Their stories, our collections; how sifting through 850,000 museum objects with the community will inform our new Body Image gallery

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) is undergoing a process of redeveloping all of the permanent storylines currently displayed in its galleries. This is a part of the museum’s new development plans to make BMAG the Museum for Birmingham. Currently our interpretation of storyline regarding Body Image will centre on the question:

How are individual identities created by viewing one’s own body in the context of a wider world?

The plan is to look critically at the representation of the human form in public spaces as evidenced by museum's permanent collection. The enquiry would look at: who created these depictions, for what purpose and what the legacies of these sorts of images have today. Through the museum’s collection we are able to explore these ideas through objects created for children and vulnerable people; objects used for advertisements; objects used for, and depictions of, purposeful body alterations; as well as historical and contemporary critiques and expressions of beauty and identity in art.
Birth Certificate for Barbara Cynthia Templeton, 1908
For example we have identified objects which could be used to look at how identity is constructed from birth. The process of birth (where and when; the gender assigned; physical form etc.) changes and influences someone’s identity. While this narrative can also be explored by examining parents, looking at how the process of giving birth changes the identities, bodies and lives of parents, understanding that difficulties and expectations of how and when to give birth can also have huge influences on identity and relationships to one’s body.

We are also able to see that certain aspects of the body, such as hair and skin can be interrogated in detail, to explore intersectional narratives around identity, society and the human body. This includes cross-cultural interrogations of the value and power associated with human hair, its use to represent a person’s spirit, or an individual relationship to faith or an interrogation of gender roles and beauty ideals. 

Mourning Ring (copyright of Birmingham Museums Trust)
This story could be explored through British Victorian mourning rings, or necklaces of human hair from Fiji, and hair dye from Birmingham.  

Necklace with human hair (Fiji) (copyright of Birmingham Museums Trust)
While explorations around our relationship to our skin can be used to explore issues to do with race, health and beauty; artworks by the late Donald Rodney and his fight with Sickle cell emerge as exemplary starting points for these discussions.
 ‘In the House of My Father’ by Donald Rodney (copyright of the artist's estate)
The work done internally to explore this topic will be used as a starting point for engagement. This week, eight volunteer collaborators will begin their journey with us. They have been recruited through an open call out for gallery collaborators. We simply asked applicants; ‘what does body image mean to you?’ as a way of understanding their interests and reasons for applying. We were overwhelmed with the generosity and sincerity with which people responded. No two applications or personal stories were the same, though there were echoes of similarities. Namely one common thread of repetition referred to the colossal role social media platforms are playing in shaping and forming the way we view ourselves, others and the ever-changing, seemingly unattainable standards of ‘the perfect body’. That was the tip of the iceberg, one which went into deep waters where further stories pertaining to mental health difficulties and prejudice could all be pinned to this phrase ‘body image’. For you the reader, I’m sure none of this is ground-breaking theory. For us, it affirmed why this topic is so important and why we must use our place as the museum to allow these voices to permeate the walls and find a home here amongst the collections. Over the next ten weeks, the group will define the gallery narrative, develop a design concept, and select key objects. After that we will engage further still with schools and key partner groups to select objects to test our enquiry and final exhibition.

The exhibition itself will be placed within the Story LAB. This space was specifically designed to be a modular, interchangeable testing space; a space to try out methodologies of engagement, exploring how we might co-create or collaborate on proposed new ‘storylines’ for the museum. By definition, our previous version of the Story LAB involved a fast passed co-creative process, one in which we gave over much of the editorial museum authority to our co-curators.

The co-curation process was most evident in the tone of the gallery space, directed and confrontational about difficult subject matter. In the latest version of Story LAB, our collaborative approach leans towards using a theme to develop an overriding story or angle over a greater amount of time, informing object selection that is contextualised and reflective of the story the group want to tell. We are approaching this project with questions that we believe will exist as an anchor point for the interrogation and critical analysis of our museum practice. Predominantly, we are questioning; how might we build a collaborative single narrative around the theme of body image, reflective of our city's people? One that is narrow enough to feel refined, yet open enough to leave space for subjectivity, curiosity and learning.

There are over 850,000 objects in the Museum Collections Centre, many of which relate to cultures that exist across the world, others appear to be familiar and everyday items such as hair dye and dolls. In both instances these objects are able to contribute to stories about the human body and our relationship to it, in a way that is relevant to the heritage and cultural history of our local communities. Those stories we believe will in turn reflect and resonate Birmingham’s shared connection to the world, through its people and subsequently in the objects they select for exhibition. It could only take one object with a multitude of interpretative methods to tell the story our collaborators decide reflects Birmingham most. For us, that is the exciting part of working in this way.

We will keep a blog about our progress which will launch on the 19th Feb, along with our online #editaddict campaign to encourage further engagement with our project and collections. If you’re interested in ideas around filtering and editing with technology, check out the BMAG blog and Story LAB Instagram page. There you can find out what we’re doing with our Pre-Raphaelite paintings…
Instagram: storylab.bm_ag

Hannah Graham (Community Engagement Officer, Museum for Birmingham) and Rachael Minott (Research Assistant, Body Image and Identity (Story Lab))

About Birmingham Museums Trust
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is operated by Birmingham Museums Trust, an independent charity that manages the city’s museum collection and venues on behalf of Birmingham City Council.  It uses the collection of around 1,000,000 objects to provide a wide range of arts, cultural and historical experiences, events and activities that deliver accessible learning, creativity and enjoyment for citizens and visitors to the city. 

The collection is one of the three great civic collections of the UK, reflecting the city’s historic and continuing position as a major international centre for manufacturing, commerce, education and culture. Most areas of the collection are designated as being of national importance, including the finest public collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world.

Attracting over one million visits a year, the Trust’s venues include Aston Hall, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, Blakesley Hall, Museum Collections Centre, Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, Sarehole Mill, Soho House, Thinktank and Weoley Castle.


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