Terry Grimley on plans to make Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery more visitor-friendly.
Birmingham’s Museum & Art Gallery could undergo some dramatic changes over the next few years if a £5million bid to the National Heritage Lottery Fund this spring proves successful.
Just before Christmas, it was announced that the first phase of a development strategy for the historic building was one of a handful of projects around the United Kingdom which had received Lottery funding – initially worth £107,000 – to work up a major bid.
The bid, which is expected to be submitted in May, will be for the major part of the £7.9million cost of developing a series of galleries devoted to the history of Birmingham from the middle ages to the present day.
However, this will be just the beginning of larger plans for the museum’s Victorian and Edwardian buildings which could see new public areas created in six courtyards enclosed within the Council House Extension.
The first to be developed would provide a new sculpture court. This would take the place of the staircase which greets visitors at the end of the bridge gallery linking the original 1880s Museum & Art Gallery with the extension completed just before the First World War.
These and other ideas form part of a 20-year plan for the building. The entire development has not been costed, but it is believed it could cost somewhere in the region of £100million.
“We spent quite a bit of time thinking about the significant aspirations we should have for this museum, in terms of physical changes and how we might be able to use spaces better,” says Rita McLean, head of museums.
“We have been working with John Miller & Partners, who have previously worked at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery.
“They are interesting architects and are used to working in historic environments, but with a contemporary approach. There were two fundamental principles – making it easier for people to get in and then easier to find their way round.”
The Museum & Art Gallery contains one of Britain’s most extensive public collections, spanning world culture from pre-history to the 21st century. But it is housed in a labyrinthine building with poor circulation and limited access.
It is particularly startling to realise that one of the largest public buildings in the city has just one passenger lift.
Located at the secondary Chamberlain Square (formerly Edmund Street) entrance, it links street level with the Gas Hall and galleries on the second and third floors.
There are plans to add several more lifts and the first of these, serving the Egyptian gallery which, at the moment, is a dead-end on the second floor, is already under construction.
Another will link the Water Hall, now a completely isolated gallery with its own entrance off Chamberlain Square, with the Indian sculpture gallery and Edwardian Tea Room immediately above.
The issue of disabled access to cultural buildings is so crucial these days that the idea of moving the main entrance to where the lift is was considered. However, this was rejected in favour of the potentially controversial solution of extending the entrance podium on Chamberlain Square to make room for a ramp and lift-shaft. This change to one of Birmingham’s most imposing Victorian buildings is dependent on a sensitive design winning the support of English Heritage.
However, the first phase will see the re-design of a series of existing third-floor galleries, stretching from Chamberlain Square to Great Charles Street, to create new displays on the history of Birmingham.
These galleries are used to house natural history and currently include the Pinto Collection of wooden bygones, as well as some local history displays which have been installed on a limited budget in the last few years.
But the new displays, amounting to 1,000 square metres and incorporating around 2,000 items, will be of a completely different order. The budget of £7.9million can be compared with the £32million which the Victoria & Albert Museum spent seven years ago redisplaying its entire British galleries.
The previous local history galleries, which opened on the Great Charles Street side of the building in the 1980s, were closed several years ago and have since been converted into educational facilities. Although most of the new displays will be in existing galleries, there will also be some new space in former offices, which will become accessible to the public for the first time.
The project will also include the restoration of some original features of the building. It is probably not widely realised that the Council House Extension suffered serious bomb damage during the Second World War and a relic of this survives to this day in the false ceilings which were installed as part of the postwar reconstruction.
One of these can be found at the reception point at the Council House Extension end of the bridge gallery, the point where visitors either climb the stairs directly ahead or turn right through a door into the picture galleries.
“We had a fascinating time looking at plans of the original building,” says Jo Smith, head of project and development. “There is a little dome above the reception area which we are planning to restore.”
The decision to make local history the first priority reflects both the advice of consultants and feedback from public consultation.
“There hasn’t been a coherent display of Birmingham history for a long time and when we did our public consultation, people said they wanted to see that, so we were happy to go with it,” says Rita McLean. “The displays will put the material into a global context, so it won’t just be parochial. There will be just over 1,000 square metres of displays and we are deliberately stopping at 1945 because I would say our collections are less strong over more recent times.
“Over time, there has been more emphasis on fine art and decorative arts, and the history collecting has been more passive than active.”
On the other hand, aspects of local history are explored at various branch museums including Aston Hall, Birmingham’s first museum, which is now itself undergoing a major programme of improvements, Blakesley Hall, Sarehole Mill, and relatively recent additions like the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter and Matthew Boulton’s former home, Soho House. Boulton will be the focus of a programme of events this year linked to the bicentenary of his death.
Meanwhile, it is planned to submit the bid to the National Heritage Lottery Fund for the new local history galleries by May, with a launch pencilled in for September 2012.
Beyond that, further developments at the Museum & Art Gallery could include a new sequence of galleries on the floor below, converted from what is now office space, the sculpture court already mentioned in one of the six courtyards, and a possible new cafe and shop in one of the others.
There is also the possibility of a second bridge across Chamberlain Square/Edmund Street to make a complete circuit of the galleries possible – although that would pose a significant design challenge in lining up the connection between the two listed buildings.
Incidentally, the Museum & Art Gallery still shares the Council House Extension with the city council’s education department on the Margaret Street frontage.
No-one is talking about converting these offices into galleries – at least, not yet.