The University of Birmingham has pioneered a fantastic scheme with local cultural partners, which offers Birmingham graduates the chance to apply for paid internships at partner institutions. Last summer I was absolutely thrilled to find out that I had been offered the place at Birmingham Museums Trust in the curatorial department of Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (BMAG). I worked closely with Fine Art Curator, Victoria Osborne, who was my mentor.
In the curatorial department my role involved researching the collection by responding to enquiries, facilitating print room visits, assisting with the care of objects by updating the collection management system and helping with exhibition planning. I was lucky enough while I was there to see the opening of the new Birmingham History Galleries as well as the contemporary art exhibition, Metropolis: reflections on the modern city (that recently closed, but you can read a little more about it here). I was excited to be offered the opportunity to work on some of the interpretation for Metropolis and wrote a Gallery Trail that guides visitors round the museum, comparing works in the exhibition with some of the more familiar images from the museum’s collection that relate to the theme of the metropolis. I’m really proud to have compiled the guide and, importantly, to see visitors reading it!
Re-displaying the 14th-16th century galleries
The main assignment I was entrusted with was the wonderful opportunity to curate the re-display of 14th-16th century art in the permanent exhibition galleries (Galleries 26 & 27). Gallery 26 was due to be refurbished with new lighting and a fresh lick of paint, and my role was to plan the re-hang of the works in this space, to rotate some of the objects on display with those from the picture store or collections centre, and to update the interpretation. There are some important acquisitions in this part of the collection and I wanted to highlight them in a new way. I gave careful consideration to which images would work best next to each other and thought about the stylistic comparisons that could be made in relation to the Renaissance and the Reformation. For example, I decided to bring up from the store The Agony in the Garden by Garofalo, and to hang it next to Bonifazio de Pitati’s Adoration of the Shepherds in Gallery 26. These works which exemplify Italian Catholic imagery, provide a constrast to Cranach’s Lamentation of Christ, which is shown in the same Gallery and which demonstrates the ideals of the Protestant Reformation.
I also wanted to bring some of the small, precious objects from Gallery 27 into a display case in Gallery 26, so that chalices and reliquaries could be seen alongside the altar paintings, therefore creating a better sense of their original display and function in a church. I also chose to display some metalwork by a contemporary artist in the same display case – Adrian Hope’s Reliquary for a Traveller. This beautiful work was inspired by medieval reliquaries such as the 14th-century one I decided to display alongside it.
The two pictures shown below, like the Garofalo and Bonifazio above, were all once displayed in churches, probably inside private chapels. The first picture shows the Noli Me Tangere triptych by Jan van Scorel closed and being hung by technicians. The inscriptions on the outside wings identify family members of the donor who commissioned and paid for the work and it is they who are also depicted on the wings of the painting when it is opened (the second below picture). Putting all these paintings, reliquaries and other religious objects on display together in one room helps us gain a better sense of the contexts in which all of these various works functioned, both individually and collectively.
In Gallery 27 I focused my display on two themes: women and craftsmanship. The objects in this gallery all relate to Christian worship and devotion, but by grouping them into these two themes I aimed to show how they could be better understood and appreciated by today’s museum visitor. Curator of Applied Art, Sylvia Crawley, an expert on the Pinto collection (around 6,000 wooden objects collected by Edward Pinto), brought to my attention a 16th-century intarsia panel – an image created using a variety of pieces of wood. This marvellous piece of craftsmanship depicts The Annunciation and therefore fitted perfectly into the display of religious imagery, especially when shown alongside a painting of the Nativity. I was also really excited to be able to show two prints by Albrecht Dürer, whose technical skill for making woodcuts fitted into the theme of craftsmanship. The images that I selected depict the Virgin and Child and St Anthony Outside a City.
Selecting objects for the section of the display focused on representations of women was fairly straightforward given that they had already been on show in Gallery 27, but they had not specifically been grouped together in this way. I also brought a painting from Gallery 26 into the case that shows a Virgin and Child. The new display emphasises the fact that representations of women in the 14th-16th centuries highlighted Christian virtue through the example of female saints. Two statuettes representing Susannah and the Elders and Eve exemplify the way in which the artist could depict the female nude without causing scandal. Since BMAG has a famous collection of Pre-Raphaelite works, many of which represent virtue or sin through the female muse, I felt that by offering visitors the chance to focus on depictions of women in earlier works in the collection would allow them to consider how representations of femininity have changed (or not) throughout the history of art as they move around the galleries.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at BMAG – I’ve learnt so much and will never forget the fantastic experience that I’ve had there. I would recommend any Birmingham graduates interested in working in the cultural sector to apply for this fantastic scheme. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org and see the Cultural Intern website.