It’s not what you’d call busy, but it’s warm and dry and there’s a vapour trail of tomato soup so it’s a draw at lunchtimes. Starbucks might do skinny lattes, but it doesn’t do Burne-Jones or Everett Millais. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, or BMAG as it’s branded, smells like a museum should. It’s marbled and shiny with columns and pillars and busts of Victorians playing at being Cicero or Cato.
There is dust in the air and shoe polish and a trace of that butter soap they used in school toilets. The walls used to be fabric, but they’ve been painted a deep green. They still bear the whiff of my Nan’s settee – a little fusty and faded with a hint of pipe tobacco. There are two of us in suits grabbing some lunchtime culture. A party of school kids in blazers clatters through. Their teacher creaks back and forth on his Oxford brogues, hands clasped behind his back like the Duke of Edinburgh. An eccentric old dear in a headscarf and ethnic print dress stares at Rossetti’s sketch of a Persian Boy. She has a smudge of lipstick and trails a bunched fluorescent yellow sleeping bag on a cart. A pensioner in an England baseball cap rubs his eyes and studies the captions from three inches. He doesn’t like the look of Thomas Carlyle in Brown’s Work.
‘A’s the bloody boss, A-ee? Look at him.’
The Museum hit the headlines with the story of the Staffordshire Hoard – a treasure trove of Saxon gold unearthed by a metal detector in a farm field – but there are plenty of unsung works. Birmingham was once the workshop to the Empire, so it shouldn’t be a surprise there is art made from spray paint, car panels, glass and machinery. The pre-Raphaelite group features heavily and there are wonderful landscapes from David Cox, as well as sketches by Turner. Industry, as you might expect, is never far away. Metal runs through this region in more ways than one, from the Black Country to Black Sabbath. And, as if perfectly on cue, a girl with cavernous black eye makeup and ripped denims strides through the double doors.