The University of Birmingham has pioneered a fantastic scheme with local cultural partners, where Birmingham graduates can apply for paid internships at partner institutions. Last summer I was absolutely thrilled to find out that I had been offered the place at Birmingham Museums Trust in the curatorial department of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG). I worked closely with Fine Art Curator, Victoria Osborne, who was my mentor. As part of the scheme, the nine other interns and I were in regular contact with the University; this included two training sessions held at Winterbourne House where we heard inspiring presentations delivered by representatives from a variety of cultural institutions and received invaluable career advice, media training and the opportunity to star in a radio play on our visit to the BBC!
Within the curatorial department my role involved researching the collection by responding to enquiries, facilitating print room visits, assisting with the care of objects by updating the collection management system and helping with exhibition planning. I was lucky to see the opening of the new Birmingham History Galleries as well as the contemporary art exhibition, Metropolis: reflections on the modern city. I was excited to be offered the opportunity to work with Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Lisa Beauchamp and Exhibitions Officer (and previous Cultural Intern), Katie Hall, on some of the interpretation for ‘Metropolis’. I wrote a Gallery Trail that guides visitors round the museum, comparing works in the exhibition with some of the more familiar images from the museum’s collection that relate to the theme of the metropolis. I’m really proud to have compiled the guide and, importantly, to see visitors reading it!
The main assignment that I was very fortunate to have been entrusted with was the wonderful opportunity to curate the re-display of 14th-16th century art in the permanent exhibition galleries (Galleries 26 & 27). Gallery 26 was due to be re-furbished with new lighting and decor and my role was to plan the re-hang of the works in this space, as well as to rotate some of the objects on display with those from the picture store or collections centre, as well as updating the interpretation. There are some important acquisitions in this part of the collection and I wanted to highlight them in a new light. I gave careful consideration to which images would work best next to each other and thought about the stylistic comparisons that could be made in relation to the Renaissance and the Reformation. For example, I decided to bring from the picture store, The Agony in the Garden, by Garofalo into Gallery 26 to be shown next to Bonifazio de Pitati’s Adoration of the Shepherds. While these works exemplify Italian Catholic imagery, Cranach’s Lamentation of Christ, which is shown in the same section, demonstrates the ideals of the Protestant Reformation.
I also wanted to bring some objects from Gallery 27, which included lots of small, precious objects, into a display case in Gallery 26 so that chalices and reliquaries could be seen with the altar paintings, therefore creating a better sense of their original display and function in a church. I also chose to display some metalwork by a contemporary artist within the display case – Adrian Hope’s Reliquary for a Traveller. This beautiful work was inspired by medieval reliquaries, therefore, I showed it alongside a 14th-century reliquary (see photo below).
In Gallery 27 I focused my display on two themes: women and craftsmanship. The objects in this gallery all relate to Christian worship and devotion, however, by grouping them into these two themes I aimed to show how they could be better understood and appreciated by today’s museum visitor. Thanks to Curator of Applied Art, Sylvia Crawley’s expertise relating to the Pinto collection (around 6,000 wooden objects collected by Edward Pinto), she brought to my attention a marvellous example of craftsmanship in the form of a 16th-century intarsia panel – an image created using a variety of pieces of wood. The panel depicts The Annunciation and therefore fitted perfectly into the display of religious imagery, especially being shown alongside a painting of the Nativity. I was also really excited to be able to show two prints by Albrecht Dürer, whose technical skill for making woodcut prints fitted into the theme of craftsmanship and the images that I selected included depictions of the Virgin and Child and St Anthony outside a City.
Selecting objects for the display focused on representations of women was fairly straightforward given that they had already been on show in Gallery 27, but they had not been grouped together in this way. I also brought a painting from Gallery 26 into the case that shows the Virgin and Child. The new display emphasises the fact that representations of women in the 14th-16th centuries highlighted Christian virtue through the example of female saints. Two statuettes representing Susannah and the Elders and Eve exemplify the way in which the artist could depict the female nude without causing scandal. Given that BMAG has a famous collection of Pre-Raphaelite works, of which, many represent virtue or sin through the female muse, by focusing on women in earlier works in the collection, visitors can consider how representations of femininity have changed (or in many cases not changed) throughout the history of art.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at BMAG – I’ve learnt so much and will never forget the fantastic experience I had there. I would recommend to any Birmingham graduates interested in working in the cultural sector to apply for this fantastic scheme.
University of Birmingham Cultural Intern
at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery
Good things come in small packages. Gallery 27 may be one of our smallest gallery spaces, but the new display of 14th to 16th century European art contains some gems which are worth spending time with.
One half of the room explores the way Christian art has used women to represent extremes of good and evil. A bronze sculpture shows Eve, who took an apple from the forbidden tree and caused humanity’s expulsion from Paradise. In contrast, Suzannah was a symbol of virtue because she refused to give in to the advances of two men who interrupted her bath.
The Virgin Mary, the ultimate example of female purity, is depicted with simple realism in Verrochio’s terracotta panel. This panel was made in the same workshop in which Leonardo da Vinci receiving his training as a young apprentice.
The other half of the room brings together examples of the technical skill and creativity displayed by the artists of this period. The tiny panel by Simone Martini is particularly moving: it shows a saint grieving over the dead Christ. The panel showing Christ no longer exists so we have to imagine the object of the man’s grief.
One of my favourite items is the painting of the nativity by an unknown Flemish artist known as the ‘Master of the Prado Adoration’. This miraculous scene is set in surroundings which would have been entirely familiar to a 14th century audience. The stable and Flemish townscape in the background would have created the impression that Christ was being born in the ‘here and now’. Joseph seems particularly real to me – the kind of elderly man you could meet on the bus.
Curator of History