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 (goo.gl/0zYFYH) 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.

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