‘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.

New Art West Midlands – 2017

New Art West Midlands gives a chance to young artists in the region to display their work. The quantity and scale of the entries this year are filling four different display venues: – Waterhall Gallery at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Midlands Art Centre (MAC) at Cannon Hill Park in Birmingham, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Worcester Art Gallery. I have visited the first two of the above, but cannot comment on the work displayed at the others. The initial impressions at these first two is that the chosen works have a real sense of scale about them.

The front cover of the current Artefacts magazine uses part of a large image built from fractal imagery. Its actual proportion is displayed here:

If you liked the Artefacts cover, you’ll love the real thing – at full size it is much more striking. You’ll find in the Waterhall display.

For me, a kind of companion piece, possibly because of its similar proportions, is included in the MAC show.

Viewed small in this post, it looks dull. The real thing is much more impressive. As are many of the works.

Go and see at least one of these shows. Our upcoming artists have real potential.


City Council withdraws cuts to Birmingham Museums

The Friends’ campaigning, combined with the very effective impact of messages from wider afield, persuaded the City Council to withdraw ALL its proposed cuts to its support for Birmingham Museums for the year 2017-18. This is great news – though it promises nothing about council support for future years.

 For the record, this is the message the Friends sent to the City Council:-

“We urge you to reconsider your proposal to reduce greatly the service charge you pay to Birmingham Museums Trust.

The Friends of Birmingham Museums is an independent charity with approximately 1,000 members, most of whom live in and around Birmingham and pay their Council tax to Birmingham City Council.
Over the 85 years since its formation, the Friends have demonstrated the active support of Birmingham citizens for Birmingham Museums. Members’ funds have financed acquisitions and bequests of over 2000 objects of all kinds adding to the city’s collections. It is our proud boast that we have enabled additions to the collections in every year since our formation, a claim no other independent supporter can make. Our members have also contributed their time and enthusiasm as volunteers in a wide range of roles.

Three recent examples of the range of support:-
In 2011 we commissioned an original installation, now suspended in the oculus beneath the Birmingham History galleries, in part to commemorate our 80th anniversary.
In 2015 the Friends were delighted to be one of four funders of the successful Mini Museum, specially designed to provide an attractive place for children under-5 to experience the city’s collections. Many of our members are grandparents and appreciate having such an engaging space to both entertain and educate our grandchildren.
In 2016 the Friends committed to donating a three-year annual grant of £15,000 as vital match funding to support the high profile Arts Council Collection National Partners programme of eight exhibitions to be held across Birmingham’s museums. The first exhibition Night in the Museum, an exhibition curated by leading British artist Ryan Gander at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s Gas Hall, was recently launched by Councillor Ian Ward and is proving very popular with a wide range of visitors including schools.

With this proud record of support, we do not wish to see our many decades of investment undermined at such a critical point in Birmingham Museums Trust’s development as a relatively new charity.
We recognise that this is a difficult time for Birmingham City Council, when your expenditure is constrained by the decisions of central government. But your proposed treatment of Birmingham Museums Trust is illogical and uncaring.

It is illogical since care of our city’s internationally important museum collections is a City responsibility. Since it was formed in 2012, Birmingham Museums Trust has cared for them effectively and responsibly. Visitor numbers have risen every year under the Trust’s stewardship reaching over 1 million to all museum sites. It is vital for Birmingham’s museums that you continue to pay the proper cost of meeting your obligation. Without a proper level of support the Trust will not be able to survive and thrive.
It is uncaring since you threaten to undermine the Trust’s conscientious adaption to the proposed £250,000 reduction to its budget in 2017/18 which you had requested. By suddenly tripling this reduction, by adding another £500,000, you are demonstrating a lack of care for the organisation which you had contracted to manage these world class collections.

Birmingham Museums Trust is an integral part of the city’s cultural offer. As well as visitors to the city and residents, there are nearly 1,400 school visits (which equated to 110,000 school children in 2016). Maintaining Birmingham Museums will enhance both the life of the local population and support tourism.

We urge you to restore the service charge you commit to pay to Birmingham Museums Trust in 2017/18 to the previously agreed level.

The Friends of Birmingham Museums”


World War One – unusual personal perspectives

(Show now closed: post retained as archive.)

As you amble through the galleries at BMAG, perhaps aiming for the Pre-Raphaelites or for the Staffordshire Hoard, your eyes might be drawn to the exhibition in Gallery 15. It tells the story of the 400,000 Muslim soldiers who fought in WW1,  and features personal stories and loans from relatives of those who served. It links historical research with personal testimony from Birmingham people whose Muslim relatives served in the First World War. This show runs until 5th March 2017.

There was a companion exhibition – Honouring Indian VC soldiers in WW1 – which ended on 28th January 2017. The Victoria Cross is Britain’s highest award for gallantry for soldiers, and has been awarded since 1856. Of the 1,358 medals ever awarded, 9 were to South Asian soldiers of the British Indian Army during WW1. This exhibition brought some of their stories, often unrecorded or unreported, to public gaze. The researchers ‘raided’ the archives of the National Army Museum to uncover letters from many of the South Asian soldiers. Although censored during the translation process they nevertheless reveal fascinating attitudes to their participation in the King-Emperor’s war.

Understanding more of these two groups illuminates many of the major political tensions in today’s world. It is a great privilege to see this unique material here in Birmingham.

posted by David Foster


Mechanical Things

(Show now closed: post retained as archive.)

If you still feel withdrawal symptoms after the closure of ‘The Wonderful World of Rowland Emett’ in the Gas Hall in September 2014, you’ll love ‘Mechanical Things’ at Thinktank, showing from December 1 2016 to Mar 5 2017. It includes some creations from the previous show with additional Emett ‘things’, including a recent rediscovery. And there’s a full-size Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. ccbb_small

But it goes further in displaying mechanical machines created by other gifted artists. Many of these are – unlike Emett – still working today. And most are British. I was particularly engaged by the detailed logic embodied in the cascading balls in the maze pictured here.


The much larger machine in the Science Garden outside does something superficially similar, but this device contains subtle logic which will challenge brains of all ages.

At preview I was assured that there will be additional activities to further delight younger visitors. Personally, I suspect that visitors of all ages will find delight here.

As a member of the Friends you can get into Thinktank, to see this show, for half the public charge!

posted by David Foster


Night in the Museum


(Show now closed: post retained as archive.)

This show closed on Sunday February 12, 2017 but was fun while it lasted.

Imagine what objects in a museum might look at, if they had a free choice. And how they would appear as they were looking. That’s what this show challenged you to imagine.

Some of the pairings appear bizarre, like the one above. Others are more natural, like the one below:pair1

The Friends can share the credit that this stimulating show ran in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery for nearly 3 months. Our contribution ensured that Birmingham Museums was selected by the Arts Council England as one of its four regional display partners.

The next show of this partnership scheme – “I Want! I Want” will be on display from April 1, 2017. If the first of the series is anything to go by, you won’t want to miss the next!

posted by David Foster