Life & Style Editor Frankie Rhodes reviews BMAG’s new exhibition Wildlife Photographer of the Year, praising the photographs of nature as offering a wonderful escapism and an educational experience for visitors of all ages
When the lockdown shrank most of our worlds to the four corners of our bedrooms, we turned to nature for an escape. Having an hour’s walk in the park suddenly became essential for well-being, and I found myself collecting flowers, and taking pictures of local wildlife almost every day. With Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery reopening after 7 months’ closure, their first major exhibition perfectly captured our new-found appreciation of the environment. I was lucky enough to be able to visit Wildlife Photographer of the Year, before taking a wander around my favourite galleries.
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition first launched in 1965, focuses on capturing the natural world, and the species within it. This year, a total of 49,162 entries were reviewed by a panel of expert judges, who then selected 100 images to be shown to the public. The exhibition was first launched at the Natural History Museum and has now arrived in Birmingham for an exclusive chance to witness nature on your doorstep.
Having not left the country for a considerable amount of time, it was awe-inspiring to view stunning photography represented by 86 nationalities, all under one roof. The images were tastefully set out against a black backdrop, with a handy one-way system so that you could easily distance from other viewers. The various photography categories, such as ‘Animal Portraits’ and ‘Earth’s environments’, took you on a journey through different sub-sections, which carefully organised what might have otherwise been an overwhelming amount of material.
As an animal-lover, my favourite images were those that captured a range of playful creatures in their habitats. Photos were often entitled with phrases such as ‘Caught in the Act’, or ‘Surprise!’, giving the impression that the animals had been captured in their natural, weird and wonderful states, with no humans intervening. Animals seemed to beautifully compliment the aesthetics of their surroundings, such as the ‘Top Picker’- picturing a tayra perched in the centre of a spiral of colourful branches, and ‘Night Hunter’- depicting a villainous grey owl by the light of a full moon.
A series of underwater images presented marine life as I’d never seen it before- with creatures illuminated in neon pinks and yellows, often appearing translucent. In a bizarrely beautiful shot, a fish took shelter inside a jellyfish, using a protection technique that I didn’t know existed. This was just one of the facts that I learnt at the exhibition, and all around me, parents could be overheard sharing information with their children, indicating its educational impact.
In addition to light-hearted material, the exhibition did not shy away from presenting devastating facts about the state of the natural world. A series of landscapes explored scenes such as a dried-up riverbed in southwestern USA, experiencing its most parched climate since the 1500s. A small section of the exhibition made in collaboration with ThinkTank, Birmingham Science Museum, explored the changes occurring in various landscapes over decades. This space was not only a fun area for children, but also offered an important educational reminder of our impact on the world.
However, there were also more optimistic moments, showing human life co-existing peacefully with nature. In a very lockdown-esque shot entitled ‘Watching Them Watching You’, a researcher within a remote cabin observed a cosy nest of flycatchers through his window pane. Another image that stuck out was that of a spider suspended mid-web, against the backdrop of an apartment block in Bangalore, presenting a perfect fusion of nature and urban life.
My favourite photo has to be a shot of some playful Pallas cats taken in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, looking adorably fluffy, yet with dilated pupils indicating their determination to pounce. The beauty and diversity of the images on display was quite remarkable, and helpful descriptions underneath each image gave just the right amount of digestible information about each scene, habitat and photographer. As the first proper exhibition I had attended since before lockdown, I was very impressed.
Next up, I began to explore the Level 2 galleries, accessible through the one-way system that starts at the exit of the exhibition. This took you on a journey through the ‘Faith in Birmingham’ gallery, into rooms of classical artwork, followed by innovative contemporary exhibitions. The focused attention that this enabled you to give to each room, and feeling of anticipation with what would come next, made me wonder why we haven’t always approached museums in this way.
One of the things that makes this museum unique is its distinct relationship with Birmingham, not simply due to the location but also in terms of its art. The collections include religious objects that reflect Birmingham’s multiculturalism, and the world-renowned Pre-Raphaelite collection that the city began acquiring in the 1880s. In addition to this, new work that reflects the spirit of Birmingham is available to see: such as an inspiring black and white portrait of Malala, and satirical collages by local artist Cold War Steve.
Of course, my trip to the museum would not have been complete without visiting the Edwardian Tearooms. Not only is this quite possibly the most aesthetic café in town (complete with fairy lights and framed art prints) but it also offers a range of affordable, delicious meals. Previously I’d enjoyed tea and cake at the tearooms, but this time I decided to go for a full cod and chips, which was an excellent decision. The chips were light and fluffy, and came with a lime mayonnaise that really complimented the battered cod.
In addition to yummy food, I was able to sample the ‘Go Bananas’ milkshake that the tearooms have created especially, in theme with the Wildlife exhibition. This was a delicious, indulgent mix of banana ice cream and chocolate sauce- however, I’d definitely recommend sharing it as it was more of a dessert than a drink! I also spotted the ‘Peacher Perfect’ drink, a blend of peach and Drambuie flavours, designed by the Pineapple Club cocktail masters. Having themed treats was a novel idea, which I hope is something that the museum will continue to do for their upcoming exhibitions.
To finish off the day, I grabbed a couple of facemasks from the museum gift shop, (2 for £15!), one with a beautiful peacock design and the other featuring the 19th Century ‘Travelling Companions’ painting. Having such a wonderful day out, in spite of the current coronavirus restrictions, was brilliant, and I was aware of all staff and volunteers working hard to make visitors feel safe. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is the quintessential place to visit if you’re new to the city, and if you haven’t visited since the lockdown- do come back. The galleries, tearooms, and friendly staff are ready to welcome you.
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