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.

Gallery News publication front cover, 1980

This photo is a front cover of a BMAG publication that held information about up and coming events in the Gallery, from 1980. It shows a drawing of the Museum from the outside in the nineteenth century when it first opened – before the bridge extension was built.

‘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.

The Inscription Stone dated 19th July 1881

The Inscription (or Foundation) Stone can be seen in the main entrance of the Museum. It is the first stone that was laid in the building on 19th July 1881 by Mayor Richard Chamberlain. It also includes the Museum motto ‘By the gains of Industry we promote Art’.

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.

Vestibule entrance, possibly very early 20th century

This is a photograph of the Vestibule. Unfortunately we do not have an exact date for it yet but we think it was taken in the very early twentieth century.

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.

Above the Industrial Gallery after WWII

This photograph is from above the Industial Gallery when it was boxed in after the Second World War, however, we are not certain of the date.

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.

Gallery News publication front cover, 1982

This is another cover from Gallery News from 1982. It shows the Industrial Gallery before the staircase was put in place which dates it between 1885-1890.

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.

Olivia Bruton
Visitor Assistant at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

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One response to “Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery History Project”

  1. Christine King says :

    My father worked for many years at the museum Ken Hadfield in the carpenters and art departments.

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