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.

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