dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Taking the past and turning it into the future
Visitors to a summer exhibition in Birmingham are being challenged to become changemakers for the city – inspired by the pioneers of the nineteenth century. The 'Everything to Everybody' Project's Your Shakespeare, Your Culture event at the Library of Birmingham aims to prompt people to follow in the footsteps of George Dawson who created the city's Shakespeare Memorial Library.
Founded in 1864, the collection of more than 100,000 items is both the first major Shakespeare library in the world and the only extensive Shakespeare collection which belongs to the people of a city.
And now, as part of the ongoing 'Everything to Everybody' Project, a collaboration between University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council to raise awareness of the collection, visitors will be asked what they can do to help take the city forward.
Library of Birmingham cultural partnerships manager Tom Epps, who is also operations director for the 'Everything to Everybody' Project, says: "The exhibition introduces Birmingham as a place of ideas. From the Georgian period onwards, Birmingham became a centre of industry but also of culture and the making of ideas. Literacy was really low and yet in Birmingham George Dawson was saying 'Shakespeare is not just for our university students and our wealthy landowners, Shakespeare and this great new free library that we are establishing will be for everybody'."
And he explains this is a side of Victorian Birmingham which is largely unknown to audiences. "It's far more radical than people understand. In the middle of the 19th century there were revolutions at play in Europe and that was part of the concern about the introduction of public libraries in the UK, that you were letting ordinary working class people meet and share information. Libraries are now thought of as quite nice institutions but going back 150 years it was a really radical idea to have these spaces where ordinary people could meet."
And it is that radicalism and how people in Birmingham today can respond to it, which is at the heart of the Your Shakespeare, Your Culture exhibition which has been curated by the Royal Shakespeare Company in collaboration with the 'Everything to Everybody' Project. "We curated Your Shakespeare, Your Culture through themes which will resonate with everyone," says RSC collections manager Robyn Greenwood. "It's built so that you can experience it on many different levels, so if you are someone who knows Shakespeare and the story of Birmingham there will be something there for you but if you don't know a lot about either of these, there will still be plenty for you."
Visitors begin by entering a space in which they are challenged to act. "When you walk into this space you are greeted by seeing and hearing the people of Birmingham," says Robyn. "My colleague Ida Ballerini who curated the exhibition, worked with a group of people to create placards which talk about 'the change you want to make', 'be a catalyst for change', 'fight the good fight' - all things that George Dawson was saying and doing in Victorian times when he created the Shakespeare Library."
Visitors can learn about Dawson and the Shakespeare Memorial Library as well as seeing first-hand some of the precious collection of Bard-related items, translations and programmes. The exhibition will also feature the collection's rare Shakespeare First Folio. The 1623 book, which is the first collected volume of Shakespeare's plays and one of only 235 first folios currently known to exist, was bought for Birmingham as part of the library in 1881. It is the only first folio in the world bought by a city as part of a programme of education and inclusion for the working classes.
The exhibition brings Dawson's social action into present day activism with a section called Future Forward featuring a new commission by Birmingham Poet Laureate Casey Bailey called Bodily Anguish and a second film A Great Feast of Languages – What is this City but its People? "When you see those two films, you start to see how these current revolutionary ideas about culture are the same as the ones you saw in the area for George Dawson but in a different context," says Robyn. "And at the very end there's a wonderful section called Fight for the Change in Your City and this is creating a pin badge which you can take away advocating for change in the community."
Your Shakespeare, Your Culture also has activities for children, where they can have a go at building their own library, and items from the Shakespeare Memorial Library which have not been on display to the public before.
The exhibition aims to ask specific questions of visitors including 'Who is telling your story?' and 'Are you listening?' as well as 'What do you feel about Shakespeare?'
By bringing past and present together, drawing parallels between the Victorian thinkers who pushed Birmingham forward and the opportunities to be socially pro-active today, the exhibition is hoping to encourage visitors to make their own changes, says RSC creative placemaking and public programme manager Rachel Sharpe. "Your Shakespeare, Your Culture is about making work with people, inspiring change - we've got all this information but how do we take it in and what do we do with it next? It's saying 'think about it, take this inspiration, think about what these amazing people did and think about you and what you are uniquely placed to change and do'. There is a real resonance and relevance for people today, and that active invitation to be a positive change at this time in history feels really powerful."
Forming part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival, 'Everything to Everybody' Project's Your Shakespeare, Your Culture is free to visit at The Gallery, Level 3, Library of Birmingham from July 22 to November 5. Seehttps://everythingtoeverybody.bham.ac.uk/ for more information.