My First Week at Birmingham Museums Trust

Hello, and thank you for taking the time to read my blog post, in which I will tell you a little about myself, my experiences so far during my internship at Birmingham Museums Trust, and my aspirations.

My background in museums

I completed a PhD in English at the University of Birmingham in 2013, and have worked in front of house, digitisation, and research roles at organisations including the British Museum, Wellcome Trust, and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Most recently, I volunteered as a Researcher for Harefield Hospital’s centenary exhibition. I enjoyed the intellectual challenges of choosing which narratives to focus on, working with archives, and shaping the content of my section of the display. Viewing the fully installed exhibition was a source of pride. I’ll be looking to build on this experience between now and the end of March 2016, as my internship is also exhibitions based.

 At Harefield Hospital, 1915-2015: Celebrating & Making History
At Harefield Hospital, 1915-2015: Celebrating & Making History

A new beginning at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

If my first week is anything to go by, my responsibilities are likely to be many and varied! I am based in the curatorial department at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (BMAG), which has an internationally renowned collection spread across more than 40 exhibition spaces, including the Staffordshire Hoard, Pre-Raphaelite, and Birmingham History galleries. Whilst my core role here is clearly defined, I was introduced to staff across all levels of the building on my first day, and it was explained that if I wished to be temporarily seconded to another department at any point to gain experience, this could be accommodated. I think almost every other member of staff I met remarked on how much work there will be for me to do! Birmingham Museums Trust is the largest charitable trust of museums in the UK – its constellation of other sites being composed of Thinktank, Birmingham Museum Collection Centre, and the distributed museums of Aston Hall, Blakesley Hall, Sarehole Mill, Soho House, Museum of the Jewellery Quarter and Weoley Castle – and the open offer to gain extra experience also explicitly extends to working at these locations.

In my first week, I have been heavily involved with the development of the upcoming exhibition to celebrate BMAG’s 130th anniversary. I have worked with the Exhibition Designer and the Head of the Curatorial Team in finalising the written content for the exhibition panels and object labels, as well as making important decisions on visual content. I have been entrusted with significant responsibility from the outset, and I feel that the skills and knowledge I developed during my academic career are valued and of use in this work environment. Through working on this project, I have also gained an insight into the wider cultural network the Museum is part of by liaising with the Barbara Hepworth estate for permission to use an image of the artist with her sculpture, The Cosdon Head. The artwork, for which I also wrote the text panel interpreting it for visitors, is to be featured in the 130th anniversary exhibition. As well as allowing the image to be displayed at BMAG, the Hepworth estate has kindly permitted me to use it in this post (see below).

 Hepworth with The Cosdon Head, 1949; photograph by Hans Wild. (c) Bowness.
Hepworth with The Cosdon Head, 1949; photograph by Hans Wild. (c) Bowness.

I have also been assisting the Exhibitions Officer, Fine Art Curator, and Technical Team with the installation of Enchanted Dreams: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Edward Robert Hughes in the venue’s Gas Hall. I helped prepare the exhibition for its opening weekend by inventorying the text panels which interpret individual artworks for visitors and affixing them to the walls of the exhibition space. I was also tasked with producing large text versions of the aforementioned panels for visually impaired visitors and creating the exhibition comments book. This particular exhibition has been 7 years in the making, and whilst my own involvement has therefore been relatively brief, my experience has been hands-on and it has been incredibly exciting to see the display take shape. The exhibition is, after all, the first ever dedicated to Hughes and brings together artworks from public and private collections from across the world, many of them unseen in the hundred years since the artist’s death.

Night with her Train of Stars, 1912 by E.R. Hughes. (c) Birmingham Museums Trust
Night with her Train of Stars, 1912 by E.R. Hughes. (c) Birmingham Museums Trust

Enchanted Dreams

The private view of Enchanted Dreams on Thursday brought BMAG’s achievement into even greater focus. Invited guests from a range of cultural organisations gathered in the venue’s ‘Round Room’ for a wine reception, a musical performance by Deborah Rose of a song inspired by Hughes’s painting Night with her Train of Stars, and speeches. One speaker memorably described the process of producing a successful exhibition as ‘pulling the rabbit of brilliance out of the hat of chaos.’ Whilst this comment was tongue in cheek, it encapsulates part of what strongly appeals to me about working in exhibitions in the future – having, in helping to organise outstanding cultural events, such tangible rewards for creative efforts.

Also present at the private view were my fellow cultural interns. Another pleasing aspect to the private view was the sense of a network of professionals in the cultural sector extending across the Midlands, which I and the rest of the 2015/16 cohort are part of. Over the next six months, I look forward to attending similar events at the other interns’ host organisations – watch out for our hashtag #internstagram15 on a popular photo-sharing website!

At the Enchanted Dreams private view.
At the Enchanted Dreams private view.

Hopes and expectations

I feel very uplifted by my first week at BMAG. I am using my skills and knowledge in productive ways, and I am excited about the future. Over the next six months my responsibilities will include, but are not limited to: developing the Gas Hall 2016 summer exhibition; assisting with the de-installation of Enchanted Dreams; and working with the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art on the development and installation of New Art West Midlands 2016. I am particularly looking forward to New Art West Midlands because of the opportunity to engage directly with the artists involved, via studio visits, as well as the creative challenge of developing content and interpretation for the exhibition.

I hope you enjoyed reading about what I’ve been up to. My next post will be up in early February 2016, when I’ll have less than two months left of my internship – see you then!

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