To celebrate the International Day of the Volunteer, Ashmolean Volunteer Manager, Ruth Farnan, arranged a fantastic visit to Birmingham Museum and Gallery (BMAG) to find about more about their Collecting Birmingham initiative. Write up by Lynn Collie, Ashmolean Exhibition Desk Welcome Volunteer
On Thursday 5th December a coach-full of volunteers received a warm welcome from BMAG staff and then had the opportunity to explore the Museum. BMAG, a civic museum with a significant industrial heritage might seem quite different from the Ashmolean. However, both the Ashmolean and BMAG are large purpose-built museums containing a wide range of exhibits from ancient to modern times. Both institutions are seeking to interrogate their purpose and how they interact with the local community they serve. In Oxford, this equates to the Ashmolean For All project. In Birmingham, a process kick-started by The Past is Now has developed into the Collecting Birmingham initiative.
Collecting Birmingham with its strapline: “Extraordinary Lives of Everyday People” is an impressive project and exhibition which records and reflects the diversity of Birmingham’s inner city communities and their stories, spanning more than sixty years. It was co-curated with residents from the Ladywood area of Birmingham and features their oral histories and objects of personal and social significance, these ranged from the small battered suitcase which one resident, Mrs Eunice McGhie-Belgrave MBE, used when she moved from Jamaica to Birmingham in 1957, to the jacket of a city-centre Big Issue vendor from the 1980s. BMAG acquired these objects for its collection marking a fundamental shift in BMAG’s collections policy.
Birmingham: its people and its history
BMAG’s history of Birmingham gallery is remarkable, and recounts the city’s history from its medieval origins to the present day. A display on wartime Birmingham (World War One and Two) features the “Make Do and Mend” project where women who lived through the Second World War worked with fashion students to recreate wartime fashions. Its theme of rationing and creative recycling has an obvious link to current environmental concerns about fast fashion. The multi-generational aspect of this project was striking.
The visit to BMAG was a great initiative as Ashmolean volunteers, who normally work on different days and shifts, had a chance to meet each other. Additionally, visiting other museums makes you reflect on the similarities and differences with your own institution. BMAG is undergoing a transformation and it was inspirational to learn about its innovative approaches to public engagement, inclusivity, education, curation, collections and exhibitions, ahead of its full-scale redevelopment in 2022. It would be brilliant if we could have an exchange visit from BMAG volunteers to the Ashmolean and also to make museum exchange visits a regular thing.