An Architect’s Dream

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During the second term as part of my MA IN Innovation and Leadership in Museum Practice I will be working on a live project for twelve weeks in one of the nine museums sites that exist across Birmingham. I am working with the conservation team on the fine art collection at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

So far, working on the project I have found to be challenging but enjoyable. I have been looking at the fine art collection of Birmingham Museums Trust, as well meeting staff at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. One of the project’s challenges is to match the description in the database to the object in the store, as well remembering the basic maths of the measuring units.

Part of the project involves learning about the technologies that Birmingham Museums Trust uses to monitor the environment and the measurements of lux (light). We will also be updating the information on the collection by measuring the frames. My activities also involve making a note of any damaged frames, measuring objects and adding labels next to objects. At end of this process we will be working out the percentage of how much space that the collection is currently occupying. I will produce an evaluation report which includes proposals to improve long-term storage facilities for the collection Working on the live projects gives us the opportunity to work alongside the staff at the museums whist developing new skills for our future careers.

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.

They’re quite aware of what they’re goin’ through , Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.

During this week’s lectures, we have focused on the changing role of museums in society; exploring the ways in which the museum is seen by the public and how influential the museum can be within communities. Once seen as a container of knowledge, BMT has adapted to remove connotations of authority over the public, in favour for a dedication to the public to preserve collections, and both politically and culturally reflect their interests. Engaging with the public has enabled a shift for BMT. Ensuring their audiences’ ideas for exhibitions are valued, as well as to portray their responsibility to the public, the trust on all sites, aims to achieve accessibility. An example of this is by their involvement with well-being groups, ensuring accessibility through both physical and intellectual means. In conjunction to Duncan Cameron’s ideas of re-imagining the museum in his 1971 article – all sites perceive their museum as a platform for engagement and not as a temple intended for only the academics amongst us.

Visiting Blakesley Hall in this weeks practical session, with Site Manager and former Curator Steven, we discussed their changing paradigms. As a heritage site based in Yardley, the museum itself is quite a recluse in comparison to some of the other sites within BMT. Working on the importance of community engagement, the site focuses on family segmentations as its main driver for commercial income. As part of the changing shift in museum practice, the 21st century has bought with it cuts and challenges that effect income and audience attendance. Blakesley Hall has actively tried to maintain a free entrance fee, but have unfortunately recently had to add admission fees when visiting the Hall.  However, when looking at BMT’s demographic percentages, Blakesley Hall has the highest percentage of return visitors- particularly in the summer months. This is because their experience aims to emphasise the need for education in museums and changing lives through well-being techniques. As the grounds to the Hall are free, there is a high interest for families and all visitors to reside in the gardens and take part in interactive games.

Contributing to the community and environment enables Blakesley Hall to perceive itself as a place owned by the public and wholly for their benefit. Working alongside mental health groups, is just one example where they aim to benefit the public. By attending a communally-based site, their audiences can spend as long as they wish within the grounds and retire from thoughts of the everyday. This in turn benefits the income and number of visitors to the site, as commercial hire for the space generates income, as well as the use of the tea room through the day.

Becoming commercially driven is an aspect that Blakesley Hall has to adapt to in order to generate income, despite cuts to their staff workforce. However, their passion and enthusiasm to create events that are both income generated and above all educational, is clearly displayed. Blakesley Hall’s impact on learning is key to contextualising the Tudor period to their audience, be that through aligning with the educational curriculum or portraying key aspects of the period through innovative ways. Guided tours and objectively driven events have proven to achieve this through Tudor Christmas events to planned trails through the Hall’s herb garden. These events particularly articulate the heritage of the site- which is important, but there are also events not so history based to attract wider ranges of audiences, such as the ‘Yardley Arts Weekend’. Within this event the entire site is free and allows entrance into the Hall, therefore enticing secondary visits.

With plans to create more digitally driven interpretation in a family resource room, Blakesley Hall provides an authentic depiction of the Tudor period through interactive and innovative means. Whilst on a tour of the Hall itself, as a group we found that the lack of interpretation in the rooms took away from the historic contexts associated to the Hall. Without a guided a tour, the Hall became a shell containing beautiful articulations of the period but with no way to decipher the artefacts or spaces themselves. We felt that to improve there needed to be small interpretation boards on artefacts or within rooms, with basic and interesting facts on to entice the significance of its heritage.

21st Century Life



It is best to move with the times then getting left behind, then sometimes when life feels so comfortable it seems that everything is handed over, like a silver platter. When something unexpected happens, it can be a shock to the system. There are different behaviour responses when a sudden change occurs; we can be fearful or learn to adapt and could to better opportunities or change earlier and appreciate the changes.

Before the practical session, we all to read a book called, ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ By Spencer Johnson. The book is about four characters; Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw; and how they response to sudden of change when the ‘Cheese’ is moved or gone. The reading reflections on the changes of a business, an individual or a group of people. On a side note, I would recommend reading this book it is very interesting and when reading the text there are different viewpoints that can be reflected about yourself or different organisations.

In the practical session, we learned about the organisational and cultural change of Birmingham Museum Trust; when it was formed and the changes when two different organisations merged, this including a redesign of the organisational culture and the different responses of the changes that happen after the merged. In a reference to the reading. Also during the session, we looked at the vision of Birmingham Museums Trust and the five strategic aims, how they incorporate with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s collection, displays and to engage with the public; including to come up different plans for possible scenarios that could affect the museums future.

In the last past years, there has be a big shift of how the museums and galleries how they are running them, that can be the changes of culture or politics. Sometimes the changes of an organisation for example a merging two different museums, could happen and it could turnout for the best.



Be Our Guest

Today we looked at events planning in line with the aims and expectations of BMT. For the exercise the group had to come up with an event to be held at Aston Hall, which would appeal to two of the audience groups set out in the Arts Audiences: Insights guidebook. For this exercise, we chose the groups Fun, Friends and Fashion, and Time Poor Dreamers.

The first step was to come up with an idea for an event that would appeal to both groups. ideas we thought suitable included food festival and gin festival. We decided to go with a historic themed food festival, as we thought it would prove popular with both groups and we could tie it in to the history of the house. We also thought it might be possible to tie in popular trends, such as the Great British Bake off or a period drama, which both groups would find appealing.

The next step was to think of how we would run our event. Would it be indoors or outdoors? What things would the day involve? We decided the event would be held with outdoor food stalls which would be free, and an indoor kitchen demonstration which would be charged entry. The day would include food tasting and a gin tavern, and the food would span from the 17th to the 19th century. The event would take place in July to coincide with the school holidays, and would be a one day event held from 11-4 (the hall’s normal opening times). We hoped this would attract families looking for a day out. For children, there would be a Horrible Histories style stall featuring disgusting foods from the period, inviting them to take part and taste the foods.

Thirdly, we had to think of a name for our event. We came up with A Taste of History: 200 Years of Food.

Finally, we went through ideas of how the event could be marketed. Online, through the museums websites and social media websites Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We also thought we could utilise outdoor advertising such as on buses or trains. There were also food magazines, supermarkets, local papers, the radio. We also thought the event could be advertised at Digbeth Dining Club, to attract those with a specific interest in local food events.

Things we did not consider for this event were the cost and logistical difficulties in hosting an outdoor food even at an historic house. There would be a massive cost in preparing food for consumption by visitors, ensuring all members of staff were safe and qualified to do so. We were also told that historically food related events do not attract many people, and as this would not be a ticketed event it would not be viable to go forward at Aston Hall. There was also the question of history – the event did not tie in too well with the history of the hall.










TASK: Event proposal


We have identified the audience segments of Fun, Fashion and Friends and Time Poor Dreamers. Both are interested in more fun or entertainment based activities rather than educational.

This Victorian themed party experience will coincide with the anniversary and menu of Queen Victoria’s visit to Aston Hall in 1845. This fulfils the historical link of the event to the location, and will utilise the collections. It will also tie in with the recent ITV1 costume drama The Young Victoria, which was a success – we therefore think that the Victorian theme will attract many more visitors than it usually would. The audience will be adults but not families. Guests will be encouraged to dress in costume.

This will be a ticketed event. Visitors must book online or by phone, in advance. The event will take place over a weekend: Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. The event will start at 6pm and go on until 10 pm. The event will take place in May. The price of regular entry will be £15.00.

Guests to the party will have the option to buy dinner for an extra cost. A ticket with dinner will cost £35.00. Dinner will involve a three-course meal and will correspond (as far as possible) to the actual menu of Victoria’s visit.

There will be entertainment provided – a string quartet will play in the house. There is potential to involve the conservatoire. There will be a best costume prize for those who choose to come in fancy dress. There will be the opportunity to watch and learn a Victorian dance. There will be a bar at which alcoholic beverages can be purchased, for an additional cost. the gardens could also be opened to the party guests to increase the capacity of the event. Victorian garden party games could be held outside.

The house will be open for visitors to explore but there will be enablers stationed around dressed in costume to give more information on the house, the collections, and the historical context of the night.


How to advertise?

  • BMT sites
  • BMT Websites and social media.
  • Outdoor advertising in city centre
  • Local newspaper

These forms of advertising are most likely to reach our chosen audience. Both Time poor Dreamers and Fun, Fashion and Friends use the internet daily. Magazines and newspapers are very important for Time Poor Dreamers. Outdoor advertising will reach both groups during their daily commute.

Read all about it

In today’s lecture at Bmag, we discussed the roles of the Exhibition Officer, Katie Hall, and how she looks over many members of staff within the Birmingham Museums Trust. The most important of her roles being organisation and communication, as over each of the sites, staff and external bodies are needed to be kept in check. Working alongside designers in both small and large exhibitions, Katie ensures that interpretation within the museums is accessible to all; following both the graphic interpretation guidelines and the interpretation standards. The learning team ensure the average reading age of 12 years is demonstrated in the literary of labels. The visual and physical means of interpretation are exemplar to Katie’s articulation of the collections to the general public, such as the use of timelines, video, maps, images and interactive games and dressing up.

This led to the practical part of the session that involved discovering the possibilities of interpretation. Our group of objects were from the display on Birmingham and the Slave Trade. As a group we needed to decipher our target audience, families and adults, and how we would arrange and interpret the objects. Using the empathy mapping system we explored the possible emotive reactions to the artefacts as well as how they could be arranged in a manner that would tell a chronological story. We decided that the terminology used to describe these items would need to be carefully evaluated in order to suit its sensitive subject, yet still depict an accurate history of the slave trade in Birmingham.

Once we had finished this discussion, as a group we attended the History Galleries displays to view its interpretation and reflect on what decisions we thought were appropriate. We felt that the display was easy to navigate around, including quotes, imagery and digital interaction, that made the display interesting and approachable to a wide age range. However, it was discussed that the present tense jargon felt inappropriate to the subject area, and was confusing to read. Although the display referenced Birmingham’s history with Slave Trade- we thought that interesting historical icons like Olauda Equino could have been expanded on in further detail. Overall, it did what it says on the tin and gave a good insight into the history of Birmingham and the Slave Trade through simplistic, intriguing means.

Before I discovered the miracles of science, magic ruled the world –

image1 image2gemmaWilliam Kamkwamba


Changing Materials Workshop at Thinktank.

Today we entered a science lab at the Thinktank and discovered a world of changing materials and substances with a class of KS2 children from a local school.
The school class were fully kitted out in lab coats, in a real lab environment and using exciting science equipment they are likely to have not used before at primary school level- they sure were excited! The students were interacting with science equipment that you can mostly get to use in high school; (cylinders and beakers). Although a classroom environment, the experience of being in a different setting with an ‘expert’ is likely to have made the session more interesting.
The session featured both hands on experiments for the students, and demonstrations from the learning officer of higher difficulty, all exploring the science around solids/liquids/gases. The demonstration from the learning officer which involved melting a solid metal into a liquid by using the heat of boiling water got responses from the students “woah thats MAGIC” to which the learning officer replied “it’s not magic, it’s science!”. The wow factor from the experiments is something BMT aims to achieve to catch the attention and engagement of the students.
The session also caught their attention by using relatable materials which kids this age enjoy- things like lego, bubbles, and slime. This makes the session age appropriate.
The students had the opportunity to demonstrate skills such as following instructions and accurately measuring their ingredients. Their knowledge was also tested through regular questions and answers with the learning officer. Debate was also bought up by questioning the students whether toothpaste was a solid or liquid?
Through observing the workshop we were able to clearly see how the students enjoyed the interactive element of the session and felt involved with the experiments.

Sitting in this workshop was quite pleasant, to see the education programmer at hand. In Thinktank, the teacher who was teaching the class was not just there to explain the materials to the group, but also letting the children interact with the materials. They seem to be having fun and learning at the same time.
It’s just not ThinkTank that offers these education programmes; all the Museums in Birmingham have an education programme that offers a wide range of on-site taught workshops, to engage and inspire young children in the world of museums, galleries and libraries. More museums around the UK are starting to have education leaning that is offered to school outside the class room, where the schools can learn and take the experience back to the class room.

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

Magical Mystery Tour

bethgemmae0d41680-b09f-48ab-98ec-f8f9f5217c02 3a66ec77-9979-4638-9043-27f2d4deb321 a27032d3-1ee9-4bf6-8567-a9086258d407 72b1fbc4-4f1e-4c5b-a05b-e7065aa13f85 5064c5e6-3214-40a4-8c32-3706c4436e1bCollections management.

We studied how the collections are managed and saw this in practice at the Museums Collections Centre.  Lucy Blakeman, the collections team leader, gave us a tour of the stores.

The warehouse is open to the public- a way of using the unseen collections in an innovative way- through open days. These are quite regular, happening the last Friday of every month. Because of this, even in the collections store there are still some interpretive text panels for the public to see, although it is not a formally curated space. The objects in the store are mixed for a sense of discovery, making the collections more exciting for the public. As opposed to having all items categorised which feels more like a shopping experience. The Museums Collection Centre also keep up a presence on social media, through Facebook and twitter. On here the public are able to gain a further insight into the goings on at the centre. We feel this is also quite an innovative idea- as collections centres are typically not available to the public in this way.

Seeing the size and scale of the store puts into perspective the importance of documentation/management of the collections. The collection is huge with around 800,000 objects. Birmingham Museums Trust handle this with the KE Emu system as an online database which records all information about the collections. This system abides to the museum standards of Spectrum, and goes beyond these towards the BMT Ideal standards which aims to record 30 different criteria for each object, ranging from object number and name to condition and material and narrative or themes.

The collections centre are aiming for a new store within the next 5 years as the conditions in the store aren’t ideal. Being in a warehouse environment, the store was not built to specific needs, therefore the shell of the building is not well insulated and is difficult to control temperature and humidity.

Beth and Gemma

‘Now’s the time to find out why, I think you’re the same as me….’ Cataloging and identification

Cataloging activity

We were presented with 10 similar pots and given three different descriptions of a particular pot. The task was to see if we could identify the right pot from the descriptions:

Subjective: We found that the subjective description was the least useful, it was very vague! Specialist: The specialist description included information which we thought to be too expert. Because we didn’t know what a middle period Nasca vessel looked like, this description was of no help to us. However it could be useful if we had access to the book which would help identify the object successfully. For this reason, it is more useful than the first description. But doing this would often be too time-consuming and would be more useful for preparing research for the object rather than identifying it. Descriptive: We found the descriptive text to be much more detailed and therefore of an accurate description. We all managed to identify the right vase from this description so therefore it demonstrates it was the most useful technique! Information such as colour, shape and particular features such as ‘foxes’ helped us distinguish the vase from others. We suggested this description could be improved by including the size and measurements but then discussed how the measurements would be noted.

We learnt that the descriptive approach to cataloging is the most useful because it is a fast and precise method; it is not always specialists who are moving the objects so it is important that the cataloging method is useful to as many staff as possible.

Finally we discussed how these lines of texts may be useful for other reasons, and also how they would function interpretive text panels in the museum alongside the object. Subjective, although very vague and subjective, could be interesting for a curator. The information ‘visitors to the museum really like this object’ might mean that they are more likely to include that object in an exhibition over other objects. Specialist, although too expert, would be useful for research. The fact it has a reference to time period and in particular a book would be useful for finding more information about the object. We thought this would not be useful as an interpretive text panel as it is too specialist and dry for visitors. Descriptive, although useful for cataloging and identifying, would not be used as interpretive text. We discussed that it is too descriptive and states the obvious for visitors; viewers will be able to see from looking at the object that it has a red base and orange interior and do not need to be told this. They are not learning anything from the text. Also Adam discussed that there is often a word limit to the interpretive text panels and this would be seen as wasting valuable characters. Therefore, none of the texts would be thrown away as they are all useful in their own different ways.

Identification activity: Insects, led by Luanne Meehitiya

Utilising resources given to us by Luanne, in two groups we had to take a methodical approach to identifying various species of moths. Even with no expertise in this area, by using appropriate guides, we had to identify each of the species by its physical characteristics and comparison to the guide provided. Both groups managed to complete the task successfully, noting the differences in sizes despite being within the same species, as well as differences between the sex of the species.

Luanne went onto to discuss with the group how the Hawk moth is preserved and that the particular collection we were looking at were over 100 years old. The process and continuing challenges faced when trying preserve the insects gave us a fascinating insight also into the preservation of BMT’s collections. For example, how the pins had to not contain copper, as one had started to disintegrate one of the moths, turning part of the moth green and needed to be changed. An issue with the collection being so old, meant that attempting to compare their colours was difficult as over time they’ve discoloured and faded.

Once we had completed the exercise, Luanne revealed the categorised labels underneath each of the aligned species of Hawk moth. Similarly, underneath each of the moths there were tiny labels, that may have not been noticed until it was pointed out; where each moth is individually labelled with their collectors’ information, as well as where and when they had been collected. These small labels are vital for the collections team in determining each exact specie as well as its history and background.

The task clearly demonstrated the ways in which people, not particularly with an expertise in collections, could go about identifying objects within a collection. The activity was interesting, with a beautiful collection giving us all an opportunity to partake in an interesting comparative situation. We particularly loved having the opportunity to look at the Hawk moths in closer detail than you would normally get the chance to have in a museum- taking time to identify its characteristics and differences to just the Hawk moth species of insect.

 Museum collection stores:

This week we also went into the stores at the MCC. It was fascinating to see how objects are stored and organised by the museum.  It was also highlighted to us the difficulty in categorising the storage of the objects, and how the purpose of the stores can change depending on who is using them. As the museum stores are often open for public tours, some of the cages are organised to be more visually appealing. This can make it difficult to find objects for those using the stores for academic or research purposes.

We also looked at this mummified animal, which demonstrates the importance of technological research in museums. This object was thought to be a mummified hawk, but after being x-rayed at the University of Manchester, it was discovered that the remains inside are that of a monkey. This was of great significance not only to the museum and its visitors, but also to the wider Egyptological community. It will now be used in researching the practice of mummifying animals. Without technological research it would have been impossible to know this without opening the mummy up.


Gemma Ford, Amelia Rochelle-Bates, and Elizabeth Parkes