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
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
At the opening of the Staffordshire Hoard Gallery, there were hundreds of precious objects on display, but I was searching for just one; the Story Hoard.
This leather-bound trove of poems, stories and riddles, which now sits on the wooden table in the Mead Hall area of the new gallery, is filled with creative responses to the Hoard. Here are not just facts but characters, not just information but imaginative reflections too. All written, and illustrated, by talented local people, including writers at the Kings Norton Writers’ Group, ESOL students from Birmingham Metropolitan College, metal detectorists and members of the public.
In our writing groups, which ran from winter 2013 to spring 2014, we aimed to be inspired not just by what we know about the Hoard but what we don’t know. We wanted to dream up characters and scenarios, to imagine life and people then. We thought much about what might have happened to the treasure before, and after, it came to lie in the ground.
We also examined works of Anglo-Saxon literature, such as the mysterious poem Deor. We thought about what it means to be human, and inhuman, now and then. We read the epic poem Beowulf and though about the role of the hero, and the antihero – the monster, in the Anglo-Saxon mind.
Then we got down to nuts and bolts. We began to write and write and write. We paid particular attention to working with detail, and capturing our imaginative ideas with images, metaphors and accurate, unusual words. The opening lines of Evan Wang’s poem, The Hoard, rage us back through time in a most thrilling and ominous way.
goes through the body
Just like thunder.
The natural world, particularly weather and the seasons, is revealed in many of the responses, perhaps prompted by our imaginings of what has stayed the same and what has changed in human experience. In Lisa Grace’s poem Untitled, sunlight reveals an ancient warrior:
Coppery tints shine in sun’s midst
Catching my image powerful and true
Of warrior, spear, helmet and shield.
We tried hard to use rhythm, rhyme and vocabulary in meaningful and forceful ways. In Lorraine Boyce’s poem, My Monster, words, and their effective placing, awaken a magnificent creature on the page.
It’s shining metallic, thick headed, foul mouthed
Lurching much closer it marks out our time.
That last word is important. Much of our thinking was around time, and timelessness, particularly what has changed in our lives over the last fifteen hundred years, and, more importantly, which elements of human nature and experience have stayed the same. Anglo-Saxon soldiers Hagan and Edwin, in Lavinia Bousfield’s story Two Brave Warriors, speak for fighters in many battles:
‘Edwin huddled in his cloak to keep the night air from his body. Time passed slowly until he saw the dawn coming. He turned in the direction he heard a bird whistle. Too late, he realised it wasn’t a bird.’
Things are often not what they seem in these tales. In Doreen Goodall’s The Pilgrim and The Shepherd an elderly traveler’s journey takes a very unexpected turn when a mysterious shepherd befriends him:
‘During their walk the pilgrim found that the total of the shepherd’s conversation was sheep, goats and monsters. Apart from that, much to the old man’s chagrin, he moaned incessantly about everything.’
There’s a good, odd, reason why, but you will have to read the story to find out what it is. Surprise and suspense is everything, and everywhere in this collection.
We tried to explore structure, and worked hard to give our stories beginnings, middles and unexpected endings. We thought about journeys as a crucial part of a story. We looked into motivation, particularly what a character wants and why. In Heather J Anderson’s story, The Dream, a hen-pecked schoolteacher experiences a strange escape from his marriage and job:
‘My students are looking at me to help them clarify what they have heard on the news report. I feel all the colour drain from my face as I pick up my marker to point to an area on the map on the board behind me. Suddenly I get the stabbing pain in my shoulder…’
Just as the Staffordshire Hoard is abundant with riches and gems, so is the Story Hoard. I hope you will search through, either using your hands in the Mead Hall, or using your keyboard; you can view the Story Hoard online here. I promise you will find treasure.
Writing group participant comments
Lavinia Bousfield adds:
‘I would like to say how much I enjoyed viewing the Saxon Hoard and the completed Saxon Book on display. I felt proud to see the stories and art work submitted by our writing group from Kings Norton Library, and all the other contributors involved in the project.
The sensory table displaying the pieces of gold was quite fascinating. I found the beautiful workmanship that went into producing the gold pieces by our ancestors quite remarkable. History is here for all to see, and we can learn more about the lives of the Saxons.
This is an exhibition well worth visiting.’
Ann Cullen writes:
‘I found the Stafford Hoard Exhibition exciting and very interesting. I was amazed at how clever the Anglo Saxons were, particularly in jewellery making. Some of the designs on swords, daggers and other items are so tiny and yet they are perfectly set out. The garnets are beautiful.
There are some very significant stories about the way of life of the Anglo-Saxon people – the superstitions, the constant battling of tribes, the burial of the hoard and much more.
I would recommend the exhibition to all. It is a story of history set in a great presentation. I recommend it as a suitable and exciting exhibition for young and old.’
My final week as Artist in Residence at the Museum is now over, the past month has gone so quickly, packed full of new sights, events and meeting new people. During my residency I have been researching pieces within the collections, this research will now be used to create a new piece for BMAG to go on display in January. Continuing with my own practice, interested in the act of looking, the residency has encouraged me to focus on the history behind ‘the gaze’ concerning Women and their image. This is something that became prominent during my research where many of the prints and drawings I looked at depicted women carrying out private acts, often within interior settings, documenting these for the viewer to enjoy. My progress and the ideas behind my new work and its development will be documented by the BMAG team in the coming weeks, please keep an eye out!
I have now moved out of my studio, a space I have made my own during my time here. Not only used as a space for my daily practice I have held workshops for the public and opened it every Wednesday afternoon for visitors to come in and see what I have been up to.
On Friday the 17th of October I held one final printing drop in session, visitors were invited to take inspiration from the woodcut prints of Sir Edward Burne Jones I found in the collections and create their own Lino printed bookmarks.
Here is my own finished bookmark:
It was great fun to help others create something that they could take home and use, everybody enjoyed the Lino method of printing and made some great finished bookmarks.
The public facing studio has provided me with a wonderful space suited to my practice, through the glass panel I was able to watch passers by enjoying their visit as well as watching them watch me work. I thought I would play with this idea of the watcher and the watched by covering the glass with semi opaque plastic with peep holes cut away.
I invited the audience to peep through these observing stations to view inside my studio and view myself, in the process photographing this action. It has encouraged me to question the act of looking within a gallery setting, where looking is actively encouraged. This is not limited to the artwork on display alone but it can also be a place to watch other visitors too! I became aware of this within an engraving called The Exhibition at the Royal Academy, 1787 engraved by Pierto Antonio Martini (from the painting by Johann Heinrich Ramberg), where the focus of the viewer is not purely on the gallery display but on the characters themselves within the exhibition.
Thank you everyone who participated, here are some images of those who decided to have a peak:
I would like to work with these images further, the blurred outlines of the viewers interests me as you have to fill in the missing information. I have experimented with these few images digitally, as seen below, but I would like to eventually turn them into prints.
Looking through the peep holes visitors could observe me inside my studio:
I keep returning to this circular shape to frame my images, over the coming weeks I will explore how I can create a sculptural structure that forms this shape on which I hope to print upon. For now, here are some previous experiments into this form:
Finally I want to thank all the staff at BMAG who have given their time generously to view works, arrange events and help me to develop my ideas for this residency to produce a new commission for the Museum. I can’t wait to get started and look forward to its completion.
Whitworth Wallis Artist in Residence
It is my third week at the Museum, and it has been a busy one before I leave on the 17th of October. This week I visited the Museum Collections Centre in Duddeston, home to all the objects not currently on site at Museums across Birmingham, I ran a ‘Big Print’ workshop on the 4th of October in my studio as one of many activities taking place within the Museum as part of Fun Palaces, and I have been working on my ideas for the Final work.
During my time at the Museum I have been carrying out research into pieces held at the Museum to generate a new piece of work in response to what I have seen. Taking inspiration from artists such as Hans Sebald Beham and Helen Chadwick who have used a circular shape within their work, I have been playing with this circular form as a basis to my work. When looking at these artists I became aware of the effect the circular form had on me as a viewer, the shape draws your attention into the image having associations with an old fashioned peep hole of which to view others through.
Here is a piece I am working on that incorporates this circular frame:
I have been playing with the use of coiled newsprint paper to form a circular surface on which to screen print upon, I am interested in the distortion of imagery to create a closer inspection from the viewer. During my residency I have seen many images that observe women carrying out certain actions from bathing to changing to sleeping, all private and quite intimate acts however, they are on display for us to observe. It is the subject of women and their image which I think I will focus on as the basis to my piece.
I wanted to learn more about how other artists have used photography within their work to stage certain acts and how they use technology to distort the images they work with. Two artists that do this are Mohammed Bourouissa and Semyon Faibisovich, artists who have pieces held at the Museum Collections Centre (MCC). It was a great opportunity to view the pieces in person and see the techniques used by the artists.
Semyon Faibisovich’s images examine contemporary urban life in his home town of Moscow and particularly the lives of those at the bottom of the social ladder. Using a mobile phone, Faibisovich takes photographs of people on the streets and uses these low resolution images to make his oil paintings, enlarging the images to life size and then painting over the image creating pixelated distortions. This was clear when up close to the works entitled Repose, from At the Stop series, 2009 and Sick on the Way?, 2008 from the same series.
Mohammed Bourouissa is an Algerian photographer who uses staged photography to create images that appear real, often depicting moments of physical or emotional tension through the careful arrangement of people and their gestures. They leave you questioning what has happened in the image or what will happen, I like the suspense he creates leaving you wanting more. I saw La rencontre (The Meeting) and Le toit (The Roof), 2005-2007 during my visit to the MCC and both looked at this tension between the characters depicted.
After viewing these specific pieces I spent the rest of my time exploring the vast number of objects and works stored within the centre, it is very easy to get carried away! These are just some of the things I came across:
The Museum Collections Centre (MCC) has a huge natural history collection, with examples of taxidermy ranging from delicate butterflies to a brown bear! Although not relevant to my practical work it was fascinating to see such an array of animals dating back from the 1800’s.
The MCC holds open afternoons for the public on the last Friday of every month and are open for pre-arranged tours and study days, for more information or to make a booking visit: www.bmag.org.uk/Museum-collections-centre.
Finally, thank you to everyone who came to ‘The Big Print’ drop in session to have a taster of what you can achieve through printmaking. From 11-4pm the studio was full of people experimenting with polystyrene prints and mono printing, some fantastic work was made which people could take home or add to the ‘Big Print’ wall in my studio to remain till the end of my residency.
Next week will be my final as artist in residence at BMAG, it has gone so quickly! I am keen to hold one last printing workshop, this time with adults, taking place on Friday the 17th of October between 12.30-2.30pm. We will be making bookmarks inspired by Edward Burne-Jones intricate woodblock patterns I came across in the collections using a Lino print.
Here is one of Edward Burne-Jones’s designs in the collection originally made for the boarder of a book to get you started:
Whitworth Wallis Artist in Residence
150 years ago today the Sultanganj Buddha, one of the most important objects in Birmingham’s collection, was offered to the Corporation of Birmingham. On 7 October 1864 Samuel Thornton, a former mayor of the city, wrote to Birmingham Borough Council offering:
“…the colossal figure of Buddha, and the large marble one, to the town, to be placed in the Art Museum, now being erected, where they may be duly and properly located for the free inspection of the inhabitants of Birmingham…”
Samuel Thornton’s main business was as a railway ironmonger but he also had an interest in ancient India. Following its discovery by engineers constructing the Indian Railway in 1861, he paid £200 to have the two-metre tall copper Buddha transported to England.
In 1867 the Buddha went on display in the ‘Corporation Art Gallery,’ a room in the Central library. In 1885 it went on display in the newly built Museum and Art Gallery. Today the statue is displayed in the Buddha Gallery. Offerings of flowers are frequently left at the feet of the statue by Buddhist visitors. To commemorate the 150th anniversary, the statue will be blessed by monks from the Birmingham Buddhist Vihara at a public ceremony on Wednesday 8 October between 11am and 1pm.
Curator of World Cultures
Saturday the 8th March is International Women’s Day.
‘International Women’s Day celebrates the social, political and economic achievements of women while focusing world attention on areas requiring further action.’
In this blog we wanted to highlight the stories of some of the Birmingham women featured in the history galleries who have inspired change.
This rare portrait of an18th century businesswoman depicts Ann Fuller who was a pawnbroker in Digbeth during the late 18th century. Ann took over her father’s business at 53 Digbeth shortly after this portrait was painted.
We know very little about Ann other than she was one of a small number of businesswomen in Birmingham at the time. Research for the history galleries revealed other women including Catherine Sawyer who ran the Boarding School in The Square, and Mary Lloyd who was the owner of the Hen & Chicken’s Hotel.
You will find Ann’s portrait in the Strangers Guide to 18th Century Birmingham (1700-1830).
Nellie Hall was a suffragette who lived in Edgbaston. She became an active campaigner as a teenager, and suffered imprisonment in Winson Green prison in Birmingham. Later she was sent to prison again in London, went on hunger strike and endured forced feeding. Birmingham had a very strong suffragette movement, which involved women from prominent local families including the Cadburys and the Rylands. The equality for which these women risked their freedom, and sometimes their lives, was a long time in coming. Women over 30 gained the vote in 1918, but full voting equality with men was not granted until 1928.
Nellie Hall wrote to her father from prison in 1914: ‘No free spirit has ever been wrecked by a mean spirited oppression yet. And mine won’t be either.’
You will find Nellie’s hunger strike medal in Forward (1830-1909)
Mary Newill studied at the Birmingham School of Art. In the late 19th century the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement was reviving hand crafts, in a reaction against mass production. The Birmingham School of Art encouraged students to try new techniques, and pioneered art education for women. Female students were encouraged to work with metal, wood and stained glass as well as textiles and painting. Mary Newill was one of the women who forged ahead in techniques traditionally practised by men. Newill also worked as an illustrator and embroiderer, and became a teacher at the School of Art.
You can see Mary Newill’s stained glass panel in Forward (1830-1909)
Lilly Duckham OBE
Lilly was born in Birmingham on the 14 October 1892. She left school aged 14 and went into domestic service. In 1917 she enlisted with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps aged 25. Lilly was one of 10 women sent to the Western Front to be in charge of the Officer’s catering. Many disapproved of women working on the Western Front. In this extract from an interview with Lilly in 1981 she explained why she believed it was important for her, and other women to serve alongside men.
‘When I read of the quantity of boys that were being killed and that they, they wanted more men they wanted more people out there and they were going to try and experiment with girls you see I put my name through […] They asked if I wanted to stay at home or go abroad, well I very much wanted to go abroad there were only about five of us the rest were wanted to stay in England you know but I wanted to get out […] to do what I could […] I felt that was where the help was wanted was needed and that’s why I thought that’s where we should be and I mean the hardships and everything it was no more I felt it was no more for us than it was for the boys’.
Lilly was demobbed 6 months after the end of the war. Shortly after returning to Birmingham she was awarded an OBE for her war services.
You can listen to extracts from Lilly’s interview as well as other Birmingham women’s first world war stories in An Expanding City (1909-1945) in the Birmingham at War display
Shahin Ashraf was born in Birmingham in 1971. She is a fundraiser for Islamic Relief, an international aid organisation which began in Birmingham in 1984.
Shahin began volunteering for Islamic relief in 1989 after the Kashmir earthquake. In this extract from her interview for the history galleries she recalls what it was like as a volunteer.
‘We were basically going around the country collecting clothes in a big truck, there was a group of us and we were the only women that could drive at that time. [We then delivered] them back to the warehouse and […] helping […] sorting out clothes, making sure the clothes […] were okay for the country that they were going to. I mean a lot of people gave summer clothes and it was winter there so […] we couldn’t take those clothes’
Islamic Relief [was] in its infancy and then what happened was that […] Central News in Birmingham […] picked it up and suddenly there was an influx of clothes and the warehouse was full to the brim but they had […] hardly any volunteers
So this was the call for volunteers and I was one of the very few volunteers. In those days there was no texts, there no sms, there was no email, it was just word of mouth and Doctor Hany [the founder of Islamic Relief] had gone to the different colleges within Birmingham and he said I really need your help so if you could come to the warehouse […] and suddenly there was about 4-500 volunteers’.
You can listen to extracts from Shahin’s interview in Your Birmingham (1945-today)
Jo-Ann Curtis and Henrietta Lockhart, Curators – History