On Saturday November 28th 1885, HRH the Prince of Wales formally opened Birmingham Corporation’s ‘magnificent’ museum and art gallery. Designed by Yeoville Thomason as an extension to the Council House, this was truly a building for the people. In addition to the galleries, the entire building also consisted the offices of the municipal gas and water companies – thus, when people paid their utility bills, they could also benefit from the art gallery which was partially funded from the profits, but also with a great deal of philanthropic support from local industial families. And of course it was free to visit, for anyone.
The building evolved over the years. In 1912 and ambitious extension saw the museum expand from just four rooms to forty. The new extension joined the old with a bridge, which was styled on the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. This extension was made possible by the generous financial support of John Feeney. Born in Sparkbrook, Feeney was the founder and proprietor of a number of Birmingham’s newspapers. A generous man, he also contributed the Women’s Hospital, the university and he also left money for a trust fund which supports young people to this day. Many paintings enjoyed by visitors to the museum were also purchased by Feeney.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is home to some of the world’s most important art and artefacts. One of the finest collections of Pre-Raphaelite art, which has recently been wowing audiences in the States and the Staffordshire Hoard attract big audiences. But this is a Birmingham museum, that also reflects Birmingham’s people and history. In recent years exhibitions have focussed on our city’s history, in all its beautiful diversity. We probably all have a favourite – I loved the ‘Knights of the Raj’ exhibition, which traced the history of Birmingham’s Bangladeshi community with a focus on my favourite food – curry!
There is much more to say about Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, but I have kept this blog short as I have written it to ask a favour. The museum is facing a crisis. An application for emergency funding was turned down this week and, which means that it will not be able to open over the summer. And not only BMAG – Thinktank, Sarehole Mill, Soho House, Weoley Castle, the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter and Blakesley Hall are all under the care of the same charitable trust. The trustees have issued a statement saying that survival now depends on support from the council and from the money announced by the Chancellor at the weekend. In the meantime, they have set up their own fundraising page. Could you spare a few coppers – the price of a pint or a cup of coffee shop coffee would be marvellous – to help out? The details are above, and how good will it feel when the doors reopen and you know you did your bit to save our history? Ta.
And please share your memories of the museum.
The statement from Birmingham Museums Trust is here: