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
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
In 1644, only a century before Soho House was built, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas! Carols were forbidden and anyone caught cooking a goose or baking a Christmas cake or boiling a pudding was in danger of fine, confiscation or worse.
By the 1800s it was once again a time of celebration, having been reinstated by Charles II. The Georgian Christmas season began on 6th of December (St. Nicholas Day). Gifts would be exchanged both then and on New Years Day and the main feasting occasion was 6th of January (Twelfth Night, Epiphany). St Stephen’s Day was 26th of December and is now better known as Boxing Day as this was when servants would be presented with gifts and donations made to charity.
The gentry spent the Christmas season in their country houses and didn’t return to their London addresses until February. It was a time of high celebration with gift and charity giving, balls, parties, games, gifts and lots of food. As families were already gathered together it was also an opportunity for weddings.
The Georgian Christmas menu would have included soup, turkey, goose, duck, and cheese. Mince pies have been eaten at Christmas in England since the sixteenth century, however they were made of minced meat. Only later was this replaced with dried fruit and spices. During this period Christmas pudding was better known as lum pottage.
The star of the show would have been Twelfth Cake, a version of present day Christmas cake. It was sliced and given to all members of the household including servants and guests. It contained a dried bean and a dried pea. The person whose slice contained the bean was King for the night; a slice with a pea indicated the Queen. Whoever won, regardless of their social standing and position in the household, was recognized by everyone as the evening’s King and Queen. By the Regency period, Twelfth cake became elaborate with added icing, trimmings, and figurines and it remained popular until the late Victorian period.
Decorating the home with holly, evergreens and mistletoe was well established and practiced throughout the Georgian period, however the Christmas tree was a tradition not yet adopted. It is widely believed that Queen Victoria is responsible for the popularity of the Christmas tree, as a tree would be placed in her bedroom each Christmas. After Victoria’s marriage in 1840 to Germany’s Prince Albert, it grew in popularity amongst the middle classes after the British press reported on the trees adorning Windsor Castle. However, it was George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, who brought the first version of the present day Christmas tree to Britain in 1800. She had it decorated it with gifts, dolls and tapers after her German traditions.
The yule log was chosen for the fire on Christmas Eve. Wrapped in hazel twigs and dragged home it was the centre piece and would burn in the fireplace during the Christmas season. Traditionally a piece would be kept back for the following year.
As part of the season’s celebrations British Pantomime grew in popularity during the Georgian period, particularly among the upper classes. Carols as we understand them didn’t exist although some such as ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks at Nights’, ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ were beginning to gain in popularity.
This Christmas there are festive tours of Soho House which offer the rare opportunity to see the House decorated for a Georgian Christmas and to hear tales of how the season was celebrated over two hundred years ago (for details visit: http://www.bmag.org.uk/events). There is also a special evening at Soho on 13th December where there will be carols and readings, followed by an opportunity to look around the historic House decorated for Christmas with a choir singing in the world famous Lunar Room (for details of this event visit: http://www.bmag.org.uk/events?id=3501.)
Visitor Services Assistant
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
How do you deal with rejection? Some, enviably, accept it, shrug it off and move on. If, however, you’re like me at the other end of the scale, you not only throw your toys out of the pram, but hurl them with indignation across the room and anyone in the vicinity should duck and cover! But that’s me, an emotional ‘pick & mix’, you never quite know what you’re going to get next, but you can be sure it’s always going to be something interesting!
I was initially inspired to write this article by Dan Auluk’s work, ‘”I am sorry to inform you…”’, showcasing his crumpled 2010 West Midlands Open rejection letter. I was perversely excited to envisage Dan on the day he received his rejection letter, crunching it up and hurling it in the bin in a frenzied act of emotion. Only later, pensively feeling remorse, retrieving it, tenderly smoothing it out and truly reflecting on the words.
But upon meeting Dan and listening to his story, how wrong could I have been. Dan explains to me how, from the age of 18, he used to keep all his job application rejection letters, taking pride in watching the pile grow, knowing he was being productive in applying for job opportunities rather than wasting his time procrastinating. So keeping his 2010 West Midlands Open rejection letter was a natural reaction to him. In fact, Dan kept his 2010 West Midlands Open rejection letter in pristine condition, right up to the week prior to the 2014 West Midlands Open, when he was inspired to crumple it up, fully embracing his enactment of frustration by actually throwing it in the bin, before finally submitting it as his entry.
Dan continues to explain how surreptitiously, he longed for another rejection for his 2014 West Midlands Open entry as Dan now ironically feels that the message of his work has been negated, simply in the act of being accepted into the exhibition. Go figure! The inspired mind of an artist is always a marvel.
Rejection is ‘part of life’, says Dan and should be ‘collected’. He never gets overly concerned about rejections for his art, ‘as at the end of the day it is solely down to the choice of the selectors’ and not a reflection of his art. As rational as Dan is, he does, however, admit to me, a slight feeling of hurt, when upon seeing a review of his work in the 2014 West Midlands Open he suddenly became aware that the 2010 West Midlands Open rejection letter was simply addressed as ‘Dear Artist’ and left unsigned. It took four years for Dan to notice that one, which he now finds rather amusing; as do I! Did you notice the cold, soulless style to such a potentially emotive letter? Go take another look.
I also met with Nita Newman (‘Far above the clouds #1’) who exudes absolute passion for her work as she explains the inspiration of viewing the world from so many different perspectives with multifarious layers. Despite her enthused and effusive fervour, Nita still does not allow rejection to affect her. Nita is surprised when people get upset about a rejection to a particular exhibition, ‘It’s not because your work is bad, it’s just not appropriate for them’ she explains, ‘just take it with a pinch of salt’. Sometimes Nita does feel that her work would fit into an exhibition she visits but has the positive outlook of ‘hey ho, there is another day!’ ‘Is art important?’ she asks rhetorically, ‘not in the greater scheme of life, family and friends are more important’, ‘it’s better to focus on the best bits in life’. I love this about Nita; passionate yet practical.
John Thirlwall (‘Rockface – N. Spain) enlightens me with how ‘rejections make me feel a wee bit low, but it passes quite swiftly. It’s not important enough to worry about, it’s just someone else’s (misguided! – he say’s tongue in cheek) judgement after all’. ‘Acceptance and rejection goes with the territory, it’s a case of ‘c’est la vie’ in my case’.
One of our other amazing artists, Steve Evans (‘Shadows) describes how he has also experienced his work being rejected for open exhibitions but reveals that ‘whilst I found it disappointing, I didn’t have an overly emotional reaction. During my engineering career I had been involved in countless bids and interviews, some successful some not. So, I guess I realised that you just have to dust yourself off and carry on.’
So where are the ‘Drama Queens’, Van Gough ear slashing, crazed Salvador Dali, eccentrically emotional kind of artists I expected to find? Well it appears that our artists are still deeply passionate about their work but have developed a much more peaceful, pragmatic and positive philosophy for towards rejection, which I very much admire, respect, envy and now aspire to.
I came away from my encounters feeling humbled by these artists progressive and sanguine attitudes and in a nice way, somewhat chastened! So come on Phil, time to put this learning into practice; deep breath….. aaaand, relax!….
By Phil Mellanby,
Phil volunteers at Birmingham Museums Trust as a fundraiser and house guide at Aston Hall. He has a penchant for West Midlands arts and heritage.
The West Midlands Open is a FREE exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from 25th October 2014 – 15th February 2015, for more details visit: http://www.bmag.org.uk/events?id=3425
Contributing artists websites:
Birmingham Stories is a series of blog posts exploring the experiences of Birmingham men and women during the First World War through the Museum’s collection.
Harold Hall was born in Woodgate on the outskirts of Birmingham in 1893. At the age of 14 he began working at Cadbury’s in the Biscuit Department. When war broke out in 1914, Harold volunteered for the Army but he was classed as unfit for military service. Harold had lost a finger in an accident when he was 15 years old. At the beginning of the war men volunteering for the army were often rejected on the grounds of poor health, sight, or bad teeth. They could also be rejected if they were not tall enough. Undeterred, Harold then enlisted as a Private with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) on the 24 November 1914. The RAMC were a non-combatant corps of the armed forces who undertook a range of orderly and medical duties on the home front and overseas.
Home Front Hospitals
In August 1914 parts of the University of Birmingham campus, including the Aston Webb building, were commandeered by the Territorial Force to become Territorial General Hospitals.The University was known as the 1st Southern General Hospital. In May 1915 City Hospital, then Dudley Road Infirmary, became an annex of the 1st Southern General. By May 1917 it was established as a hospital in its own right, known as the 2/1st Southern General Hospital.
Numerous other smaller annex hospitals and convalescent homes were established in Birmingham. They were often run by a combination of the RAMC, the Red Cross or St John’s Ambulance. They could also be sponsored by local businesses and individuals.
Harold trained at the 1st Southern General Hospital before moving to Dudley Road Infirmary in 1915 where he worked in the kitchens.
Harold was a member of the Woodgate Valley Prize Band. In August 1916 he joined a newly formed Dudley Road staff band. The band regularly performed for patients at the hospital, and on military parades. They also performed at the funerals of soldiers who died in Birmingham hospitals, many of whom were buried in Ludgate Hill Cemetery.
Before the introduction of conscription in 1916, Military Tribunals were established in 1915 as part of the Derby Scheme. The tribunals aimed to free up more men for military service overseas. When Harold attended a tribunal he was deemed fit for overseas service.
In August 1917 Harold left England for France. He was initially attached to the 1st Highland Division Second Field Ambulance. Harold was a stretcher bearer. In an interview in 1981 he described what his role entailed.
‘[A normal day on duty at the Line] There would be the walking cases…there would be the stretcher cases…and when they were gassed…all sorts of sickness amongst them of various forms…they all had to have attention, didn’t they….see…[My job was] To follow up and take care of casualties…as they arose…to bring them to the [First Aid] Post and carry them across trenches and all that sort of thing…’
Harold Hall served during the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. This photograph depicts the Advanced Dressing Station of 51st Highland Division Field Ambulance on the 20 November 1917. In an interview in 1981 Harold described what was happening in the photograph.
‘They were First Aid Posts used by us for stretcher bearers and we has to get the casualties off the stretchers and and put them on that windlass thing there and the German prisoners there were releasing the handles to let the stretchers slide down the ramp into an underground hospital which was in a German dugout. The surgeon and doctors were down there and they were doing amputation and all sorts of things on the casualties as they came in …see…they were in a pretty bad way…the chaps you were sending down there…the walking cases…we could get them away…but we couldn’t get the stretcher cases away…where immediate operations were needed…to save their lives…’
Harold probably volunteered at the same time as his friend George ‘Stanley’ Payne, who was also from Woodgate. Stanley was killed at Marfaux in France on the 15 July 1918. He was serving with the 15th Field Ambulance. He died when the First Aid Post he was working at received a direct hit from a German shell. Stanley was 23 years old. During the First World War 743 officers and 6130 soldiers in the RAMC were killed.
Harold Hall donated his collection of personal memorabilia associated with his First World War service in the RAMC in the 1980s. To see more objects relating to Harold’s First World War service with the RAMC or Birmingham hospitals during the First World War please go to BMAG Flikr.
Birmingham Museums are interested in collecting objects relating to Birmingham people during the First World War. Did your ancestor serve in any of the following areas either on the Home Front or overseas?
- Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service
- Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD)
- Red Cross
- St John’s Ambulance
- Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU)
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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