Birmingham Seen

I went to the Birmingham Seen exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery today. Its run has been extended until January 31st – next weekend – so rather than wait for someone to come and see it with me I thought I’d better JFDI and went along on my own. (Actually, I’m glad I went on my own. It’s been ages since I just went somewhere on my own.)

BMAG vs Gas Hall

Getting there was a bit trickier than I’d expected. The exhibition was advertised as being on in BMAG, so I went in via the main entrance, up the big steps and through the massive doors. (They’re rather imposing, so pushing them open makes you feel really important. I like that.)

The trouble with going in this way, though, is that you can find all the old stuff quite easily, but there aren’t any signs to the Gas Hall… which, it turns out, is where most of the interesting temporary exhibitions are, including Birmingham Seen.

I ended up asking someone – and to get to the Gas Hall from the main exhibition galleries, I had to go through an unmarked doorway, round an unmarked corner and down some unmarked stairs. When I got down there, I realised everyone else had gone in via a side entrance, which would have made more sense, but how was I to know that? (Um, apart from the fact that I’ve lived in Birmingham all my life and should probably just know things like that?)

I do think it’s strange to advertise something as being on at the BMAG, but then put it on in what is pretty much a separate part of the building and not tell you how to get from one bit to the other.

The exhibition

Bill Brandt, Street scene, Hockley c1943So. The exhibition. If you’re from Birmingham and you fancy a bit of local history, the exhibition is just lovely. The theme is quite vague, in a good way, so anything that documents Birmingham’s history is in there. Oil paintings, watercolours, pen and ink line drawings… and lots of photographs: professional and amateur, fine art and documentary. There are a load of photos from the Central Library’s national collection (which, incidentally, should be given the dignity of a permanent home in a dedicated photographic gallery for the city instead of being stored in a barely viewed archive… but that’s another story). Exhibits date from the 18th century to the present and are shown in more or less chronological order.

Remembering how to remember

Leaving the content of the exhibition aside for a moment (again – sorry), what I found weird on a personal level was that I had forgotten how to “do” an exhibition like this, where there was so much I wanted to take in. I felt almost panicked when, within the first ten minutes of my visit, I saw a photo I really liked. How would I remember what I was seeing? I didn’t know what to do with myself.

I think it’s simply down to being online so much. I’ve become so used to being able to click around from one thing to the next, immediately recording (copying and saving) or bookmarking what I see, that I’d forgotten how real life works. “How to remember”, if you like.

But after bumbling around a bit, I relaxed into it and started spending a long time looking at each picture. I carefully read the blurb next to it a couple of times. I stood back and looked at it from a couple of metres away, then I went in close and studied the detail. If I saw something I really wanted to remember – the name of the artist, perhaps a streetname or detail of old Birmingham that I wanted to be able to talk to my dad about later – I made notes. Actually, I made a lot of notes. And it made a huge difference. Slowing down to take in these details, instead of clicking ‘save’ and moving on, made a big difference to my mood – and I started to remember why we do things like this for relaxation.


For me, the highlights of Birmingham Seen were all relatively recent works and my preference for these was probably as much down to recognition of the subject as appreciation of the style. I liked James Priddey’s bold pen and ink drawing of Moseley village from 1969 and Des Gershon’s Balsall Heath Anthology, a series of street photographs from the summer of 1970. Tom Merillion’s “Concrete Dreams” – superb tilt shifts of classic Brummie scenes like New Street Station and Spaghetti Junction from 1999 – were a very pleasant surprise (right up my street, as you can imagine) whilst Roy Peters’ photos of glum councillors couldn’t help but bring to mind this more recent tumblr blog.

There are also some detailed models and drawings of Manzoni’s original plans for the civic centre of the city, where Centenary Square is now. I didn’t know that Baskerville House was the first building in a grand plan that was never actually realised. It was supposed to be just one of a whole set of European-looking civic buildings. Seeing it its original context was fascinating.

Finally, though, the sadness I felt as I watched 7 inch cinema’s Birmingham timelapse film – a collection of photographs by Derek Fairbrother showing the Victorian Mason College building being demolished and Madin’s Central Library taking its place – knocked me for six. I sat on the little bench and watched it through a couple of times on the large screen… and I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear for our poor city, destined to regenerate and regenerate, adding folly after folly without ever really getting it right, or even stopping to check. But again, that’s probably a rant for another day.

If you do fancy Birmingham Seen, it’s only on until next weekend so you’ll need to make it quick. (And take your mom – there were so many questions I wanted to ask that I knew my parents would have the answers to.) I highly recommend it – although I really hope that at least some of the photography collection will see the light of day again in one form or another.

One thought on “Birmingham Seen

  1. A typically lovely account of your visit, Em. In fact, I sent your blog post to my colleague who was looking for something to do this weekend. Hopefully, she’ll be visiting the exhibition (with her mum!)

    Unfortunately, I don’t have time to get to the exhibition myself, so I’m glad you were able to give me a taste of what I’m missing! The 7 inch cinema Birmingham timelapse is absolutely heartbreaking.

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