Stepping into the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery was like taking a step back in time. The Museum was undergoing renovation, and the collections were shown in a hotch-potch of old and new exhibitions that you wandered in and out of without a clear idea of how the museum was organized. It reminded me of the Singapore History Museum (now National Museum) which was my work-home from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. The Birmingham Museum, like SHM at the time, was a museum in transition.
On one end of the spectrum were the art galleries with the paintings hung on the wall and the archaeological galleries displaying artefacts in traditional showcases. At the other was the “Birmingham: its people, its history” gallery that presents a multi-layered, contextualised, interactive and people-centered approach to history-telling.
This exhibition is a showpiece of a modern historical exhibition. The gallery managed to do what we’ve tried to in the exhibitions we curated but are unable to fully realize because of lack of time, lack of resources, lack of research etc. The simple truth being that such exhibitions take a huge amount of research and preparatory work for the curatorial team, creative-thinking and resourcefulness on the part of the design team, as well sourcing, networking and community outreach. It is not something one can knock out in a couple of months or even a year.
Anyway back to BMAG, here are 4 aspects I liked about their history gallery:
(1) Giving people a reason to look and read
We often take for granted that the visitor is interested in what information we have to give. Looking at how people visit museums, we know that’s not true. So asking questions as headlines is a clever way of making the artefacts and information relevant to visitors.
(2) Giving context
In a traditional exhibition, artefacts are often beautifully presented in glass showcases where we can see but not touch them. Here work tools are presented like how they would naturally occur, on workbench allowing visitors to look and feel them. (For safety, visitors are not allowed to actually lift them up) On the panel is a video in an actual workroom giving the visitor a sense of the context in which these tools were used.
(3) Encouraging participation and reflection
This seems like a simple interactive for visitors. Think about community and pick a leaf (and word) that you identify with and place it on the tree. What is interesting is that the words/statements on the leaves were contributed by LGBT youth, refugees and children, voices often seen as non-mainstream. Makes you think, eh?
(4) Giving objects a face and voice
The last section of the exhibition does have a collection of artefacts in boxes. Except these are not faceless items but personal items belonging to a “brummie”. Every item had a face and an interesting story behind it.