Monthly Archives: September 2012

Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery vs Tate Britain

It has occurred to me today, whilst sat reading the review of the Tate Britain’s new exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites – Victorian Avante-Guarde, that it seems that Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (BMAG) missed out. I visited the BMAG exhibition the other weekend and enjoyed it immensely. The theme, love and death, captured so much of the Pre-Raphaelite way of thinking. It was not an entirely new way of introducing the paintings, but one which was accessible and bought some of the classics into public view. It certainly introduced me to some of the less famous Pre-Raphaelite painters. It also highlighted the way they would paint about abstract concepts, love and death.

While reading the Guardian’s review of the Tate Britain’s exhibition,
it reminded me of a comment I had made to my sister as we walked into the exhibition at BMAG. I said’ “Oh, Ophelia should be in here.” It wasn’t. This is because it is in the Tate Britain’s exhibition.

This begs a question. The paintings at BMAG were borrowed from the Tate, but some of the prime examples are still at the Tate in their exhibition. Are these exhibitions meant to be complimentary to each other, or in competition? Could the Tate have put more into the exhibition at BMAG and then following their exhibition, put the same exhibition on at the Tate? That would have shown co-operation between the London and regional galleries, and exposed these masterpieces to more visitors. BMAG has an amazing collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. To combine that collection with the collection from the Tate would have been a true blockbuster exhibition (as the Guardian is billing it). Imagine, a vast Love & Death theme, with Ophelia, The Lady of Shallot, Beata Beatrix, Regina Cordium, for starters. The whole Avante-Guarde theme could have been explored through the relationships that the artists had with their models as well as their influences from other sources and their influence on their contemporaries.

There may be reasons for how this has played out. It does seem though, that there could have been a little more co-operation.


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Could it be Richard III?

This entry is mainly concerning the on-going dig in Leicester City Centre where a skeleton which could be Richard III has been discovered.   I was lucky enough to be one of the 1500 people who visited last Saturday.

The archaeologists are being deliberately cautious in talking about this find at the moment and rightly so.

If the remains are of Richard III there are so many questions, decisions and statements to be made.  Firstly, who is responsible for making decisions on this particular skeleton?  The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) have rules and regulations about how remains should be treated within museums and institutions, but they are not in a museum.   I am sure there are laws and legalities that cover situations like this, but it could be a king.  Does that change processes or will precedents be discarded?

These could be the bones of a king, should the Royal Family have a say in what should happen to them, but saying that, he was a deposed king, killed by the forces of the next king.   Does that make it more complicated?  The Royal Family has since changed dynasties a couple of times since 1485, so there is no actual family link anymore apart from the claim to the throne.  Does this then leave the great great great great nephew to decide what happens as the person with the closest link to the remains?  If this wasn’t a king, but we were in the same situation, I am sure it would be up to the family to decide, especially of the genetic link is established.

John Ashworth MP tweeted that the House of Commons has said that if the remains are Richard III that they should be laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral.  Quite a sensible proposal, but is that up to the Commons to decide?  What if the Cathedral should decline to take the remains, Richard III was buried in a Catholic Friary after all.   Should he be interred in Wetminster Abbey with the other kings and queens?

So many questions, some of which may be irrelevant if the remains are not Richard III.  Any suggestions or further information on this would be welcome!

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Everything happens at once…

I had a quiet weekend planned of catching up with my coursework and tidying my house.  Since the August Bank Holiday weekend, the house has been full of camping equipment and then the contents of the loft as we had new insulation fitted.    I received a phone call from my sister in the middle of last week asking if I would replace her ill other half at a black tie dinner in Birmingham.  I agreed, it was an excuse to dress up, I needed a haircut anyway and there was a chance to pop into Birmingham Museum.

Then the option to visit the Richard III dig opened up as well and the scheduling began.

The University of Leicester has been digging up the Leicester City Council Social Services Car Park in the search for Richard III.
It sounds like an unlikely place to find the body of a long dead king, but the evidence that he was buried in the Greyfriars Friary is insurmountable and now they have located the building there is a chance they can find his resting place as well.   We arrived at 11am, when it opened to find a queue which trailed off into the distance.  To be honest, the queue was long, but the management of groups of people on short tours around the dig site was good and so no one was waiting too long.  I was quite surprised by how obvious some of the finds were, the Friary walls and floor were clear to the un-archeologically minded.   The excitement among the dig team was palpable.  It was brilliant to see so much enthusiasm, it was contagious.  Fingers crossed that in the next week, they find more amazing objects and even a king!

The dig bought together two parts of my life, my museum life and my working/academic life.  Seeing the University and the Museums Service working together on this project was inspiring.  It also means that the objects found will definitely have a good home and end up being on show to as many people as possible.

So, following my excursion to see a dig, I went to get my haircut and styled for the evening and headed off to Birmingham.

I had the privilege of being a guest of the Royal Society of Cumberland Youths at their triennial dinner.  It all sounds a bit like a gentleman’s club until you realise that he Cumberland Youths are a bell-ringing society!  The dinner, held at the Birmingham Council House, was lovely.  Good food and interesting conversation, although some of the in-jokes went a bit over my head.

It was a slow start to Sunday morning, but we managed to walk from Brindley Place to the Bullring and have a look at St Martins, while navigating through various stalls and entertainers of the Artfest.  There seemed to be a lot of interesting activities and groups to take part in and join.  I wish we had more time to look around that part.  After arriving at St Martin’s during a service and after the ringing had happened we decided to go to St Chad’s as we would be in time for my sister to ring there (and cross it off her list of towers she had rung in).  We got there in time, and I waited outside while the church emptied.  I asked nicely and the priest said I could have a look around while I was waiting.

The church still smelt of incense and was quite hazy when I went in, but it added to the atmosphere.  The church (actually a cathedral or minor basilica) was the first Catholic church to be allowed following the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  I hadn’t realised this until I googled the place while waiting outside.  The interior was designed by Pugin, and is beautiful.  There was also a shrine dedicated to Cardinal Newman, which raised a question in my mind about when parts of people get collected a relics…at what point did they decide to take a lock of his hair and keep it?

Following the ringing finishing, we walked back to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  The aim was to see the Love & Death exhibition, the Staffordshire Hoard and the Egyptian exhibition.  All of these were achieved.  I didn’t realise how little I knew about the Pre-Raphaelites until this exhibition.  I hadn’t even heard of Lawrence Alma-Tadema but his paintings and the details of everything in them are amazing.  We spent a while looking at the differences between the artists, how some used quite expressionist techniques and others were incredibly detailed and precise.  We also discussed the best viewing position dependant on size of painting (although you can’t beat getting up close and personal on some of the detailed paintings regardless of their size).

We spent a good 5 minutes looking at the Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott because you have to.

The Staffordshire Hoard is even more impressive in real life.  The photos do it justice, but being able to see how small some of the pieces are, and how intricately constructed they are is unbelievable.   I particularly liked the examples of foils from the different helmets which have been discovered recently, and while how similar they are, how different the designs are.  One of the questions posed at the exhibit is ‘why is each one different?’ My opinion on this is that no one wants to be stood next to someone wearing the same helmet as them, a bit like dresses at a wedding.

We then wondered into the Pharaoh: King of Egypt exhibit.  Again impressive objects!  How wood and mummy wrappings can stay as well preserved over 3,000 is inconceivable.   I had also never seen hieratic writing before, so that was one more thing which was new to me.   We had an interesting discussion on how mummies might have been measured for their sarcophagi, and was the shrinkage taken into account when measuring?

As we were walking back to the restaurant for a spot of lunch, we encountered the Moselele band, a ukulele band who were playing as part of the Artfest in the museum, and then as we went back towards the exit there was a choir singing.  The Artfest had it all worked out, as you went from performer to performer, there was no overlap.  Just as one sound faded, another grew loader as you walked.  Nicely done.

My weekend was topped off with my journey home.  It was a busy two days, and while I should have been doing more coursework, I think the cultural experiences made up for it.

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Putting monetary values on objects

Valuations and museum collections are a tricky topic.  Following an article in Museums Journal, I thought I would put my thoughts all in one places on this.  The article is a conversation between Dave O’Brien from the City University London, and Janet Ulph from the University of Leicester.  I have the privilege of working with Janet and so get to discuss these interesting topics with her.  I will try not be to biased to one side or the other in relation to the article, as both sides have good points.

Putting a value on objects within museums can be beneficial for a variety of reasons.  Having an accurate valuation on objects which are being sent on loan to other museums can be useful for insurance purposes.   The insurance valuation is also useful for general cover, loss due to damage or theft.    (I will come back to the issue of theft later on…)

However, putting a value on objects could lead to a culture of collecting or deaccessioning based on monetary value.   There is a case here for then beginning to collect based on value rather than interest, importance and cultural significance.   Would museums begin to become graded based on the monetary value of their collection rather than the significance to the communities they represent?  Would the government in their cost-cutting exercises use this information to decide whether a museum is worth funding or not?

Who values these objects anyway?  As a museum trustee, I am presented with proposals to purchase objects on behalf of the museum.  These objects often have a value attributed to them, specialist valuers are bought in to provide reports that should help us understand the value of an object.  By putting these proposals in front of the board of trustees, we are also adding our opinion to the value of the object.  As Dave says in the article-

“It is important to involve the public in valuation. Museums, particularly those in receipt of public funding, are public institutions and so should have a relationship with the various “publics” that they face.”

But we defer to the valuer in the long run.  They are the ‘expert’ on the object and who are we to say that something may not be worth as much or more than they have allocated to it.   We have a say in the object’s importance to the local community and its place in our collections.  This does not affect the object’s overall monetary value in the long term.  It does not increase in value because it has been placed in a museum as an excellent specimen.   That had already been decided by the valuer.

Going back to the issue of valuations for insurance purposes… In my opinion, which I stress is an opinion, as I don’t have any proof and haven’t researched this topic; objects which are stolen from museums are all stolen to order.   By putting a publicly published value onto museum collections, it could make this situation more common.

I think this is an on-going discussion.  I may add to this at a later date.

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