Me At the Museum, (You in the Winter Gardens)

(BMT placement, Week 1 (12-13/1/2017)

A new term has begun, and everyone on the ILMP course has begun a three-month placement with Birmingham Museums Trust. I’m working alongside my colleague Anastasia (who prefers the term ‘co-worker’) fulfilling different roles within BMT’s Collecting Birmingham project, collecting objects for the museum representing everyday life in the Birmingham wards of Nechells, Soho, Ladywood, Lozells and Aston.

Whilst Anastasia is focusing on the project’s objects and the process of acquiring and curating them (which I’m sure there will be ample opportunity to read about later), I have been paired with Charlotte Holmes, BMT’s Community Engagement Officer. My role focuses on community consultation, with the aim of understanding how objects relate to people’s individual stories, and how these stories can be recorded and presented by the project.

Our first week has taken us into the bowels of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery building, where we share cosy, labyrinthine office space with the museum’s varied and friendly curatorial staff. We have visited both of the existing Collecting Birmingham exhibition spaces at Soho House and the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, which tell stories of migration and working life respectively.

We also had the tremendous privilege of paying a visit to the famed Mr. Chishti, an elder at Birmingham Central Mosque who we had heard of earlier in the course in relation to the advice he offered curators during the development of the Faith in Birmingham gallery. At the time it was built, the mosque, located in Highgate, was the largest purpose-built building of its kind in Europe. They have recently taken the decision to replace the original speakers which have been installed in the prayer room since the mosque’s founding in 1975. Birmingham Central Mosque is also significant in that it was the first British mosque to obtain permission to broadcast the call to prayer, in 1986.

Mr Chishti gave us a tour of the building and referred to many interesting stories and important local people connected to the mosque. The same imam has taught at Highgate since 1975, and at least one member of the community has consistently performed the call to prayer over the same time. Mr Chishti himself has also headed up the Birmingham-based Pakistani Sports Association for a number of years, and showed us a poster from a Kabbadi Tournament he organised at Alexander Stadium in 1990. Ben Corcoran, a conservator at BMT, measured the speakers and other objects Mr Chishti had offered the museum, and I was given the task of individually photographing them. This enables the team to fill out an official, more detailed acquisition statement at a later stage.

Later, at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, Anastasia, Charlotte and I conducted interviews with museum visitors in an attempt to gauge the effectiveness of the Collecting Birmingham exhibition at the site. Questions included whether the stories had proved informative, and whether visitors felt inspired to share their stories and the objects related to them with the museum.

All in all, it has been a very exciting week, and with a new exhibition on popular protest in the works and the need to record new stories and meet new audiences in order to deliver this, the next couple of months should prove fascinating.

Laser Gun

M83’s song ‘Laser Gun’ features the bridge “got it all / got everything / got all I need”. The modern conservator has to instead battle to preserve a collection for indefinitely long periods of time with slashed funding and minimal resources, much like building sandcastles against an oncoming tide. But they do have laser guns.
As impressive as a tour around Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s subterranean conservation studios is, it is important to remember that this is one of just two conservation spaces in a West Midlands region boasting around 200 museums. In order to complete the work they do, the conservation team’s reduced workforce is very reliant on volunteers who give their time to help clean objects or polish silverware.
To add some power to the great responsibility they bear, the conservationists do have some pretty impressive technology to assist them with analysis as well as interventive and preventive conservation. The studio’s various microscopes outnumber the people who work there, and a microwave-sized XRF machine in the corner uses radiation to discern what objects are made of. In another room, a larger digital X-Ray cabinet records the insides of taxidermy onto reusable plates. It is also leased out for private work completed by archaeological trusts. An FTIR gun completes a similar job to the XRF machine but uses infrared light instead of microwaves and can be fire at paintings and textiles to analyse different pigments. The Laser Gun is not an analytical tool but is used to clean the surface of certain objects.
As well as wielding these powerful weapons of science, the conservator also has to make very difficult ethical decisions as part of their everyday job. This could concern whether it is right to change the substance an object is made of in order to extend its lifetime. Conservators are also expected to grapple with the riddle of Theseus’ Ship, a paradox which asks how many component pieces must be replaced before an object can be considered to have fundamentally changed.
On top of all of this, conservationists are also taking their expertise into public-facing areas of the museum, enriching the visitor experience by demonstrating different techniques in public workshops. Birmingham Museum has recently run these kind of projects centred on their collection of mummies and the Staffordshire Hoard.
On top of all of this the conservationist has to weather inevitable indignation and outrage when they make decisions like adding a handle to a pot, or changing the colour of an object so that it doesn’t rust away completely. It can’t be an easy job. But they do have Laser Guns. img_1614 img_1593 img_1591luke

Edge of 17

The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) is an imposing structure. The architecture itself is a good representation of the issues the museum faces in its attempts to appeal to and represent a modern, diverse and changing city.

Architecture and the use of space is currently at the forefront of BMAG’s vision for change. Built in 1885, the Grade II listed building presents serious issues in terms of accessibility. Those unable to walk have to use a lift in a side-street rather than enter through the front door. Inside, the art gallery section of the building has gone largely unaltered since the Victorian era. A Heritage Lottery funded project intends to completely reshape the interior of the building, enabling a more varied range of exhibits in two and three dimensions, as well as digital format. It is hoped that this will result in a less intimidating environment, with more layered exhibits focused on key themes, and an emphasis on storytelling.

This issue of accessibility runs deeper than simply the physical building. Along with vaulted ceilings and marble pillars, the Victorians installed an Imperial, colonialist vision of what a museum should be, resulting in not only impressive classical architecture, but a collection shaped by the myths of the British Empire.

Over 130 years later, the Imperial project has failed and Birmingham is a diverse and modern city consisting in large parts of the descendants of people colonised by Britain, who no longer believe the myths fashionable at the time BMAG was built. The result is a no doubt impressive museum building that strikes a discordant note with the city to which is belongs and intends to educate and represent. The art gallery is pleasant but incredibly dry, featuring biblical scenes, European landscapes and portraits of white people. Similarly, the gallery of ‘world cultures’ is filled with the trinkets and trophies of antiquaries and missionaries from the 18th and 19th Centuries. One of the placards genuinely recommended Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as further reading on the history of the Congo Free State.

The blame for this cannot be laid at the feet of an ambitious, driven, incredibly passionate and ultimately reduced staff doing the best they can with the limited resources available. There are reasons to be excited about BMAG. The 2012 History of Birmingham exhibit is bright, engaging and attractive to a range of ages and backgrounds. The new room on Faith in Birmingham has done well to involve lots of different community leaders in a project which is again bright and colourful as well as being incredibly reverent. The curators’ attempt to involve religious communities in returning many of the exhibited items to their religious context is an excellent idea, and the project has been recognised with a volunteer award because of the community involvement it inspired.

Most of the pre-20th Century art and history looks well-established and comfortable in BMAG, which is to be expected given that they are the kind of works the museum was built to house. Apart from the two examples above, most of the exhibits representing themes outside the Victorian Imperial sphere, such as the black history month exhibition, look out of place or temporary (usually because they are). Apparently Handsworth DJ Wassifa once played a reggae set in the famous Industrial Hall. This is exactly the sort of unexpected reclaiming of a stuffy old space that I think would make BMAG incredibly appealing, so it was a disappointment to learn that Wassifa only played to a conference rather than to a public audience.

BMAG’s vision for the future looks promising in freeing it from the weight of its Imperial beginnings. The desire to secure some of Barbara Walker’s work is an excellent example of this, as the gallery seeks to be more representative of local artists. Walker’s work 17 ( intentionally pokes fun at the white, sterile Ladybird books of the 1950s and aims to reclaim these to represent the history of the Caribbean community to which she belongs. This painting does well to sum up the process required to adapt BMAG to serve the young, super-diverse, post-colonial city that is 21st Century Birmingham.