Ancient Civilisations Week at BMAG

Ancient Civilisations Week will be brought back to life around Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery between Saturday 17th and Saturday 24th of November. Discover a wealth of artefacts from our collection that have helped shape our knowledge of people that lived thousands of years ago in the very earliest cities and societies.

On Saturday 18th November, between 12noon and 3pm, there will be two talks and a film screening – see details below:

Saturday 18th November, 12-12.30pm
Gas Hall Meeting Room
‘Jewels, Graves and Scholars: Illustrating the Royal Tombs of Ur’

Join Helene Maloigne for a fascinating talk as part of Ancient Civilisations Week . The Royal Tombs of the ancient city of Ur (southern Iraq) produced some of the most visually and technically striking objects of archaeological discovery. Comparable to the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations (1922 –1934) not only added significantly to our knowledge of ancient Mesopotamia but captivated all levels of interwar society with their evocation of Biblical Ur of the Chaldees.

While the objects from the Royal Tombs are now in the National Museum of Iraq, the British Museum and the Penn Museum (Philadelphia) the original drawings from the excavation by the American illustrator Marie-Louise Baker were donated to Birmingham Museums by Sir Leonard in the 1950s.

This talk will explore the history of the excavation, archaeological illustration and how Woolley used the images in his scholarly and popular publications. Click here for more information on the BMAG website.

Saturday 18th November, 1-3pm
Gas Hall Meeting Room
‘Talk & Film Screening: Letters from Baghdad’

As part of Ancient Civilisations Week, BMAG pleased to be screening ‘Letters from Baghdad’ with a 20 minute introduction talk by Dr Zena Kamash.

‘Letters from Baghdad’ is a documentary about Gertrude Bell, the most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day who shaped the destiny of Iraq after WWI in ways that still reverberate today. Click here for more information on the BMAG website.

Saying a fond farewell to Dippy

‘Dippy on Tour’ has impressed visitors to BMAG since the exhibition opened on 26th May. Visitors have been flocking to BMAG to see Dippy – current visitor numbers are currently just over 240,000!

However, the exhibition is now, sadly, coming to an end. Dippy will be having a Farewell Party on Sunday 9th September. Click here for more information and do make sure that you pop in to see the Natural History Museum’s famous Diplodocus before he leaves Birmingham to continue his adventure at Ulster Museum in Belfast!

The Friends are very proud to have supported ‘Dippy on Tour’ by funding the conservation work which was carried out on Birmingham’s Bird Collections, to enable them to be displayed alongside Dippy during the exhibition.



‘Dippy on Tour’

We wanted to thank the team at Birmingham Museums for our dinosaur ‘thank you’ card!

We are very proud to have supported ‘Dippy on Tour’. He, and Birmingham’s Bird Collections, look superb – and they have certainly been attracting lots of visitors!

‘Weeping Angels’: Interpreting the symbolism of the Victorian cemetery

A Talk by David Moore, 16 January 2018
Review by Jim Wells

David Moore – Photo by Joanna Packwood

It is not often that you meet a fellow enthusiast for the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris – but more of that later. Having recently joined the Friends, this was my first experience of a Friends’ evening talk, and so I was not sure what to expect and approached the evening with a degree of trepidation and excitement.

The event had been so popular that it had to be moved to the Birmingham and Midland Institute (BMI) in order to accommodate everyone, so clearly the topic was of significant interest. The evening started off with a very convivial glass of wine and pizza before we sat down to listen to David’s presentation. It was reassuring to see so many people there and interested in the topic, as my experience to date had been that expressing an interest in cemeteries at a social occasion can be taken in the wrong way and lead to isolation!

Wine and pizza before the talk – Photo by Joanna Packwood

David’s background is public and social history and, as he explained, the way societies deal with burial tells you an awful lot about that society, its culture and its beliefs. Before focusing on the Victorian period we had a good summary of burial practices from the Neolithic period, through the Middle Ages and up to the eighteenth century. The concept of ‘Memento Mori’, artistic or symbolic reminders of mortality as used in burials, was central to David’s talk which was beautifully illustrated throughout with a range of pictures. Suddenly all those symbols that you have seen in fourteenth century tombs, Cathedrals or Victorian cemeteries start to make sense.

We will come back to an explanation of some of the symbols after a short digression. By the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, a combination of population growth and urban expansion meant church cemeteries were getting extremely overcrowded. Our own St Phillip’s has an estimated 80,000 burials alone, hence the high level of the ground; it does makes you think twice about eating your sandwiches there. St Martin’s had expanded into Park Street to ease matters, which is currently being excavated in preparation for HS2. The solution to this overcrowding was the concept of the garden cemetery, which brings us back to Père Lachaise in Paris and our own Key Hill (Non Conformist) and Warstone (Anglican) cemeteries in Birmingham. On a spring afternoon in Paris there is nothing better than setting off for a stroll round Père Lachaise. Maps are for sale as you go in, with a guide to all the famous people buried there. Much visited is Jim Morrison (The Doors) who will be familiar to those readers of a certain generation. In Parisian culture it is seen as quite a normal and respectable activity to while away an afternoon viewing all the tombstones, many of which are architectural masterpieces in their own right, and enjoying the beautiful gardens. Closer to home, David recommended Key Hill and Warstone in the Jewellery Quarter, a short hop on the tram, both of which give an insight into Victorian Birmingham and the significant families that shaped our city.

Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris – photo by David Moore
The audience – Photo by Joanna Packwood

David concluded with a detailed explanation of the key symbols used in the Victorian period and further recommendations for visits. The evening finished with a lively question and answer session, as the presentation had stimulated much interest amongst the audience. We all left the event better informed and with a greater understanding for a leisurely walk around Père Lachaise, or closer to home in the Jewellery Quarter.

Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris – photo by David Moore

Recommendations for visits:
St Michael’s, Lichfield
Key Hill and Warstone cemeteries, Birmingham
Père Lachaise, Paris
St Mary’s, Moseley

A selection of symbols:
Angels are a seen as a symbol of spirituality. They guard the tomb and are thought to be messengers between God and man.
Cornucopia symbolises an abundant and fruitful life.
Cherubs are angelic and signify innocence.
Dogs represent loyalty, fidelity and vigilance when used on tombs.
Lily of the Valley represents purity, innocence and virginity.

Artefacts: winning Runner Up prize in the BAFM 2017 Newsletter competition

By Melissa Hughes – Editor of Artefacts

I took over as Editor of Artefacts in Summer 2015, when John Pownall decided to retire, and I have had a hard act to follow. John had been editing the magazine for just over 10 years, during which time Artefacts had gone from strength to strength. Having met with PW Media, who design and produce the magazine, Artefacts had a re-design in October 2015. The magazine changed to a larger A4 format, which enabled us to include more content and larger, high definition images. Recently, I was invited to enter Artefacts into the British Association of Friends of Museums’ 2017 Newsletter competition and I submitted our May-July 2017 edition (the one with Verity Milligan’s photograph on sunrise at Selfridges on the front cover) for judging.

I am delighted to let you know that, at the end of August we discovered our magazine had won second prize! We received the Award on 17th October 2017 when Jean Knight, the Secretary of the BAfM, presented us prize at our October Committee Meeting:

Artefacts is one of the Friends key tools for promoting the work which we do, encouraging people to join the Friends, and persuading readers to support both us and Birmingham Museums Trust. It enables us to develop mutually beneficial partnerships with local arts and cultural organisations, offering a channel to publicise these organisations and their projects. Artefacts has grown over the last few years – thanks to the hard work of a small and dedicated team. I would particularly like to thank Paul Blyth, Graphic Designer at PW Media, for all his hard work, professionalism and patience; Derek Street, the Friends’ volunteer who patiently puts together our crosswords; Jill Warren, who writes the two feature articles for each edition; all the contributors who regularly write and submit content; and our diligent team of proof readers who work with me to make Artefacts as error-free as possible!

We publish 5,000 copies which are distributed across the West Midlands, and I am delighted that it continues to be so well received and supported… And we can now claim to have an ‘award winning’ magazine!

I always welcome any feedback or suggestions on the magazine, so please do get in touch.

“Totality” at Thinktank

To accompany “I Want! I Want!” – the technology-oriented show at the BMAG Gas Hall – the Arts Council Collection has loaned Birmingham Museums a most unusual display of solar eclipse images. How can 10,000 (or so) images be presented? Artist Katie Paterson has attached tiny copies of each to the faces of a glitter ball. Illuminated in the centre of a white cube (ca 4m each side), the individual images are reflected onto the walls. Standing inside this space, as the glitter ball rotates, the viewer is first bedazzled then bewildered and probably disoriented too. It requires concentration to examine the individual images as they spin by. It’s about the impression. 

I found the Birmingham Museums contributions to this mini-show most rewarding. Located in the space outside of Totality these constituted an array of paintings and two display cabinets of physical objects. The most startling for me were the moon images created by John Russell in the late 18th century; one a painting, the other a globe (only one half contains detail, of course, since only one face of the moon is visible to Earth-bound observers). The detail that Russell recorded from his painstaking observations is truly remarkable. Only now that we have satellite observation and human exploration, can we appreciate how perceptive were his paintings. (Both the painting and the globe have been relocated from their customary home at Soho House for this temporary show.)

This show challenges the view that Thinktank – a Science and Technology museum – is not an appropriate location for art. 

What do you think?

I Want! I Want!

This latest exhibition in the partnership series of Birmingham Museums with the Arts Council Collection is, once again for me, great fun. It explores what artists think of modern technology and what they can do with it. The result is sometimes funny, sometimes quirky and – since this is contemporary art – other times simply opaque. But it always rewards attention. Have you yearned to play “Space Invaders” again? Here you can, with the attraction of earning a different kind of reward for success. You will also gain a different view of what Twittering might have been.

Toby Ziegler – Portrait of C.L. (third version) 2006. Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery

Lots of the works are video-based. You will spend quite a lot of your visit inside viewing tents within the Gas Hall at BMAG. Not least at “Feed Me”, an hour-long video exploring childhood from all angles, many of them very challenging. (The note outside this exhibit warns that it is unsuitable for under-16s!) This is an exception, however, since much of the rest of the show will appeal to children.

And if you are wondering at the exhibition’s title, it is the name of a tiny ink drawing by William Blake showing a child grasping for a star in the night sky. The drawing, on loan from the Fitzwilliam at Cambridge, is displayed in a case directly in the entrance.

The show is open from April 1 to October 1, 2017. Don’t miss it!

There will be a companion show in Thinktank from late May. Look out for it.