Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) is back! To celebrate we’ve put together a list of 11 of our favourite artworks and things to see as you explore the reopened Level 2 galleries. Whether you’re a seasoned visitor or a first-timer, follow this highlights trail to see how many you can spot!
1. Sultanganj Buddha
Not only is this Buddha the largest known complete Indian metal sculpture, but it was also one of the first objects to enter Birmingham’s collections. Produced in ancient India and buried for safekeeping, it was excavated hundreds of years later in 1862. It now stands within the ‘Faith in Birmingham’ gallery, as homage to Buddhist communities in the West Midlands. Every year the museum hosts its annual Buddha Day celebrations when Buddhists from across Birmingham and the region gather to bless and venerate the statue.
2. Benny’s Babbies – Cold War Steve, 2020
Released digitally in lockdown, this 2-metre wide collage celebrates Birmingham with the landmarks and people that make it great. Artist Christopher Spencer, aka Cold War Steve, created this using Birmingham Museum Trust’s digital image resource website, and calls it ‘a massive celebration of the diversity of the city.’ Amongst the vibrant city chaos, see if you can spot comedian Joe Lycett, the band members of Black Sabbath, the iconic Bullring, and many more classic Brummie scenes.
3. Portrait of Malala – Shirin Neshat, 2018
Brand new to Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is a portrait of activist Malala Yousafzai by Shirin Neshat, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. This inspiring young woman spoke out about female education, after being shot in the head by a Taliban gunman on her school bus in October 2012. Recovering in Birmingham with her family, Malala went on to become the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and founded the Malala Fund in 2013, offering all girls free access to education for twelve years. The portrait has arrived in Birmingham as part of the COMING HOME initiative, which sees portraits from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection travel to places across the UK they are closely associated.
4. The Last of England – Ford Madox Brown, 1852-1855
As part of Birmingham Museums’ world-renowned Pre-Raphaelite collection, this painting takes on a more sombre tone than The Star of Bethlehem which is next on the list. It depicts the emigration of a young family from England to Australia, as part of the emigrating movement of the 1850s. The artist himself and his family posed for the painting, and their grave expressions could indicate their determination. See if you can spot the tiny hand of their baby, peeping out from its mother’s cloak.
5. Star of Bethlehem – Edward Burne-Jones, 1887
This painting depicts a beautifully tranquil nativity scene, complete with the three kings, and an angel holding the eponymous star. The Pre-Raphaelite artists imitated Medieval Italian art before Raphael (hence their name), and the museum’s collection holds over 3,000 of their works. This painting was commissioned by the City of Birmingham in 1887 and became the largest watercolour of the 19th century!
6. Steel Pulse Guitar – Birmingham Revolutions: Power to the People Exhibition
This groovy Gibson Les Paul guitar not only looks cool, but also has a fascinating history. It belonged to band member Basil Gabbidon from Steel Pulse, one of Britain’s most successful roots reggae bands. Their debut album Revolution (1979) spoke out about the racism and violence experienced by black people in Birmingham in the 1970s and 80s. They played at the iconic Rock Against Racism gig in London’s Victoria Park in 1978, and performed in 1981 to mark Bob Marley’s funeral. Why not check out the rest of the Birmingham Revolutions: Power to the People exhibition, and learn more about the city’s vibrant and varied history of protest and activism?
7. Carnival Costume – Professor Black, Dressed to the Nines Exhibition
As part of the fabulous Dressed to the Nines exhibition, this iridescent Carnival Queen costume was designed and made by Professor Black. It was created for Birmingham Carnival, a celebration of Afro-Caribbean culture, occurring every couple of years since it began in 1984. Professor Black has been designing costumes for over 20 years, dressing up to 150 dancers for each carnival! Imagine the Carnival Queen sporting this magnificent dress as she kicks off the parade, and explore some of the other gems of this collection while you’re there.
8. The Staffordshire Hoard Helmet
Almost 10 years after the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered, experts created this reconstruction of the original helmet found within it. The collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver, dating back to AD 600-650, was discovered in a field in Staffordshire in 2009. Using cutting-edge technology and ancient craft techniques, researchers re-created this piece, which a third of the 4,000 precious Hoard fragments are known to have come from. The original is thought to have been incredibly high-status, and possibly belonged to a king.
9. Superduperspective – Patrick Hughes, 2003
Take a look at this painting, move around a bit, and then look again! You should see the optical illusion come to life, with its three-dimensional structure that appears to move as the viewer walks past. Artist Patrick Hughes selected 23 of his favourite works from the museum collection for this piece, which you may recognise from your visit. He has been creating works that play with perspective since 1964, and enjoys how ‘the mind is deceived into believing the impossible, that a static painting can move of its own accord.’
10. Lucifer – Jacob Epstein, 1947
If you’ve ever visited the Round Room, you’ll already be acquainted with Jacob Epstein’s fantastic, imposing statue Lucifer. This depicts the Archangel Lucifer, deemed the most beautiful of all angels before his fall from heaven, and the infamous anti-hero of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Installed in 1947, Sir Jacob Epstein watched as the two-bronze sculpture was carefully hoisted in through a window, where it has remained in the museum for over 70 years.
11. The Gas Lamps – Industrial Gallery
You’ve been looking around a lot on this trail, but have you been looking up? The beautiful and mysterious gas lamps that hang over the Industrial Gallery have existed since the 1880s, yet exactly how they functioned is unclear. They were probably lighted by a winching system, where the lamps were lowered down to a gentleman who would light them, before being returned to the ceiling. Their existence also reveals an important social message: in the 1880s, museums were often only lit by sunlight, meaning that they were only worth visiting during daylight hours. It followed that working-class people, who generally did not finish work until the evening, would not be able to see the exhibits, yet the installation of these gas lamps allowed everyone to access the museum.
Now you’ve completed your trail, why not relax with a cup of tea and a slice of cake at the Edwardian Tearooms? Entry is included as part of your timed slot, so there’s no need to book. There’s also a selection of gifts to browse within our museum shop, so make sure you pop in before you leave.
The museum is now open and we can’t wait to see you! Pre-booking is essential - book your timed slot.