A Visit to the Barber

Johan Christian Dahl (1785-1857) Mother and Child by the Sea

Johan Christian Dahl (1785-1857) Mother and Child by the Sea (Picture reproduced with the kind permission of The Barber Institute)

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts was donated to the University of Birmingham by Lady Barber in the 1930s in memory of her husband, Sir William Henry Barber. The original Trust Deed specifies that the purpose of the Institute was ‘for the study and encouragement of art and music’.

This building and its wonderful collection has become familiar to me over almost 50 years. I have visited since my sight deteriorated and find I still love the cool Art Deco interior with many of my favourite paintings and other parts of the collection.

Then, eureka, I get a message via the Macular Society that Volunteer Guides in conjunction with the Learning and Access Team of the Institute are organising a series of sessions for people with VI. The theme this week was Family Connections and the pictures were chosen accordingly. For a list, see below.

A number of participants had travelled by train from other parts of the West Midlands and were met at University station and accompanied across the campus, which was looking its best in the early spring sunshine. We gathered in a seminar room and introductions took place over coffee and delicious flapjacks. There were about 9 participants with varying levels of VI as well as a very bored guide dog, five volunteer guides and a member of the Institute’s Learning and Access Team.

We were given some superb copies of the pictures we were to see, together with some basic hand held magnifiers. Some of the reproductions were of early exquisite miniatures of children and families which we did not see in the original, however the miniatures were reproduced in detail and to a much larger scale.

After a fascinating account about the miniatures, we set off into the first gallery and the first picture: Botticelli’s Madonna and Child with St. John. For me the guide got it exactly right, first of all describing the painting, colour and form and then moving on to the detail and symbolism. Next was Bellini’s Portrait of a Boy. I used to think if I could steal one portrait from the gallery it would be this. Onward then to Etienne Aubry’s Paternal Love and John Christian Dahl’s Mother and Child by the Sea leading ultimately to Bettina von Zwehls tiny photographic miniatures of her daughter Ruby in Ruby’s Room.

I was pleased that I could see most of the pictures. The guide’s talks helped a lot by pointing out details that I would have missed (and may well have done so even when fully sighted). What was most enjoyable was to have such professional and interesting explanations of the exhibits.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) Madonna and Child with John the Baptist

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) Madonna and Child with John the Baptist (picture reproduced with the kind permission of the Barber Institute)

I was surprised that although the golden Bellini boy is still engraved in my imagination, my favourite on this trip was Botticelli’s Madonna and Child. I believe the reason for this was its clearly defined lines and spaces; its blues and reds which were easily accessible and the dark hair and eyes of John the Baptist which enabled me to see his face. This is a picture, to my shame, that I have passed many times without examining it.

However, I found, in spite of the excellent descriptions, that I was frustrated by the pictures I could not see – mainly the Dahl and the photo images. I don’t like to be challenged in this way but, then again, a totally blind visitor said she enjoyed using her imagination to envisage the descriptions. Luckily there is scope on this tour for everyone and inevitably, any analysis of the visit will be personal and depend on the individual’s level of VI, and their interests and experience.

This event is a work in progress and a marvellous resource for people with VI. I hope the project continues to expand as knowledge and expertise develops. I think the most positive feeling I took away came from the connection the guides built up with their audience as well as from the discussions about, and differing responses to the exhibition.

Something weird: There was a strange collection of circa-18th century mourning rings in the form of loved ones’ eyes in Ruby’s Room. Worth a look if you are visiting.

For more information about the Insight programme at the Barber Institute, you can contact Jen or Alex at the Learning and Access Team on 0121 414 7335 or 0121 414 2261.

Exhibits viewed

British Portrait Miniatures of Children and Families

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) Madonna and Child with John the Baptist

Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) Portrait of a boy

Etienne Aubry (1746-1781) Paternal Love

Johan Christian Dahl (1785-1857) Mother and Child by the Sea

Bettina von Zwehl (current) Ruby’s Room

This entry was posted in Art, Birmingham, Communication, low vision and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to A Visit to the Barber

  1. Kate Millin says:

    This sounds like a great initiative – I hope it is repeated at the Barber and other museums and art galleries.

    • The idea seems to be developing elsewhere but it doesn’t seem to be widely publicised. Also it takes a lot of research and imagination on the part of the people implementing such a project so all the more need to thank the guides.

  2. Liz at Libro says:

    I’ve loved the Barber for 25 years this October and I’m glad that they’re working to make their collections accessible. This report is fascinating.

    • Thank you for your encouraging comment, Liz. I believe that to visit the Barber is to fall in love with it. This is an excellent initiative for people with VI and I hope it will extend to some of the other exhibits.

  3. A marvelous program. Great post. Sounds like the Picture This! gallery talk at the (US) National Gallery of Art that I have attended. Of course, the artwork mentioned sounded great, but now I’m going to do some searching on those mourning rings–intriguing.

    • Will check out the National Gallery of Art program. I am planning to go and take another look at the strange rings and see if I can find out more. Will let you know. Apparently it was a short lived fashion. Glad you share my interest in the weird!

  4. heavenali says:

    What an excellent initiative. I hope they extend the initiative to other exhibits.

  5. Gill says:

    That’s really good. Perhaps it will be extended to the special exhibitions at the BMAG. I think I will give the mourning rings a miss when I go again, though!

  6. Good idea about BMAG. I don’t know if they run similar sessions. I think the Ikon do audio descriptions but what I liked about the Barber was the interaction with the guides. I should mention that the rings are not real eyes but rather strange but beautiful miniatures.

  7. Jen Ridding, Learning & Access Officer says:

    Thanks for your in-depth, considered and thoughtful report Bridget. I’m so glad that you enjoyed the session here at the Barber. As you say it is a work in progress and both the volunteer guides and the Learning and Access team here are on a learning journey- consequently, reflective feedback such as this is so valuable to us. I really hope to meet you again at another Insight session. For your readers’ information, the Ikon do currently programme one audio described tour per exhibition- I know as I worked there previously and set them up! Also, the next Insight session here at Barber will be on Saturday 5th July. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you would like more information- 0121 414 2261.

    • Thanks for your comment. Glad you have extended your VI initiative from the Ikon to the Barber. There can’t be enough Arts accessibility programmes for people with VI! I am looking forward to the next Insight session on 5th July. I love the idea that it is a work in progress…something we can all learn from.

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