When you think of Blakesley Hall, what first comes to mind? Is it the Tudors and old houses, or might it be our wonderful gardens? But in fact, did you know that Blakesley plays a significant role in urban ecology? You might not necessarily think of an ecosystem when a museum garden comes to mind, yet our gardens attract a plethora of biodiversity.
But what exactly is an ecosystem and where do they exist? The simple answer is, everywhere. Ecology is all around us, in our garden at home, a derelict building in the city centre and in the pond in our local park. Essentially an ecosystem is a collection of plants and animals, combined with non-living components like water, air and soil that share the same resources and environment and fundamentally rely on each other. A very cyclical process! There are three components that make up an ecosystem; producers, consumers and decomposers.
At Blakesley, the ‘producers’ are our plants and trees, because they make their own food from sunlight and are self-sufficient. We are often more concerned with making our gardens look attractive and fail to notice that while we enjoy the beauty of tulips and roses at Blakesley, these flowers are providing an important food source for an array of animals.
That brings me onto the next group, called ‘consumers’ because they do exactly what their name suggests and consume plants and living things. There are two types present in our garden. First, we have the primary consumers that live off plants. These include bees, butterflies, caterpillars and snails. You’ll always be certain to spot this group especially while wandering through the herb garden, particularly past the lavender.
Then there are the secondary consumers. These are the meat-eaters and at Blakesley these include birds like the sparrow hawk, blue tits and magpies, and small mammals such as hedgehogs, grey squirrels, and on occasion, the odd urban fox. Another familiar secondary consumer in our garden is the spider.
The third group, which possibly isn’t as interesting but equally as important as the previous two groups, are known as the ‘decomposers’. These are organisms like worms, fungi and bacteria that break down dead organic matter and return necessary nutrients to the soil. I like to think of this group as the ‘recyclers’, clearing up the waste. In other words, they are the workers that you don’t really see but who are always there working hard in the background. All three groups actively contribute to a sustainable and balanced ecosystem at Blakesley.
But how else do plants, grasses and trees contribute to our ecosystem? Well, our knot garden might look pretty but it actually provides not only vital plant nutrients, but necessary shelter for birds and tiny mammals over the long winter months. Butterflies and bees also fill our herb garden, attracted by the vibrant colours and aromatic fragrances, but they are actually working as tiny engineers, collecting pollen from flowers and transporting it through our ecosystem. And while bees are extremely proficient at pollination, butterflies are a very important entity in this process too. Although, not as adept as bees at pollination, butterflies act as an excellent guide to how healthy an ecosystem is. Butterflies are extremely sensitive to climate change and habitat loss, so their presence tells us if an ecosystem is working properly, and act as a reliable indicator to an environment’s well being. So if you have scores of butterflies in your garden, chances are you have a balanced ecosystem. And if you want to spot a butterfly at Blakesley, walk around the lavender and daisies in the herb garden, and you might just catch a glimpse.
Blakesley exists within an urban environment and ecology is not necessarily the first thing you consider when maintaining a garden. Gardens in general are engineered and manipulated by people to look attractive, and Blakesley is no exception. By this, I mean that we cut our grass, trim back the hedges and remove the weeds, therefore indirectly destroying habitats because we need our lawns to look appealing for visitors. But there is one area of our garden that isn’t engineered with an edged lawn and weed free, and that’s our wildflower meadow.
Wildflower meadows are threatened by extinction so the very fact that we have one is helping to maintain vital habitats. You may not know this, but wildflowers actually are a perfect haven for wildlife because they attract an assortment of species, which either feed on the flowers or the animals found in the meadow, and offer shelter as well. Certainly, wildflower meadows help to maintain a healthy ecosystem, and we’re looking forward to when our meadow springs back to life in a couple of months’ time.
Ecology is an important part of our gardens and we make every effort to encourage wildlife to ‘set up’ home here. Indeed even the bugs and birds have Tudor style homes that Richard Smalbroke would be proud of!
So next time you visit us and stroll around our gardens, have a think about the many processes that are taking place and what creature might be hiding away in a hidden habitat somewhere.
Look out for our Ecology Weekend in June.
Blog written by Anne-Marie Hayes.
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)
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?
- 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).
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)
The expanding city is the 4th gallery in the suite of new Birmingham history galleries and looks at the period between 1909 and 1945. The gallery is divided into two sections, the first, A Vision of Birmingham, looks at the development of the suburban Birmingham during the early 20th century, and the second, Birmingham at War, focuses on the experiences of Birmingham people during the first and second world wars.
Within the expanding city, I was able to select some fantastic objects with great stories including: cream pots once used by dairy farmers in Moseley during the 1920s, and a 1914 Birmingham Battalion badge issued to men who volunteered for the Birmingham Pals at the beginning of the first world war; but for me the highlight was the opportunity to use recordings of people sharing their personal experiences.
Cream Pot, Cold Bath Farm, Moseley
Lapel Badge, Birmingham Battalion, 1914
The Museum has collected oral testimonies since the early 1980s, and has amassed an archive of over 1000 recordings with Birmingham people on topics as diverse as working life, migration, war, and the Bull Ring markets. Today we consider collecting oral histories a vital part of developing our Birmingham history collections, and where possible we will conduct an interview when acquiring a contemporary object.
‘Now it’s forgotten sometimes how during the war there were lots of refugees that came into Britain. They came from all parts of Europe, but many of them came from Austria, Czechoslovakia, there was in fact what they call a Czech army. A special group of men who joined the British Army of Czechoslovakians and other foreigners of a like, who wanted to fight fascism’. Lilly Moody
Enabling to someone tell their own story is very powerful, which is why the use of oral histories was key to developing these galleries. Most of the displays are supported by a sound post where you can listen to a range of topics including: working at Cadbury’s, moving into a suburban council house during the 1930s, and volunteering for the Caribbean Regiment during the second world war.
The Museum has particularly strong oral history collections relating the two world wars, and we wanted to make the most of these interviews in the new galleries. The central feature of Birmingham at War is an installation which features interviews with over 30 Birmingham people.
Jo-Ann Curtis, Curator (History)
Curatorial tours for an Expanding City
Throughout 2013 there are a number of curator-led tours of the Birmingham history galleries. The following tours will focus specifically on An Expanding City or may feature it as part of a wider gallery tour.
Tickets are available from reception and cost £2 per person. Tours begin at 1:00 in the Round Room.
- 7 May – Cadbury’s Angels: Experience of Women Workers in the Early 20th Century by Jo-Ann Curtis
- 18 June – From paintings to postcards: snap shots of Birmingham through its history by Jo-Ann Curtis
- 2 July – Faith and Social Conscience: some examples of faith in action from Birmingham’s history by Henrietta Lockhart
- 17 September - Birmingham at War: Industry during wartime, by Jo-Ann Curtis
- 15 October – Birmingham: a city made by migration, by Henrietta Lockhart
While working in the Print Room at BMAG the other day I came across an old events leaflet from 1988 containing this snippet of news:
‘We have often lent our pictures to exhibitions abroad, but rarely our staff! However on 3 April, the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery Football Club (The Galleries) have been invited to play the Louvre team in Paris. They are sending a team over here for a return match on 22 May. [...]
The Louvre have won their League for the past three consecutive seasons and their League Cup last year, so your support will be especially welcome. We will do our best!’
If anyone can tell us more about The Galleries or recognises any members of the team, it would be great to hear from you. And of course we’d love to know who won the match!
Victoria Osborne, Curator (Fine Art)