26 Feb 2015

A Day in the Life of a Volunteer

I have been working at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) as a member of the Visitor Assistant Team for almost three years. After completing my undergraduate degree in Art History it was exciting to start work in a building that houses such a magnificent fine art collection. That is why I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer with Victoria Osborne, Fine Art Curator at Birmingham Museums Trust. 

The role is one day a week, which fits in with my rather busy schedule (in addition to working at BMAG I work at Research and Cultural Collections at the University of Birmingham as Exhibitions Assistant, as well as currently studying for my MA in Art History) and so far I have learnt a great deal.

My day as Victoria’s assistant begins by checking my emails and seeing what enquiries have come through that day, either from people conducting scholarly research or from interested public. Given the vastness of the collections at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, I could easily spend days hunting through the curatorial files reading about George Morland’s charming Pigs, or attempting to determine the precise location depicted in Benjamin Williams Leader’s beautiful painting February, Fill Dyke. The fantastic thing about answering enquiries is that I am given a direction in which to look (the two topics mentioned above are examples of enquiries) and specific artists and works to research.

Looking through the index for information to answer an enquiry about works on paper

This freedom to look through the curatorial files each week has been fantastic. I am writing my MA dissertation on the sculpture of Brazilian artist Ana Maria Pacheco whose incredible work Man and His Sheep is in the BMAG collection. It has been a great help to have access to the Pacheco files each week.

It is amazing what information you can dig out of the curatorial files. If you follow Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Curators on Twitter (@BMAGCurators) you may remember a story about a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard - #findtherabbit. In 1949 BMAG was given a beautiful miniature by Nicholas Hilliard. Hilliard was an English artist, known for his exceptional portrait miniatures. The donor who gave the gallery this particular work indicated that there was a drawing of a rabbit hidden somewhere inside the case. This was intriguing, and we even took the miniature to conservation to use their X-Ray machine to see if we could spot this mysterious rabbit. Unfortunately no such luck. Imagine my excitement when one day glancing through some of the curatorial files I spotted some images of the miniature, and low and behold, a photograph of a tiny rabbit drawing!

Hilliard 1949 P8 Front And Rabbit
Portrait of a Lady, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard and photograph of rabbit drawing (right)

After dealing with any enquiries that have come through, I will normally check in with National Gallery Curatorial Trainee Helen Hilliard. Helen is supported by the Art Fund, and is currently working on the rehang of the 17th century European galleries at BMAG. I am currently assisting Helen with designing a children’s worksheet for the new galleries, and over the past few months I have looked at interpretation as well as experimenting with the hang using a scale model of the galleries. It has been great to build upon existing and gain new practical curatorial skills.

Using a scale model to look at the proposed hang for the new 17th century European galleries at BMAG

Finally, I have two ongoing projects that I am working on at the moment which are both very exciting. The first concerns the interpretation of the wonderful selection of paintings that hang in the Round Room, just past the main reception at BMAG. I will be researching each painting in order to produce an information booklet about them. This will make the works more accessible for visitors, as well as giving Gallery Interpreters more information to share with visitors. The paintings that hang in the Round Room do not currently have a lot of information displayed with them, so it will be fantastic to find out some more about these beautiful paintings and share this knowledge with visitors. The second project concerns an incredibly exciting exhibition that Victoria is currently working towards; an exhibition of the exquisite work of Edward Robert Hughes. Edward Robert Hughes was the nephew of Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes, and this will be the first exhibition of his work in over one hundred years. The exhibition will open at BMAG in October 2015, and I am currently involved in a project researching Pre-Raphaelite Christmases – all will be revealed!

All these things make up my typical day as a Fine Art Curatorial Volunteer; busy but extremely fascinating. This week I am off to the Birmingham Museum Collection Centre for a seminar hosted by Islamic and South Asian Art Curator Rebecca Bridgman – one example of the numerous opportunities to learn more about our collections at Birmingham Museums Trust that this role has provided.