A tale of two Black Country museums

8 03 2009

A trip to Dudley took us to two very different Council run museums: the small and specialised Broadfield House Glass Museum and the Dudley Museum & Art Gallery, the main municipal one for the area.

Broadfield House Glass Museum

Let’s start with the one we liked

Grand entrance?

Now you know you are going to like somewhere that says it will open at noon then, at precisely noon, unlocks the gates to the grounds surrounding the grade II listed Regency town house. (It did, however, take a little longer for the main entrance to open due to a chat with a neighbour!) Inside, after a jolly and informed welcome from the staff, we found an extensive collection of British glass, spread over three floors, from the 17th Century to contemporary works, much of it from local manufacturers (all of which have now, sadly, closed). There are also two galleries with temporary exhibitions, one currently has a display of Czechoslovakian glass from the 1950s onwards and the other an astonishing exhibition by Diana Dias-Leao entitled The Danger of the Image: Glass Dresses.

glass dresses #3

Made from glass, porcelain, wire and silken yarns, the dresses are described by their creator as “fine-art objects or sculptures rather than clothes” although some have been modelled for photo shoots, and when asked about the kind of response she is after said:

“Two young girls once rushed towards my rose corset saying how great it would be for the disco, then recoiled when they got closer and saw it contained barbed wire and would cause serious pain if you were to put it on. That’s exactly the reaction I wanted.”

Couture fashion image

glass dresses #2

The collection does concentrate on the finished objects rather than their creation, and on the decorative rather than the practical although there is some historical context and some very strange objects. We found much of the older pieces fascinating for their extreme hideousness but many of the contemporary pieces were exquisite and beautiful, for example 2001: a human oddity? by David Reekie and the piece below which is an extract from Martian Square by Wendy Ramshaw.

Martian art

Broadfield House is a lovely, small museum with a great atmosphere and an interesting collection; a visit is strongly recommended. There is one problem here: you need to visit soon as there is a real risk the museum will close as a cost-cutting measure with parts of the collection moved to the near-by Red House Glass Cone. The Council have launched a feasibility study:

“The council’s aspiration is to enhance our museums’ service, to create an excellent visitor experience that is appropriate to our renowned glass collections. A robust and professional study will seek to test the feasibility of relocating glass collections from Broadfield House and elsewhere to the Red House Glass Works Museum, known locally as the Red House Glass Cone. Currently Red House attracts in the region of 22,000 more visitors a year than visit Broadfield House therefore our aspiration is to capitalise on these visitor numbers to increase access to these wonderful collections to as many visitors as possible”

This all sounds very worrying, and we find bizarre the proposal to split up the collection rather than simply to encourage the visitors to the Red House to also visit Broadfield House. The Glass Association has more reasons why this proposed move would be wrong and has a link to an online petition. Better still, support the museum by visiting in person and sign the petition while you’re there.

As an extra incentive to visit, the museum has its own hot glass studio where you can watch Allister Malcom at work.

A drop of glass

Dudley Museum & Art Gallery

It’s fortunate that we fortified ourselves with a pint of beer before hitting the second museum of the day, because really, Dudley Museum & Art Gallery is one of the tackiest museums we’ve visited in a long time.

It was immediately obvious that we were not the target audience: all the displays were clearly aimed at children in general and school parties in particular. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It pleases me to imagine children having an entertaining and engaging time whilst learning, but DMAG seems to have mostly forgotten the idea of learning and the entertainment factor is pretty random. We were entertained by the title of this photo:

pit bonk wenches

(Pit bonk wenches had the job of going over the material that was brought up from the mine and picking out ironstone and coal.)

We were baffled by this photo of Dudley castle, in which we spotted a lurking robot:

Castle and robot

We shook our heads at the practice of adding a plastic dinosaur to every display, regardless of relevance, and we despaired over the level of information provided. Here’s a representative display from the section on Ancient Greece:

This is a victory?

No doubt DMAG is struggling with a lack of funding and probably a lack of interest too, but it’s depressing to see a municipal museum displaying an incoherent jumble of artefacts and providing very little opportunity for learning. Northampton Museum & Art Gallery also caters for the school party market with interactive displays and opportunity to dress up, but alongside that there is quality information well-presented. The tiny canal museum at Stoke Bruerne makes the most of a small and eclectic collection by providing as much information as possible. DMAG seems to aim no higher than being a momentary distraction on a rainy afternoon.

Further photographs from the day can be found here.

— Words by Paul and Elizabeth
— Pictures by Elizabeth and Paul

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One response

20 03 2009
danhartland

You were in Kingswinford and didn’t say! Anna lives not 10 minutes’ drive from there; we’ll do our best to support Broadfield House in the next few weeks…

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