The Birmingham Museums Trust is responsible for the governing and managing of seven individual sites across the city, including; Aston Hall, Weoley Castle, Thinktank and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery on Chamberlain Square.
The Trust is custodian to some of the world's most important collections, including the largest single body of pre-Raphaelite artwork in the world and the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found. At any one time, only a very small percentage of the collections are on display to the public, so the Trust also has an important role to play in the storage and conservation of these valuable items.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery opened in 1879 and was an extension to the palatial renaissance-inspired Council House by the same architect, Yeoville Thomason.
The gallery was built following generous support from local benefactors and a memorial reading 'By the gains of Industry we promote Art' in the entrance hall serves as a reminder of the philanthropic spirit of the time.
The galleries were extended between 1908-12 with the support of proprietor of the Birmingham Daily Post, John Feeney. While many areas of the gallery are readily accessible to the public, there are also large areas within the building which are hidden away and inaccessible to most.
Buried in the depths of the building are the former offices of the Corporation Gas Department, which now serve as conservation studios. The journey to reach these rooms, via security checks and descending staircases, gives the impression that they'll be dark, subterranean spaces. In reality the studios are bright, welcoming rooms, with high ceilings and tall windows, following the Italianate design that runs throughout the Museum.
The ornamentation of the rooms is sparse, allowing as much space as possible for the specialist equipment and machinery, which is essential in carrying out the sensitive conservation work.
Past the conservation studios are the manuscript and parchment storage spaces, a dim labyrinthine run of lockers and cabinets, with a small partitioned office, reserved for the viewing of archive materials. Every day is different in the conservation rooms, some days the objects being attended to could be a collection of 20th century pottery, the next a 3,000-year-old Egyptian Mummy.
In the belly of the Museum it's a parallel universe where the collection isn't viewed through layers of protective glass, but is dealt with hands on, to ensure their conservation for years to come.
Surfacing from the lower levels and heading to the roof space offers a very different perspective. Small metal walkways, used by the Museum staff, cut through the striking spiderweb of steel struts supporting large glazed roofs, designed to flood the galleries with diffused natural daylight. At this level, the impressive stained glass dome of the Bhudda Gallery can be viewed up close, from within an uncharacteristically crude timber protective structure.
Above the Industrial Gallery and Edwardian Tea Rooms there are mysterious and redundant winching mechanisms.
These originally served the gas lamps below, which would have been lit to allow the working classes to visit the galleries outside of working hours.
Across the city, in an unassuming warehouse in Nechells, the Birmingham Museums Trust keeps over 500,000 objects, dating from 200,000 years ago to the present day. However, this isn't a dumping ground for old, unwanted elements of the collections, it's the pulsating heart of the Trust, a high tech, secure space to store the hundreds of thousands of items that shift between the Trust's seven sites. From the roadside a passer-by has no idea of the treasures that are housed within its industrial frame.
The ground floor is filled with a selection of different items, allowing members of the public (who are occasionally offered access via open days) to a ‘little bit of everything' that the site has to offer. Thousands of trinkets, models, radios and other assorted pieces are kept locked in secure cages. One of the most notable elements of this room is the immaculate taxidermy collection, their glassy eyes staring out at visitors.
Navigating through the vast treasure trove of the main storage hall immediately evokes the closing moments of Raiders of The Lost Ark. Artefacts stored on wooden pallets are stacked high into the air. The team are all proficient in the use of forklift trucks and regularly have to fetch, heavy and precious items from the upper shelves.
The manner in which the items are categorised gives the impression of an Aladdin's Cave, old engines sit next to early typewriters and obscure sculptures. Bikes, cars and Birmingham's first eco-friendly refuse disposal truck are housed on the floor above, in an area not accessible to the public.
Article by Matthew Goer, Director, Associated Architects
Published in the Birmingham Post, 18 December 2014