Museum merger to get global seal of approval

The board of the newly created Birmingham Museums Trust has been revealed together with  ambitious proposals to cement the museums' global collections reach worldwide, New Birmingham museum director marketing the city's culture throughout the world.

The creation of the Birmingham Museums Trust follows the merger of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and Thinktank, Museum F(r)ee, and allows both museums working as a single body to take advantage of charitable status to gain tax breaks and and seek funding from sources not available to local authorities.

The new trust is the largest museums service in the UK to move to trust status and the moved has already seen financial reward with Arts Council England designating the trust a Renaissance major partner museum and awarding £5,091,615 over a three year period,

Sir Nicholas Goodison, former chairman of the Art Fund (1986-2002) and the Courtauld Institute of Art (1982-2002), who recommended trusts as a progressive way forward for museums in a Treasury Report in 2004, said, “I am delighted that Birmingham has taken the step of forming a new Trust to run the museums services in the City. It is an enlightened step, full of promise for the future of these great collections and their audiences, and it is encouraging that a strong start has been made with the appointment of Trustees.”

Len Clark, who has been chairman of Thinktank since 2004 and who led the steering group which has overseen the merger of the two museums will be interim chairman of the trust as it seeks a long-term appointment.  More than 60 people applied to join the new trust and the new trust made up of ten members includes a breadth of experience including within it Penelope, Viscountess Cobham who has been Chairman of VisitEngland since 2009, Sir Mark Jones who was Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum from 2001 to 2011 and Director of the National Museums of Scotland from 1992 to 2001 and Professor Alice Roberts who is a Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham and an original presenter from BBC2's Coast

The full board is made up of museum director Ann Sumner; city council appointee Coun Muhammed Afzal; former head of Birmingham museums service Graham Allen; Lady Penelope Cobham, who has been chairman of VisitEngland since 2009; Deborah de Haes the current chairwoman of the Friends of Birmingham Museums; former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum Sir Mark Jones; company chairman and art collector David Lewis; Time Team and Coast presenter Prof Alice Roberts, who is Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham; and Jan Teo the Birmingham based director of Deutsche Bank.

With all this experience the new trust has ambitious plans to spread it's global collections and the reputation of the museum and the city.  Part of the groundwork for these ambitions has already been achieved with the loan of key pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard to the National Geographic Museum in Washington DC which saw 50,000 paying visitors in autumn 2011,

Recently Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones' work has been displayed at the Mitsubishi Museum in Japan where 53 of the 80 works displayed in the exhibition were from the Birmingham Museum's extensive collection,  The display of art from Birmingham is likewise reciprocated in the collection of Japanese art on display in Birmingham with Birmingham having one of the largest collections of Japanese fine and decorative art outside of the country with a collection of prints and sword fittings which were created in 1873. 

Prof Sumner who was appointed director in April and brings experience from almost five years as director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham together with being a member of the National Gallery's Advisory Committee on European Paintings and on the steering group for a proposed lawn tennis museum at Edgbaston notes the exciting programme of events that have started and are forthcoming.  Recent events have seen the Science Garden open, Science Garden sows seed for Eastside City Park, and the largest touring exhibition of Ancient Egyptian artefacts in the UK Pharaoh King of Egypt open this week,, while forthcoming events will be the new Birmingham History Galleries which are due to open in October, BMAG to make history.  

Meanwhile, the museum is joining in city centre festivities to celebrate Jamaica’s 50th year of independence with its own exhibition and a major knitting project. From September John William Waterhouse’s atmospheric The Lady of Shalott will be a stand-out piece from a set Victorian paintings being loaned to Birmingham by the Tate in an exhibition titled Love and Death.

Later an exhibition from the Government Art Collection – the set of fine paintings usually hung on the walls of Whitehall departments and British Embassies around the world – will be coming to the city. A First World War centenary exhibition is now in the planning stages.

Aside from exhibitions the new trust has accepted a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for £675,000 which together with £175,000 raised through grants from The Art Fund, Museum Development Trust and the Friends of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and current fundraising efforts through a public appeal for £50,000 aims to acquire the portrait of Dr Ash by Joshua Reynolds, currently on loan to the museum by Queen Elizabeth Birmingham Hospitals Charity. 

The portrait of Dr Ash by the celebrated 18th-century portrait painter Reynolds is valued at £900,000. Professor Sumner comments: “We are absolutely delighted that HLF has supported us in the acquisition of this significant work. The portrait is arguably Reynolds’ most elaborate and successful full-length institutional work. Its combined historic and artistic qualities make it one of the most important cultural icons of the city of Birmingham and a civic treasure. This is a great boost for Birmingham Museums, and we hope through a successful public fundraising appeal, we will be able to keep this impressive painting on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.”

The fundraising effort highlights one of the first challenges for the new trust as it seeks to cope with cuts to public spending and the introduction of admission charges for many of the community museums such as Soho House and Aston Hall, Culture Costs, and the issue of an entrance fee for Thinktank but no fee for BMAG.  As I noted previously, Museum F(r)ee,  many of the items lent to the museum are lent on the condition of free entry and though it may seem tempting to raise revenue through entrance fees the public will not easily stomach entrance fees.  Fees would also fly in the face of the move to create free entry to museums such as the successful introduction of free entry to the Science and Natural History museums in London.  What might be a successful route is popular paid exhibitions like the new Pharaoh exhibition which can help raise revenue and encourage return visits through visitors discovering the rest of the museum together with encouraging spending in the shop and cafe.


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