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.’
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
Over the past two months BMAG has played host to a four day digital graffiti project involving Nikki Pugh (project lead), Dr Gretchen Larson (research academic from Kings College London) and Ben Eaton (the technical specialist from Invisible Flock).
The aim of the project was to use interactive digital technology within a gallery space in order to understand if and how it can be used as a channel to express an audiences’ voice.
Two types of technology were used in the project; the first was Graffiti Research Lab’s L.A.S.E.R. Tag system and the second was an alternative system using a Kinect sensor outputted with Processing. Both systems required slightly different user interactions either with a laser pen or own hand and each produced different end results which were projected onto gallery walls and artwork. The L.A.S.E.R. Tag created sharper lines with a paint drip affect while the Kinect system produced more fluid curved lines.
The first few days of the project were spent testing the L.A.S.E.R. Tag system in a variety of galleries within BMAG. This system required the participant to draw with a laser pen onto an area of the gallery and the results were projected back onto the wall.
Visitors to the gallery had the opportunity to use the technology themselves and it was interesting to see how people interacted with system and space.
By the end of day three the technology was becoming slightly temperamental so for the final day an alternative system using a Kinect sensor was used.
The Kinect system required the participant to use their own hand to draw onto an area and again the results were projected back. This system produced more fluid lines than the L.A.S.E.R tag system but without the paint drip affect.
The Kinect system was just as engaging for participants but it also developed its own unpredictable problem (it didn’t detect a couple of people’s hand movements) and unfortunately there wasn’t time to explore what may have caused this problem.
Technical issues aside, it has been interesting to see the two types of technology in action and visitors seemed to be intrigued by the technology and enjoyed being involved in the project.
Nikki, Gretchen and Ben are now analysing their findings and will be reporting back to us and Kings College London, but overall the project found that there is potential with both systems with further testing and refinement.
For more detailed information on the project please see Nikki’s blog posts.
Digital Content Officer at Birmingham Museums.
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
The new Birmingham history galleries cover 900 years of history. One of the biggest challenges was deciding what to put in, and what to leave out. When designing a display like this you have to decide what your themes are going to be, and then ruthlessly stick to them.
So how did we go about selecting our 19th century displays? First of all, we had to identify the most significant stories. What made Birmingham stand out from other towns? Secondly, the strengths of our collection had to be considered. What objects did we have that could tell those stories? Thirdly, we had to think about the displays in the context of the architectural space. The area designated for the 1830-1909 period was split into three spaces – the spectacular domed gallery, with smaller and rather awkward spaces before and after it.
The abolition of slavery is our first 19th century theme and our portrait of Joseph Sturge provides the centrepiece. We faced a challenge, however, when trying to tell the story of women’s anti-slavery campaigning and the contribution of black campaigners who visited Birmingham. We had no objects to represent either of these groups, so we approached them in different ways. An object made during a recent project on female abolitionists makes a great link between past and present. A joint project with George Dixon J&I School resulted in some inspiring artwork and creative writing about black abolitionists.
We wanted to use the domed gallery in a theatrical way, and decided to aim for the atmosphere of a trade exhibition. This enabled us to focus on particular companies or industries, rather than showing ‘a bit of everything’. We incorporated aspects of Birmingham’s cultural life into this space as well. Keeping to our theme in this section meant that some objects were interpreted in interesting ways. We selected costume made in Birmingham so that it could be tied into the ‘trade exhibition’ theme. If an item was simply owned by a Birmingham person it had to be excluded. Similarly we could include the poignant child’s hearse and coffin as part of the trade exhibition because of the importance of Birmingham’s coffin industry.
Our third theme has the overall title of ‘Unequal Birmingham’, and looks at poverty and reform. Many different topics had to be brought together here, in quite a small space. One of the challenges of representing the poor is that very few objects survive, so we had to make the most of what we did have. The spectacular objects from the workhouse chapel provided a good starting point. Famous Birmingham reformers make their appearance here, including the political campaigner Thomas Attwood, and most famous of all, Joseph Chamberlain.
Choosing the themes and the objects is not, of course, the end of the process. One of the key elements of designing any display is to decide what messages you want to put across. We hoped to enable our visitors to make links between past and present – hence the screens in Unequal Birmingham which compare conditions in 19th century Birmingham with those in the 21st century. And we wanted to question some common assumptions, for instance by pointing out the negative aspects of Chamberlain’s improvement scheme. Consulting with our community action panel and with experts on Birmingham history helped us not only with the historical facts but also with our approach to emotive issues such as enslavement.
The displays can only scratch the surface of 19th century Birmingham. We hope they inspire people to find out more.
Curator of History
Curator Spot! Henrietta Lockhart talks about ‘Christ as the Man of Sorrows’ – artist Petrus Christus
Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery curator Henrietta Lockhart talks about ‘Christ as the Man of Sorrows’ by the artist Petrus Christus. This tiny panel dates from circa 1450. It would have been used to aid private prayer.
Watch a subtitled version of the video on Youtube.