, unsuccessfully, to shoot his enemy who ran for safety to the house.
When Thomas Smalbroke rode to Packington for a warrant for the arrest of his attacker, Colmores waited to intercept him on his return along the Coventry Road. Richard got to him first and the pair made it to Yardley. Later that evening Thomas set off again for his home at the top of the Bull Ring but was met by one of his sons who told him to go back to Yardley where the brothers watched from the top floor window of Blakesley Hall as young Colmore and his servant, both armed with pistols, sought a Smalbroke to shoot.
The town was not safe for any of the Smalbrokes that night. William Colmore was ‘most irreligiously and profanely swearing and protesting many times by the blood of God that he would his son had well boxed Smalbroke’ – that he ‘would to God he had sped him’.
Thomas Smalbroke told the Town Constable to arrest Thomas Colmore, but it was only by the intervention of Sir Thomas Holte of Aston that the writ was finally served.
Also sheltering in the house at the time of the siege were Richard’s son and daughter-in-law and their eight-year old daughter Barbara who would, two years later, inherit Blakesley Hall and all its lands on the death of her father. Her mother Elizabeth would then re-marry. Her new husband was that same Thomas Colmore! Had he and Elizabeth known each other before she married Robert? Had he been waiting in the wings for a second chance to claim his bride and were they the real-life star-crossed lovers with an altogether different ending. Who was the true target for the Colmores on that July evening in 1604?
A final twist to this saga. In 1614 Richard’s granddaughter Barbara married Henry Devereux of Castle Bromwich Hall. Her new mother-in-law, Lady Devereux, was formerly Catherine Arden – a kinswoman of Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden whose family seat was Park Hall, Castle Bromwich. Did William Shakespeare get all of his inspiration for his play from that poem? Or did his mother tell him about the goings-on in Birmingham?
As one of Blakesley Hall’s team of visitor-friendly volunteers, I hope that the embellishments to the above true record of sixteenth-century events sound plausible enough to claim, if not a possible Shakespeare connection, then at least a parallel with one of his most loved plays. Yardley may not be a substitute for Verona, but beautiful Blakesley Hall, in old age, remains inspirational.
The plot thickens! Since writing this blog post I have found out that Robert Smalbroke died from natural causes in 1603, so it seems that Thomas Colmore’s errand to Blakesley in 1604 was not to murder him but a failed attempt to elope with his widow.
Volunteer at Blakesley Hall
Hello I’m Connie, one of the volunteers at Aston Hall and I have been volunteering as a House Guide since the start season. In this blog I will explain why I chose to volunteer at Aston Hall and I will include some of my favourite stories that I share with visitors.
Aston Hall is one of Birmingham’s most historic buildings and is Grade I listed Jacobean house. Aston Hall has played a large part in not just Birmingham’s individual history as a city but is part of England’s wider history as a country. The Hall was involved in the Civil war after being damaged after an attack by Parliamentary troops in 1643.
I choose to volunteer at Aston Hall for all the reasons mentioned above, but mostly for the experience and a chance to work in a place completely different to anywhere else I have ever worked. I am currently doing a history and politics degree at Lancaster University and Aston Hall is the perfect place to get some experience in history. The Hall is rich with historical significance and it’s great to work in such an amazing place and be surrounded by such amazing artwork, artefacts and architecture. Aston Hall is conveniently located in the heart of city and a great piece of local history. It’s a great way to get some experience in your local area and find out what part your city played in history.
Aston Hall’s famous connections makes it stand out as one of the most significant buildings in the city. The house was owned by James Watt Junior, the son of the important Victorian inventor James Watt. Sir Thomas Holte, 1st Baronet was the original owner of Aston Hall, the Holte family were a wealthy family of some importance in Warwickshire. Thomas Holte was known for his great temper with famous disputes with his son and neighbours, such as he sued his neighbours for accusing him of splitting his cook’s head in two with a cleaver! Aston Hall has also housed Charles I in 1642 and Queen Victoria first came to visit when she was on a tour of the country with her mother, she later visited again in 1858 to open Aston Hall as a public museum.
The house is not only for history lovers but due to its extensive range of paintings is also has its interests for art historians, having minored in art history in my first year at university it was amazing to be surrounded by such works of art. Particularly impressive paintings are ‘King Charles I and his family’ by Remy van Leemput and ‘Lucy Loftus’ by Peter Lely. Lely was a Dutch painter who became the dominant portrait painter to the court in England. There are a few portraits of Charles I such as the one in the world room of Charles on the left, and his wife, Henrietta Maria on the right. When being on post in the Long Gallery, the portrait of Marchioness of Rockingham (d.1761) by Godfrey Kneller has always got a lot of attention. People always ask who the woman is in the painting as it creates a large impression due to its grandeur and size so I’m always ready to answer. Mary, Marchioness of Rockingham being the wife of Charles Watson-Wentworth a British Whig statesman and known for his two terms as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Edmund Burke, the famous philosopher, became his private secretary and would remain a lifelong friend, political ally and advisor until Rockingham’s premature death in 1782. She was very active in the political scene as she contributed to the parliamentary management of the Rockingham whigs and it was her positive influence upon her husband that was her most significant contribution to politics.
Another story I like to tell is prompted by the portrait of Edward Holte, Thomas Holte’s son. Edward, had gained a position in Charles I household. In his service Edward met and married Elizabeth King, Thomas did not give his permission for the marriage but Edward went ahead with the wedding. As a result Edward was entirely cut out from his inheritance. Charles I pleaded with Thomas himself to reinstate Edward as his heir but Thomas refused. Edward died on military service in 1643 having never reconciled with his family. It was rumoured Thomas locked up a daughter because she refused to marry her father’s choice of husband, the rumour suggests she starved to death.
Aston Hall’s significance is further emphasised by its architecture as it is one of the last great Jacobean houses to be built in Britain and its location in Britain’s second biggest city. Much of the architecture is original 17th-century plasterwork that has been maintained and the house remains relatively unchanged.
Aston Hall also manages a wide range of events across the year including ‘Make and Take Craft’ which are craft days every Wednesday in the holidays for children. There’s also historic days organised to explore the English Civil War with a living history re-enactment. Birmingham Tours Museum Heritage Bus also takes visitors around other historic sites in the area such as Soho House and Blakesley Hall. The events are a great way to get children more involved and interested in history, which I think is extremely important and a great active day out away from the classroom which is always needed! Aston Hall takes a lot of visits throughout the year from nearby school children and they are given a special tour. Volunteers are encouraged to get involved and events are organised to keep volunteers up to date with information, also there are fun ideas to get us more involved such as picnic days and tour guide training.
The engagement with the customers is always a great chance to get to hear other people’s views of the Hall. Many visitors have returned to the house having been years ago when they as a child at school. Other visitors have come again for a second or a third time to bring family and friends. Many are amazed by the long gallery, my favourite room and one of the most spectacular rooms in the house. Hands down an extremely different place to work and hope to work in other places like Aston Hall in the future.
Volunteer at Aston Hall
If you’re interested in volunteering for Birmingham Museums Trust then find out more at: www.bmag.org.uk/support-us/volunteer