Review: Birmingham’s Museums on Demand programme

Jessica Harris goes online to learn about the past.

Museums on Demand is a series of digital content packages in which Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s in-house experts share their knowledge and enthusiasms.

Experts they certainly are, and sometimes in some very niche areas, mostly delivered though lecture format. Nothing fancy here – just straight forward talking to a camera with slides to illustrate the content.

Out of those available during March and April, I dipped into:
• The Pre Raphaelites: A Revolutionary Art – presented by Jane Hornby
• A Landscape of Memory: JRR Tolkien and Sarehole Mill – presented by Wayne Dixon
• The War of the Three Kingdoms – presented by Ric Sowden

The Pre Raphaelites
This lecture had both breadth and depth and, out of the three I listened to, was the one most directly connected to BMAG’s collections. The largest in the country, with some 3000 works, it includes paintings, drawings, ceramics, tapestries, prints and stained glass.

And so, it was excellent to see it given an online airing. Hornby’s presentation covered the political and the artistic context, as well as in-depth analysis of some of BMAG’s most iconic works.

Founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre Raphaelites described themselves as a ‘brotherhood’. They pitched themselves against the art establishment, as represented by the Royal Academy, whose works they regarded as trivial. Keen to produce work which inspired minds and hearts, they associated themselves with revolutions underway in Europe at that time, and with the Chartist movement in Britain.

Hornby used Millais’ painting, The Blind Girl, to illustrate their concerns with the economic and social circumstances of the working classes at the time: Two young girls, beggars, are captured in an idyllic rural setting, their dull and ragged clothes contrasting with the brilliance of the colours in the background.

Although the movement was short-lived (just four to years years), the mark it left on the artistic landscape was significant. Its artists were early adopters of painting outside, made possible by the development of the paint tube, meaning that paints could be easily carried. As they went their separate ways, they influenced other movements. Rossetti’s work gave impetus to the arts and crafts movement, Millais moved closer to the work of Realist painters and commercial trends, whilst Hunt stayed within the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Hornby’s lecture was crammed full of insight and factual information. Presentational style was formal and broke with no conventions. However, as a means of genning up before you visit (and let’s hope we all can soon), it’s well worth it.

A Landscape of Memory
Wayne Dixon is a person of our times. A museum team manager, as often as not he would be found leading walks around Sarehole Mill Museum and the local area. Now, along with many others, he has become an expert in presenting and connecting via Zoom. He is also an expert on the early life of Birmingham’s very own national treasure, JRR Tolkein.

A little slow to start, this lecture came into its own as it progressed. Admittedly, you probably have to be interested in the small part of Birmingham which Dixon focused on, that area south of the city which straddles the River Cole, with Sarehole Mill at its heart. And you probably have to be familiar with the best known of Tolkein’s works, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. But then, with the endless repeats on TV, that’s not asking much.

Given this, Dixon will soon convinced you that the characters, settings, language and dramatic action of these books were informed by Tolkein’s years between the ages of four and eight (1896-1900) when he lived and roamed through this landscape. So the miller and the miller’s son, captured in a photograph of Sarehole Mill around 1895, are reckoned to have influenced the characters of Sandeman the Miller and his son in Lord of the Rings, whilst Sarehole Mill and its pond inspired one of the book’s locations.

Tolkein left the area while still a child. As both his parents had died, he was looked after for a while in a number of Catholic care settings and, after leaving school, fought in the trenches of the First World War. Returning to his old haunts, he found they had all but gone, under the guise of modernisation. Particularly painful for him were the felled trees which had been left to rot. Dixon argued that these were the basis for the scenes of destruction in Lord of the Rings, and the fall of the Shire.

In a microcosm, Dixon gave a wider lesson of how we have allowed our environment to be degraded and destroyed, and the lecture had poignancy and passion.

An overview of the wars of the three kingdoms
This focussed on the civil wars in the British Isles between 1630 and 1660, spanning the reign of Charles I, his execution, and the accession of Oliver Cromwell to post of Lord Protector of England.

The lecture explored the reasons for the civil wars, looking back at the relationship between James 1 and parliament. He inherited a country with religious fractures, no regular source of income and a parliament wanting an increasingly bigger say in how the country was run.

The results? Tension and dissent. James’s views on the divine right to rule were at odds with those of parliament, as were his church reforms, his constant demands for money, and his promotion of a secret court, the Star Chamber. And the relationship between James’ son, Charles, and parliament was even worse: Parliament’s lack of support for him led to him raising the Royal Standard in Nottingham in 1642, and so the Civil War began.

To my mind, this is all very interesting: as ever, history tells us much about the present day, and what determines our current institutions and political systems.

However, much of the rest of the lecture was given over to military details: Types of soldiers and individual battles. Some will have a burning interest in this but, for me, the broader themes were somewhat drowned by a plethora of dates, names and other facts, all delivered with the speed of a missile from a cannon.

And I couldn’t find a connection between the lecture and BMAG’s collections. So if I’d wanted to follow up through a visit, I was left unsure as to whether there would be anything which related to its content in the city’s museums.

The pandemic has led to many cultural institutions finding new ways to engage with participants and audiences. BMAG’s programme is a great way of making its resources available and of connecting with people, and inspiring them to visit when venues reopen.

As it finds its feet in this new way of working, let’s hope it becomes a bit more confident in exploring different styles of delivery, and breaking through the traditional lecture format. Highlighting the links with the collections themselves, so that visitors are encouraged to go back to the city’s great museums, and explore further, would be no bad thing as well.

Each month, BMAG releases a range of topics. Those available in April are:
• Paintings of Albert Moore
• Constable Clouds
• Landscape of Memory: JRR Tolkien and Sarehole Mill
• The Pre Raphaelites: A Revolutionary Art

Tickets are available .

Pic – The Dingles Near Sarehole by Edward Wilden.