Opening Up the Doors of History; CULTURE Terry Grimley on Plans to Make Birmingham's Museum and Art Gallery More Visitor-Friendly

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Byline: Terry Grimley

Birmingham's Museum & Art Gallery could under go some dramatic changes over the next few years if a pounds 5million bid to the National Heritage Lottery Fund this spring proves successful.

Just before Christmas, it was announced that the first phase of a development strategy for the historic building was one of a handful of projects around the United Kingdom which had received Lottery funding - initially worth pounds 107,000 - to work up a major bid.

The bid, which is expected to be submitted in May, will be for the major part of the pounds 7.9million cost of developing a series of galleries devoted to the history of Birmingham from the middle ages to the present day.

However, this will be just the beginning of larger plans for the museum's Victorian and Edwardian buildings which could see new public areas created in six courtyards enclosed within the Council House Extension.

The first to be developed would provide a new sculpture court. This would take the place of the staircase which greets visitors at the end of the bridge gallery linking the original 1880s Museum & Art Gallery with the extension completed just before the First World War.

These and other ideas form part of a 20-year plan for the building. The entire development has not been costed, but it is believed it could cost somewhere in the region of pounds 100million.

"We spent quite a bit of time thinking about the significant aspirations we should have for this museum, in terms of physical changes and how we might be able to use spaces better," says Rita McLean, head of museums.

"We have been working with John Miller & Partners, who have previously worked at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery.

"They are interesting architects and are used to working in historic environments, but with a contemporary approach.

There were two fundamental principles-making it easier for people to get in and then easier to find their way round."

The Museum & Art Gallery contains one of Britain's most extensive public collections, spanning world culture from pre-history to the 21st century. But it is housed in a labyrinthine building with poor circulation and limited access.

It is particularly startling to realise that one of the largest public buildings in the city has just one passenger lift.

Located at the secondary Chamberlain Square (formerly Edmund Street) entrance, it links street level with the Gas Hall and galleries on the second and third floors.

There are plans to add several more lifts and the first of these, serving the Egyptian gallery which, at the moment, is a dead-end on the second floor, is already under construction.

Another will link the Water Hall, now a completely isolated gallery with its own entrance off Chamberlain Square, with the Indian sculpture gallery and Edwardian Tea Room immediately above.

The issue of disabled access to cultural buildings is so crucial these days that the idea of moving the main entrance to where the lift is was considered.

However, this was rejected in favour of the potentially controversial solution of extending the entrance podium on Chamberlain Square to make room for a ramp and lift-shaft. This change to one of Birmingham's most imposing Victorian buildings is dependent on a sensitive design winning the support of English Heritage.

However, the first phase will see the re-design of a series of existing third floor galleries, stretching from Chamberlain Square to Great Charles Street, to create new displays on the history of Birmingham.

These galleries are used to house natural history and currently include the Pinto Collection of wooden bygones, as well as some local history displays which have been installed on a limited budget in the last few years.

But the new displays, amounting to 1,000 square metres and incorporating around 2,000 items, will be of a completely different order. …