By Heather Barrett
Oldbury Writing Group finally got its Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery visit underway, after the snowfall and other pickles had thwarted plans. Our intention was to visit the museum to expand our interests and cultural field as writers. The wait was worthwhile and on Saturday 28th April 2018, we met in the grand Victorian vestibule, making our way up the marble staircase, where so many stepped before during the museum’s 133-year history.
The 19th-century building is a jewel in the crown of Birmingham’s civic zone, and along with the Council House and Town Hall, retains its majesty in a city undergoing vigorous construction projects, with luffing cranes unfurling like Knotweed and new architectural statements sprouting up loud and proud, making Birmingham a powerful global city. There is so much to see and do here, from retail therapy at Selfridges to al fresco dining (weather permitting) at Colmore Row’s trendy eateries. While the museum has its contenders for our hard earned and precious spare time, it remains an icon and place of calling for locals and tourists alike.
A Birmingham Museums Trust annual report in 2015 listed 1,272,070 visitors to museums in the city, but these heritage sites are at an increasing, advancing risk from the pestilence of cutbacks. It’s never been more critical to support our museums. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery have a collection totalling 800,000 items and thousands of volunteer hours are spent each year on tasks, which include lovingly restoring items, serving food in the Edwardian Tea Rooms and assisting school children in their visits.
What’s On and What Got Us Thinking
Ok, where do we start? We had things that inspired us as a group and wowed us on personal levels, such as group leader, Angela’s moving commentary on Nevinson’s WW1 scene ‘Column on the March’, “they are all marching into the light” and Dave’s keen observation on Empire as a “Disaster of epic proportions.” A small and dearly painted portrait of a young Edwardian man named William Downing, who perished from TB in his prime, is the presence haunting my mind following the visit. That is what is so unique about stuff a museum trip imprints on us, how lives divided by time and continent touch each other because we share the commonality of human spirit, whether Egyptian noble or 21st century Black Country wordsmith.
We were engulfed in the art of the Round Room, where Epstein’s stunning and whimsical ‘Lucifer’ bronze greeted us with outreached fingers and spreading wings. The walls were flanked with artworks, taking us from the piazzas of Venice to the hills of Llangollen, seen through eyes long closed for the last time.
Well established collections, such as the Staffordshire Hoard, did not disappoint. The museum did a great job of complimenting the exhibits with models of Viking life, giving a glimpse into the charm and the dangers of that age. Julian gave a vibrant talk on weaponry and history that complimented the sights. We were equally thrilled amongst the gems and the jars of the ancient Near East. Gathered around an Egyptian funeral mask, we mused about what those people knew and did that we might never, our imaginations as writers were catching fire.
Much as we were wooed by the old, there was plenty to inspire amongst the themed and contemporary exhibits. Museum Trust Director, Ellen McAdam, stated in 2017, “We want to ensure that Birmingham remains a leading city for arts and culture, and continues to thrive.” Making local life central to the museum trust philosophy was evident. At the Faith exhibit, 11th-century Indian bass reliefs, in juxtaposition to 1980’s Rastafarian tee-shirts, spun a complexed story of a multi-spiritual city.
We saw more of that local life in action with Vanley Burke’s photographic depiction of black political identity, ‘Rivers of Birmingham’ series. The photographs are now part of a wider collection, gathered by the Museums Trust. The theme of culture and identity was developed further in ‘The Past is Now’ exhibition, exploring the role the city played within the British Empire. This, for us as a group, was one of the biggest talking points, and stoked some lively conversation. The exhibit consisted of textiles, works reflecting themes of diverse identities, mirrors posing the question ‘how do you see yourself?’ and artefacts of colonial rule. The writing wall, prompting opinions, was a great interactive tool for taking part in that debate while leaving a statement behind for other visitors to see.
In contrast to the grandeur of art showcased across the centuries, the New Art West Midlands highlighted contemporary work from graduates across the region. I think we were all intrigued and delighted by Aileen Doherty’s light installation ‘Dark Matters’, with its twinkling star lights intermingled with black pyramidical formations. We stood and gazed into those lights, taking a moment to pause from what was an engrossing day.
To take in and fully appreciate the sights on offer was a day’s work. While the Edwardian Tearooms were jammed to the rafters with dining visitors, the small, modern and rather intimate Bridge Café offered some respite and refreshment. You can’t really go wrong with tea and cake. The gift shop had a varied selection of goods at all prices and tastes, and Nicole soon had us taking our ritual selfie by the book wheel. If I had one small complaint or suggestion about the wares on offer, it would be to stock items or postcards reflecting what some of the newer exhibitions had to offer.
If the point of the visit was to broaden our cultural horizons and get the creative spark ignited, it had that effect and left plenty to think about and inspire. My only advice is that it’s a full day out if you are planning to see most of what’s on show. You spend more time on your feet than you imagine and it gets busy.
To plan your visit, check opening times and see what’s on, visit the Birmingham Museum’s official website.