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
This is one of our most frequent questions and the response always fills me with great pride. The simple answer is that it was purpose built as a museum and art gallery, and when it first opened its doors on November 28th 1885 it was as full of art as it is today.
Perhaps a broader question would be ‘WHY did Birmingham build a Museum and Art Gallery?”
The answer to this question is best understood as a series of steps beginning in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.
STEP 1 – Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham were competing to become England’s ‘second city’. The Middle Classes began to use art galleries as a means of expressing their identity and to raise the civic profile of the cities they lived in. However, in order for public museums and art galleries to be built local councils and governments had to change their attitudes towards the arts – this was a slow process. Groups of Art Reformers sprung up in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. They championed the idea of setting up galleries and had four main aims:
- To provide healthy recreation for the Working Classes
- To improve workers’ satisfaction in pleasurable labour and industrial design by providing objects of study
- To help workers to lead more fulfilling lives by showing them the grace and beauty of the world
- To help audiences see the ugliness created by industrial capitalism and make them change the modern urban environment
STEP 2 – Birmingham School of Design was established in 1843. Those involved with the school wanted an Industrial museum to display objects that would inspire the artisans. They wanted a gallery that would make art accessible to the greatest number of people. Suddenly there was an institution devoted to creating beautiful things but the setting was far from inspiring. The city centre was crowded with filthy slums. Chimneys churned out black smoke and people worked around the clock in unhygienic factories. (For a more fleshed out description of how bad conditions were for the average worker Charles Dickens gives some great descriptions of Birmingham and the Black Country during the 1840s in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’).
STEP 3 – Birmingham’s local government had a reputation for ‘penny-pinching narrow-mindedness’ (Stuart Davies, ‘By the Gains of Industry Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 1885-1895’). As evidence of their lack of interest in culture, they failed the Free Libraries and Museums Act when it first came into being in 1845. It was finally passed on the 21st February 1860 and a committee was formed to create a library and Museum and Art Gallery. Around this time leading citizens remade the local government and the city was in a position to embrace some of the ideas advocated by the Art Reformers.
STEP 4 – The Birmingham Midland Institute opened a small exhibition of objects and pictures in 1860. The exhibition included the Bust of David Cox (so I like to think of this as the beginnings of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery!)
STEP 5 – Over the next 15 years the collection grew rapidly. There were numerous successful exhibitions including one of amour and jewellery, which attracted 160,000 visitors in 1868. There were huge donations from Philanthropists such as the Tangye Brothers, which amounted to millions of pounds in today’s money. The Public Picture Gallery Fund was launched in 1871 to collect and commission paintings. Frederick Leighton’s ‘A Condottiere’ was the first to be purchased in 1873. Mayor Joseph Chamberlain gave £1000 of his own money for an industrial museum in 1875. All of this interest meant that the council was under pressure to find a site and funds to build a gallery in the centre of the city.
STEP 6 – Joseph Chamberlain municipalised Birmingham’s failing gas works and made them highly successful.The company grew and had to move out of its offices. The council used the profits from the gas company to build new offices on the land acquired through the Free Libraries and Museums Act and put an art gallery on top. This is why there are so many stairs in the main entrance to the museum, as most of the galleries are on the second floor. Henry Richard Yeoville Thomason won a competition to design the building and Whitworth Wallis was selected to be the keeper. This meant he was responsible for collecting, displaying and securing the collection.
Saturday November 28th 1885 – The permanent Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was opened with a celebration at the Town Hall and an address by the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII). It consisted of the main entrance, the Vestibule and Round Room, the ‘long gallery’, the Wedgewood and Italian galleries (no prizes for guessing what was in those) and the Industrial Hall. Nowadays the Italian gallery is the shop, the Wedgewood gallery is the Buddha gallery and the ‘long gallery’ is the Edwardian Tea Room.
I hope this goes somewhere to explaining – in a simplified way – how there came to be such a grand building in the centre of Birmingham and why it is such an important institution to the city and its people. In fact the simple answer to ‘Why did Birmingham build a Museum and Art Gallery?’ is for the people.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
For more information about the History of BMAG read the previous blog post: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery History Project.
July 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of one of Birmingham’s most famous personalities. Joseph Chamberlain transformed Birmingham during the 1870s when he was the town’s Mayor. He later went on to represent Birmingham in Parliament and to serve in the cabinet as Colonial Secretary. He was a controversial figure during his lifetime and continues to be so today. This is a series of snapshots from Chamberlain’s career, based upon objects in our collection.
As Mayor of Birmingham, Chamberlain ran the town like a business, taking utilities like gas and water into public control. He improved the health of the population through better sanitation. One of his most controversial acts was the demolition of large swathes of ‘slum’ housing which made way for the commercial centre of Corporation Street; this enhanced the business environment but many people were displaced and not re-housed. On 17 June 1874 Chamberlain laid the foundation stone of the new Council House, which still stands at the heart of Birmingham. This trowel commemorates the event.
Postcard of Joseph and Mrs Chamberlain
Chamberlain’s personal life was beset by tragedy. His first and second wives, cousins Harriet and Florence Kenrick, both died in childbirth. At the age of 52, Chamberlain found happiness with 23 year old American Mary Endicott. Images of Chamberlain usually portray him as looking severe, but in this postcard we get a rare glimpse of him smiling.
Satirical Drawing of Joseph Chamberlain
In the 1890s the British government was keen to keep South Africa within the British Empire rather than see it become a Boer republic. In 1899 Chamberlain, now Colonial Secretary, was preparing for war against the Boers. In this caricature, Chamberlain pretends to ‘Oom Paul’, the President of the South African Republic, that ‘the dogs of war’ (a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar) are just going for a walk. This cartoon was published in Punch.
Wooden Folder Presented to Joseph Chamberlain
The Boer War came to an end in 1902, and in the following year Chamberlain toured South Africa to promote reconciliation between the British and the Afrikaners. He was broadly welcomed, and persuaded the Prime Minister John Gordon Sprigg to hold elections. This elaborate wooden blotter was presented to him by the South African Progressive Association. It is lined inside with blotting paper and was used to blot letters to ensure that the ink was dry.
Satirical Postcard of Joseph Chamberlain
In his early career Chamberlain was a radical reformer, but later he became increasingly imperialist. This satirical postcard pokes fun at a variety of policies that Chamberlain ‘juggled’ as Colonial Secretary. One of his last campaigns was for the imposition of tariffs upon trade with countries outside the British Empire, in order to favour imperial trade. He became notorious for using two loaves of bread as visual aids during a speech in Birmingham, arguing that a loaf baked under tariff reform would be no more expensive than one baked under free trade. The phrase ‘Birmingham bred’ is a pun on this.
Despite his mixed fortunes as a national politician, Chamberlain was always a popular figure in Birmingham. Throughout his career he used a monocle and wore an orchid in his buttonhole, and his instantly recognisable image was reproduced on countless souvenirs. His 70th birthday in 1906 was marked by huge celebrations and a parade through the city centre was attended by thousands. This souvenir programme cost threepence.
To see more objects from our Chamberlain collections, visit ‘Birmingham: its people, its history’ on the third floor of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, or see our Chamberlain Flickr page.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Visitor Assistant at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
The expanding city is the 4th gallery in the suite of new Birmingham history galleries and looks at the period between 1909 and 1945. The gallery is divided into two sections, the first, A Vision of Birmingham, looks at the development of the suburban Birmingham during the early 20th century, and the second, Birmingham at War, focuses on the experiences of Birmingham people during the first and second world wars.
Within the expanding city, I was able to select some fantastic objects with great stories including: cream pots once used by dairy farmers in Moseley during the 1920s, and a 1914 Birmingham Battalion badge issued to men who volunteered for the Birmingham Pals at the beginning of the first world war; but for me the highlight was the opportunity to use recordings of people sharing their personal experiences.
Cream Pot, Cold Bath Farm, Moseley
Lapel Badge, Birmingham Battalion, 1914
The Museum has collected oral testimonies since the early 1980s, and has amassed an archive of over 1000 recordings with Birmingham people on topics as diverse as working life, migration, war, and the Bull Ring markets. Today we consider collecting oral histories a vital part of developing our Birmingham history collections, and where possible we will conduct an interview when acquiring a contemporary object.
‘Now it’s forgotten sometimes how during the war there were lots of refugees that came into Britain. They came from all parts of Europe, but many of them came from Austria, Czechoslovakia, there was in fact what they call a Czech army. A special group of men who joined the British Army of Czechoslovakians and other foreigners of a like, who wanted to fight fascism’. Lilly Moody
Enabling to someone tell their own story is very powerful, which is why the use of oral histories was key to developing these galleries. Most of the displays are supported by a sound post where you can listen to a range of topics including: working at Cadbury’s, moving into a suburban council house during the 1930s, and volunteering for the Caribbean Regiment during the second world war.
The Museum has particularly strong oral history collections relating the two world wars, and we wanted to make the most of these interviews in the new galleries. The central feature of Birmingham at War is an installation which features interviews with over 30 Birmingham people.
Jo-Ann Curtis, Curator (History)
Curatorial tours for an Expanding City
Throughout 2013 there are a number of curator-led tours of the Birmingham history galleries. The following tours will focus specifically on An Expanding City or may feature it as part of a wider gallery tour.
Tickets are available from reception and cost £2 per person. Tours begin at 1:00 in the Round Room.
- 7 May – Cadbury’s Angels: Experience of Women Workers in the Early 20th Century by Jo-Ann Curtis
- 18 June – From paintings to postcards: snap shots of Birmingham through its history by Jo-Ann Curtis
- 2 July – Faith and Social Conscience: some examples of faith in action from Birmingham’s history by Henrietta Lockhart
- 17 September – Birmingham at War: Industry during wartime, by Jo-Ann Curtis
- 15 October – Birmingham: a city made by migration, by Henrietta Lockhart
As I’ve discovered, the model is already inspiring interest in Birmingham’s medieval past, and, for some, it’s presenting what they once saw as a dull topic in a vibrant and accessible way. Conversations so far have ranged from serious discussions about what the archaeology from the Bull Ring excavations can tell us about Birmingham in the Middle Ages, to me discussing with people which houses we’d like to live in. The latter point isn’t as trivial a topic as you might think, because imagining is part of ‘experiencing’ and understanding history. The success of this display will be based on visitors not simply viewing the archaeology as ‘lifeless’ objects, but by making the link between the objects and the people who made them, used them, or sold them. So, don’t feel silly for imagining which house you’d live in or where you’d work. This is a good starting point for beginning to understand what life must have been like for our medieval ancestors.
Birmingham in 1300. Any houses that take your fancy?
The model sits at the centre of the new medieval gallery, Origins, and this is deliberate. It’s not a stand-alone interactive, as it has been designed to act as a ‘gateway’ for understanding all of the medieval objects on display in the gallery. This brings me on to one of my favourite objects; the skull of a hunting dog. It’s most likely the skull of a greyhound, one of the oldest breeds of dog known to man. The skull dates from the 14th century and was actually found at Weoley Castle, around six miles from Birmingham city centre.
Skull of a hunting dog now on display in the new History Galleries, Birmingham: Its People, Its History.
So, how is it relevant to the model of medieval Birmingham? Well, the de Birmingham lords would have also kept greyhounds, and we know this from the extensive deer park that existed next door to the town.
William de Birmingham hunting in his deer park.
In fact, the deer park existed before the town. The manor of Birmingham covered an even larger area stretching from the River Rea in Digbeth at one end, to Edgbaston at the other. The town Peter de Birmingham founded in 1166 occupied a small patch of land within the manor in comparison, but as the town became more successful, the subsequent de Birmingham lords released more of their deer park, until eventually it was absorbed by the expanding town.
The water-filled ditch in the middle of the image acted as the boundary line of the town. By 1300, tanning pits were occupying what was once the deer park.
The greyhound skull can tell us a lot about how land usage gradually changed in medieval Birmingham. Any self-respecting lord of the manor had a deer park because venison was a luxury meat and being able to invite your friends over to hunt was a sure sign of status. For the de Birminghams to ‘sacrifice’ something that represented their social standing, the town had to be prospering, and it was. Initially it was probably ‘topping-up’ their annual income, but the realisation of the town’s success and potential convinced them to release more land from their manor. This allowed the town over time to get bigger and meet the growing demand of trade. The idea of lordship was changing and land usage was changing with it. The town was now becoming the status indicator rather than the deer park.
Greyhounds were bred for the nobility in the Middle Ages and any ‘commoner’ caught with one would be severely punished and the dog killed. This was seen as a justifiable act to preserve hunting rights.
My greys running on Bamburgh beach this year and probably why I’m obsessed with this object! The breed is still favoured for its speed and agility today.
We can use this object to understand how feudalism was breaking down in Birmingham and England as a whole. The park was becoming gradually less important as the town prospered. That’s to say that the deer park was now more valuable to the lord as part of the town, than it was as his hunting ground. The economy was no longer solely based on feudal obligations, whereby peasants worked the land for the lord in return for living on his manor. We know that in Birmingham as early as 1232, sixteen townsmen had come to an agreement with William de Birmingham (an earlier William than the one featured in our model) to free themselves from their haymaking duties. It was more beneficial to William for these merchants and tradesmen to sell their goods at market and support the growth of his town, than to help out with this communal obligation. This was part of the gradual move from a land-based economy to a money-based economy.
By this stage, the lord of the manor was looking outwards rather than inwards, beyond the boundaries of the manor, as it was trade from the wider area that would secure the success of his town and his status as lord. Owning a town within your manor was now part of the aspirations of the aristocracy, and while deer parks were by no means out of fashion, it seems that for the de Birminghams, at least, entrepreneurial vision had superseded hunting pursuits in the ranks of lordly endeavours.
A successful investment! The market triggered Birmingham’s growth and the town continued to expand gradually into the rest of the manor.
Remember that the new History Galleries, Birmingham, Its People, Its History opens next month on 12th October.
Keep up to date with the progress of the galleries by following me on Twitter @CinnamonLatte17.
Sarah Hayes, Freelance Curator