It’s a year since I moved from London to Birmingham. When I first told friends that I was leaving my Mayfair gallery job to move to the Midlands, a wave of (what can politely be described as) confusion crossed their faces. Some tried to disguise it; others were rather more unashamed in their critique: ‘Birmingham? But why?’. It’s when they visit that I take great pleasure in showing them Birmingham’s best museums and galleries. Here are my top picks (in no particular order) for a cultured day out…
1. Ikon Gallery
Besides the canals of Brindley Place is Ikon: an internationally acclaimed contemporary art gallery. Free to all, you can spend time contemplating contemporary art from around the world across two floors. Whilst exhibitions often include prints, paintings and sculpture, don’t be surprised to find sound and film also on show. Luckily, Ikon runs an engaging education programme, from talks and tours to workshops and seminars, making the art accessible to those for whom postmodernist installation needs some explaining.
Best for contemporary art buffs…those in the know, those starting out, and those who make it up as they go along (me included).
Housed in a Grade II listed building in the city centre, BMAG has over 40 galleries displaying art, crafts, social history, archaeology and ethnography. It is most famous for its large collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Other galleries showcase the Staffordshire Hoard, Birmingham History collections and Ancient Egyptian artefacts. The museum hosts a broad range of educational events, including free family art workshops. You should also look out for their temporary exhibitions – Dippy the Dinosaur is coming to the museum in 2018!
Best for exploring and taking part in educational activities on rainy days.
Monet, Magritte, Renoir; Rubens and Rodin; Degas and Delacroix – not to mention Picasso, Botticelli, Turner and Gainsborough. The Barber, located on the beautiful campus of the University of Birmingham, offers a magnificent walk through the canon of art history. Entry is free, as are the lunchtime lectures and many of the classical music concerts hosted here.
Best for art historians or a cultured date; the gallery is small enough not to feel overwhelmed but the collection is still impressive. Combine with a visit to the Lapworth Museum.
The Lapworth has recently re-opened following a £2.7m redevelopment, made possible thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund. It was also named Runner Up in the ‘Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017’ award. This museum is of real historical significance: dating back to 1880, it is one of the oldest specialist geological museums in the UK and houses over 250,000 specimens from rocks, fossils and minerals, to geological maps, equipment, models, photographic material, and zoological specimens. Entry is free and the museum can be found on the campus of the University of Birmingham.
Best for those with a curious mind and/or an afternoon to spare.
Head over to Thinktank at Millennium Point for four floors of hands-on exhibits and historical collections which explore the science all around us, as well as the more extinct kind (think enormous dinosaur fossils). The museum includes an outdoor Science Garden, an immersive Planetarium, and an exciting programme of events and activities, perfect for families. Most of the exhibits are interactive, which helps even the most resistant scientists have a fun day out, and you really can spend the whole day here.
Best for little and grown up explorers. I recommend bringing a packed lunch to eat at the designated picnic area.
6. RBSA Gallery
The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) is a thriving artist-led charity located in the historic Jewellery Quarter, just off St Paul’s Square. A busy and high-quality exhibition programme (to which admission is free) showcases work by local artists. This is accompanied by creative workshops and free demonstrations led by practicioners who are experts in their field, from print making to sculpture and oil painting. The ground floor also has an enchanting craft shop, with handmade jewellery and pieces by local designers, along with a small café space.
Best for bourgeoning artists and creatives looking for space to exhibit or experiment. Why not sign up for a workshop or enter one of their open art exhibitions?
Argentea is a new commercial gallery which is already making waves in Birmingham, and beyond. Dedicated to showing the very best contemporary photography from both British and international artists, this is exactly what the venue has brought to the city over the last year. Exhibitions in the beautiful space, located in the Jewellery Quarter’s St Paul’s Square, showcase emerging and established artists in a busy programme of well researched, stimulating and thoughtful exhibitions.
Best for photography and contemporary art enthusiasts, and art collectors.
8. Grand Union
You’ll need to head over to the growing artistic community in Digbeth to find Grand Union. Recently awarded funding by Arts Council England, this studio space and gallery promotes innovative artistic and curatorial practice. The work on show is experimental, and there is an ambitious programme of free exhibitions, talks and events here, which I recommend making the most of during a Digbeth First Friday (on the first Friday of each month you can enjoy exhibitions, late-night openings, special events, culture in unexpected spaces, live music, street food and more).
Best for emerging curators, art critics and artists with a hipster side.
9. Pen Museum
For anyone who loves stationary, this is the museum for you. Based in a former pen factory in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter, the Pen Museum tells the story of how modern pens evolved in Birmingham during the 19th century. It houses over 5,000 objects and a Victorian school room, with the option of dressing up – as a fan of costume drama, I couldn’t resist donning a bonnet and shawl. Another highlight for me was being able to try out handwriting with feather quills, reed and steel pens. You can’t leave without visiting the charming gift shop, which sells an extensive range of specialist calligraphy equipment.
Best for school groups, writers and calligraphists (you’ll want to handwrite those party invitations).
10. Mac Birmingham
Mac Birmingham is a pioneering arts complex for everyone, with a mission to “make art an important part of people’s lives”. Located in Cannon Hill Parks, Mac specialises in a busy and contemporary programme of theatre, dance, independent cinema, music, spoken word, comedy, exhibitions and special events. Mac also offers a wealth of practical classes across the arts, from playing musical instruments to ceramics and jewellery-making, with no lower or upper age limit.
Best for free spirits of all ages. Release your inner creativity by signing up for a workshop or course, from writing to tap dance here.
This award-winning, quirky museum explores the history and cultural changes that influenced a once prestigious Jewellery Quarter firm. Knowledgeable guides will lead you on a tour through shelves and workbenches, which are full of original stock and tools of the trade. With the machinery working again, you can experience how this business once operated, producing some of the world’s finest coffin furniture, including fittings for the funerals of Churchill, Chamberlain and the Queen Mother. A special events programme, including spooky theatrical events, takes place on site, by day and night.
Best for anyone who wants to say they’ve been to a Victorian Coffin Fittings factory and/or has an interest in social history.
Reuben Colley Fine Art is a charming, commercial art gallery located on Colmore Row in the city’s smart business district. This independent gallery was founded by Birmingham artist Reuben Colley in 2010 to promote the work of local artists, with a focus on painters. A brilliant programme of exhibitions showcases a broad range of art, from the abstract prints of Damien Hirst to the realist paintings of Rick Garland. The staff, including Reuben Colley’s wife Joanna, are all very welcoming and insightful.
Best for art lovers, including those looking to invest in modern and contemporary art.
This remarkable museum is built around a perfectly preserved jewellery workshop offering a unique glimpse of working life in Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter. You can explore this extraordinary time capsule on a lively guided tour and watch live demonstrations at the jewellers’ bench, learning about the traditional skills of this fine trade. There is an excellent programme of workshops, led by designers, in which you can create your own unique piece of jewellery.
Best for learning about Birmingham’s renowned jewellery and metalworking heritage, before having a go at creating a unique piece yourself.
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