Virtual reality and Archives? Maybe not so far away – indeed, maybe right here in Brum in the Waterhall of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery!
An intriguing exhibition, Thresholds, curated by Pete James and Matt Collishaw enables you to experience the exhibition of William Fox Talbot’s photogenic drawings at the Annual Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Birmingham at King Edward’s School, New Street in August 1839.Put on the headset and backpack and you’re standing in the school hall, can view the drawings in display cases – and even lift them to look closer, feel the fire, hear and see the Chartist protestors outside the window – amazing. Chartist riots had taken place in the Bull Ring just a few weeks before and Fox Talbot requested that the Birmingham Literary and Philosophical Society acquire the display cases in order to protect his drawings from possible protestors.
There’s also a display of stereoscopic slides of the interior of King Edward’s School just before it was demolished in 1936 and the King Edward’s Foundation Archives have also lent beautiful pencil drawings of the proposed school building by Charles Barry and indeed, even the original catalogue of Talbot’s drawings on display at that meeting.
William Henry Fox Talbot who was born in 1800 was a wealthy and well-educated man, with particular interest in sciences and ancient languages. He also served as a Liberal Member of Parliament for Chippenham between 1832 and 1835. Talbot retrospectively claimed that it was his lack of skill in drawing whilst on his honeymoon with his wife Constance in Italy in 1833, which led him to experiment to try to capture images from life and fix them on paper. Using paper coated with silver nitrate that darkened upon exposure to light, in 1834 he succeeded in making a series of fragile images of lace and plants by placing specimens in direct contact with the light-sensitised paper. A year later he made a series of images of objects in his house and views of the interior and exterior of the building using a small, modified camera obscura. Talbot’s discovery was made public on 25th January 1839 when 25 images were exhibited at the Royal Institution in London. His paper on the ‘art of photogenic drawing’ was then read at the Royal Society on 31st January and within a matter of days Talbot began preparing his second, and what was to be his largest, public exhibition of his photogenic drawings for the Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Birmingham that year.
Described in one local newspaper report as ‘one of the most delightful exhibitions that can possibly be conceived’, the Model Room was reported as being ‘crowded with works of art and science’, ‘the products of Birmingham ingenuity’ and ‘filled to inconvenience’ with visitors, ‘all of whom appeared delighted with the bountiful spread that was laid before them.’
As former Curator of Photographic Collections at the Library of Birmingham, Pete James has always been interested in the early history of photography in Birmingham and much of his research for this project was based on material in Archives & Collections.
The current exhibition, described as ‘a fully immersive portal to the past’ is at Waterhall until 6 August and a time slot (the VR equipment’s batteries have to be charged!) can be booked at
The exhibition, which has already been shown at Somerset House, London, will then tour.
See also: https://vimeo.com/223308880