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Sara Wajid interview: Birmingham Museum reopens with Victorian Radicals exhibition

Birmingham — the UK’s second city, despite what Manchester says — needs something to cheer. It’s broke, with the council declaring bankruptcy last year. This means exceptional rises in council tax (confirmed) and huge cuts to spending (expected). Cultural venues funded by the council anticipate major cash reductions or even sell-offs.


Ironically it’s one of those venues that’s now offering some rare good news. The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) has begun its phased reopening after nearly four years of closure for major renovation. 


It’s kicked off with the return of arguably the city’s greatest cultural asset: its Pre-Raphaelite collection. It’s the world’s largest and most important of its kind and these works have not been seen in Brum for five years while they toured the USA as part of the Victorian Radicals exhibition.


That show has now made a triumphant homecoming. More than 160 works have gone on show by artists such as Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Elizabeth Siddall. In a four-star review, the Telegraph called it “brilliant.” 


To mark this special occasion, maxwell museums interviews Sara Wajid MBE, co-CEO of Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT) who manages the BMAG. Sara took up the role in 2020 (with Zak Mensah).


It’s a tough gig: the Trust is the largest non-national museum organisation in the UK and it cares for over 1 million objects and nine venues on behalf of the City Council. It’s an even tougher gig when you’re faced with a crumbling building followed by your biggest funder going bust.


So, in our chat here we discuss everything from future financing to the museum’s facelift. But we began by discussing Birmingham’s favourite fine art finally returning home.


 

Hi Sara. So, how does it feel to have the famed Pre-Raphaelite collection back in Birmingham — and to begin the museum’s reopening?


There's something rather sad and ghostship-like about museums without visitors. A bit like the Maori meeting house, Hinemihi, in Clandon Park, the museum and the artworks need visitors to live and thrive.


It's very special to finally be able to re-connect these works — which are so associated with and meaningful for Birmingham — with our audiences.  I was chatting to an experienced colleague who was completing the installation and he said, “This is the most prestigious exhibition we've ever done.” I looked around me and recognised the truth of his observation. It's very glamorous.


Painting showing two people sheltering under an umbrella
Ford Madox Brown. The Last of England, 1852-1855. Courtesy of BMAG

How important is the Pre-Raphaelite collection to the museum, and what does it mean for the people of Birmingham and its history?


It’s really important. Birmingham’s Pre-Raphaelite collection is the largest and most significant of its kind in the world. The city has been collecting Pre-Raphaelite art and design for over 150 years, since before the museum was built, and that collection has become part of Birmingham’s identity. Many Brummies have built a lifelong relationship with this collection and have a strong emotional attachment to particular pictures, often going back to childhood visits with their families.


There is a lot of pride locally in having such an important collection in the city, and they have been missed! The new exhibition will allow people to reconnect with old favourites but also allow us to open a conversation about how these collections will be displayed in the future.


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Was the exhibition's tour across the USA a success?


Victorian Radicals was the largest and most complex touring exhibition ever from Birmingham's collection — about 200 objects in a huge range of different sizes, materials and degrees of fragility — and a large team of our staff worked with the American Federation of Arts (AFA) over four years to make it happen.


The tour was disrupted by pandemic closures and restrictions but nonetheless reached over 168,000 people, and also won a Global Fine Arts Award in 2019 for ‘Modern or Impressionism (1840 to WW2) exhibition on a group or theme’ that year.


The tour had a strong Birmingham story at its heart, not only in showcasing the city's collection but in celebrating Birmingham's central role in the Arts and Crafts Movement, so that was important in raising the city's profile in the US.


The art exhibition tour raised over £470,000 in income which was crucial in sustaining BMT during its closure and supporting the partial reopening of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, but the developmental funding from AFA was also hugely significant. It allowed us to stage a much more ambitious exhibition than would have been possible with our own resources alone, and to carry out a programme of object conservation, glazing and mounting not only to prepare objects for the tour but as an investment in the collection for the future.


What work has been carried out at BMAG since you closed in 2020?


The grade II* listed Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is the largest civic museum in England and resides within Birmingham’s wider Council House. The entire Council House (including BMAG) closed in 2020 due to the deteriorating state of the outdated electrical wiring. Since then, Birmingham City Council has invested over £15m in the building with an entire electrical upgrade, energy efficient LED office lighting throughout, state of the art gallery LED lighting, an upgraded fire detection system and new, improved collection stores.


Thanks to an additional £5m of capital funds from Arts Council England’s MEND fund, we have also undertaken essential work to the leaking roof (the cause of much water damage to galleries and picture stores), improved heating systems, upgraded two lifts, improved visitor access and also undertaken essential decorating in public areas affected by the historic water issues.


It’s has been the biggest investment in the building’s infrastructure since it was first built in 1885. Visitors will feel the difference immediately.


The facade of the museum, with steps and sculpture of a figure lying back in the foreground
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Photo: Birmingham Museums Trust

What's the timeline for reopening?


We're aiming to have 10 galleries in the main museum open by the summer holidays. At this stage I simply can't say when we expect to fully reopen but we're working as hard as we possibly can and getting these galleries open is a brilliant first step which will in turn help us re-open more we hope.  


I can't do an interview without asking you about the current financial situation with Birmingham Council, your biggest funder. What update can you give us — are you in regular contact with them?


Yes we are in constant communication with colleagues at Birmingham Council, who are themselves in a very difficult situation. Certainly major capital projects we had been developing, including the wider transformation of BMAG, have been directly impacted by the S114 (the bankruptcy notice).


It's much more efficient for the Trust to run the museum service on behalf of the council, and the commissioners recognise that keeping the museum Trust afloat is ultimately cost-saving. But yes it's a very worrying time for all public services in Birmingham, including cultural services. 



Does the funding model of the museum need to change?


In short, yes.


We're working closely with others in the English Civic Museums Network on the campaign for a new deal for civic museums. Our situation is particularly acute as we're the largest museum trust in England, with a very large collection with many objects of international significance and a large, populous region to serve. The public funding we work with is insufficient and has always been since the trust was established.


There are many routes we can take — including philanthropy or more commercial activities — that we are developing and which will yield dividends, but in time. Ultimately, we provide a public service and we are an educational charity. 


My father moved to the UK from Pakistan in the 1970s to work in the National Health Service because it was an ideal he believed in. I see public culture service in the same way. Like the NHS it is full of brilliant people doing their utmost but working in a system that is creaking under the strain. 


It's our job as cultural leaders and caretakers for future generations to find a proper long-term solution now. So we're embarking on a whole raft of research and business planning and public consultation through citizens' juries (thanks to funding from National Lottery Heritage Fund) called 'Laying the Foundations' which will enable us to implement the exciting transformation we've been planning. It'll take a little longer than we originally planned, but it will be incredibly worth it. 


Painting of a woman playing a stringed instrument with a green and red dress on
Kate Elizabeth Bunce. Musica (Melody), 1895-97. Courtesy of BMAG

Finally, a favourite Pre-Raphaelite work from your collection you're excited to see again?


Not strictly a Pre-Raphaelite work, but I'm excited to see the painting Musica which we've chosen as the lead image for Victorian Radicals. It was painted by the Birmingham artist Kate Bunce, whose sister Myra was a metalworker who designed some of the frames for Kate’s pictures, and shows their fellow artist A. Mary Powell, who modelled for the picture.


This image brings together the themes of creativity and collaboration that run through the new exhibition, as well as highlighting how central women were during this period as radical artists and makers, especially here in Birmingham.


Victorian Radicals is now open at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and runs until 31 October 2024. The rest of the museum will begin to reopen later in 2024.

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