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University of Birmingham Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir David Eastwood and Birmingham City Council leader Councillor Ian Ward with the Shakespeare First Folio.

Community representatives from across Birmingham had an exciting preview of a major new project which will unlock the city’s forgotten Shakespearean heritage, restoring the world’s first great people’s Shakespeare Library to everyone in the city.

The evening included a chance to see the only First Folio in the world bought for comprehensive (including working-class) education, as well as artwork by Salvador Dali, costume designs by Jean Cocteau and much more.

University of Birmingham Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir David Eastwood and Birmingham City Council leader Councillor Ian Ward welcomed guests to the event at the Library of Birmingham, where they learned more about the collection and plans for the ‘Everything to Everybody’ project.

The University and Council are collaborating on a £1 million plan to revive the city’s almost-forgotten Birmingham Shakespeare Memorial Library (BSML) - the first, oldest and largest Shakespeare collection in any public library in the world and one of the UK’s most important cultural assets.

The project unites the Shakespeare archive with the George Dawson Collection (GDC) - a wealth of documents relating to the nonconformist preacher, lecturer and activist, who founded the Library as part of a pioneering ‘Civic Gospel’ which helped make 19th-century Birmingham the world’s most progressive modern city.

Organisations represented at the launch included The British Library, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Friction Arts, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, DESIblitz, Ex Cathedra, Miss Macaroon and Birmingham Museums Trust, among many others.

Professor Sir David Eastwood commented: “It's wonderful to be working together with Birmingham City Council to renew George Dawson’s ambitious legacy of opening up Shakespeare and elite culture to absolutely everyone today.

“Dawson was a pioneering figure who helped to make Birmingham a real force in the vanguard of world culture. He was an inspiration for our founder Joseph Chamberlain, who established the University of Birmingham as England’s first civic university in 1900.

“We hope that our guests have been inspired by both the plans for the ‘Everything to Everybody’ project and the fascinating artefacts on display, which have provided a glimpse of the treasures contained in this collection of global importance.”

The Heritage Lottery Fund has given the partners £32,700 of development funding to help progress plans to apply for a full National Lottery grant. Their four-year project aims to revitalise Dawson’s dream of creating a culture actively involving everyone in Birmingham.

Councillor Ian Ward commented: “This is a fantastic project aimed at making Shakespeare more accessible to Birmingham’s residents and visitors. The Bard wrote for everybody so his legacy must not be hidden away; we must ensure George Dawson’s vision is fulfilled, with an extensive programme of community-led activities so people of all backgrounds can rediscover Birmingham’s Shakespeare Library and make it mean something to everyone.”

A comprehensive programme of working with History West Midlands, Birmingham Commonwealth Association, Culture Central, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and other organisations and communities across the city will culminate in a major exhibition and festival celebrating Birmingham’s cultural ambition and innovation in the year of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.

The project builds on prestigious global partnerships with the Folger Shakespeare Library and the University of Minnesota (USA), the Universities of Queensland, Sydney and Melbourne, as well as the German Shakespeare Society, the world’s oldest national Shakespeare society which honoured the opening of Birmingham’s civic Shakespeare library in 1868.

Birmingham-born, renowned classical actor Adrian Lester OBE is backing the project and commented: “Everything to Everybody is a great rallying cry for a more democratic culture and for Birmingham as the forgotten trailblazer of that important and inspiring dream.

“I was so proud to learn that Birmingham – my home city - is the home of what is not just the first great Shakespeare library in the world, but remains a uniquely democratic Shakespeare collection intended for the use and development of everyone across the city.”

The project has launched regional collaborations with city communities such as Birmingham Central Mosque, Midlands’ Polish Community Association and Handsworth Ladies’ Shakespeare Society. It also identifies links with collections held in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham Midland Institute, Cadbury Research Library, Birmingham Rep, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the Shakespeare Institute Library.

For more information or interviews, please contact: Tony Moran, International Communications Manager, University of Birmingham on +44 (0) 121 414 8254 or +44 (0)782 783 2312. Out-of-hours enquiries: +44 (0) 7789 921 165.

  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions, its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.
  • Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) applications are assessed in two rounds. The Everything to Everyone project has been granted round one development funding of £32,700 by the Heritage Lottery Fund, allowing it to progress with its plans. Detailed proposals are then considered by HLF at second round, where a final decision is made on the full funding award of £675,800.Thanks to National Lottery players, HLF invests money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about - from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife. Follow HLF on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and use #NationalLottery, #Nationallotteryplayers and #HLFsupported.
  • The project is being generously supported by History West Midlands, who have produced two podcasts and an article by Professor Ewan Fernie, on the forgotten story of George Dawson.
  • The total value of the proposed project is £1,057,104, comprising £78,689 for development and £978,415 for delivery. Further funding will come from a range of benefactors, including the University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council.
  • George Dawson (1821-76) founded the BSML for everybody in Birmingham. Though it remains public property, recent usage indicates most Birmingham residents are unaware of this: 2017 saw only seven requests for items from the BSML.
  • The project is divided into four interdependent strands: UNLOCKING: Identifying new opportunities to make BSML and GDC more accessible. SHARING: Creating activities with Birmingham communities to encourage people from different backgrounds to enjoy the collections. PHYSICAL FOCUS: Using iconic artefacts from the collections to generate interest. DIGITAL ACCESS: Exploiting online resources to give people easy access to materials.
  • It will enable the city‘s communities to contribute through family days, open days, workshops, community-curated exhibitions, digital exhibitions and neighbourhood productions. The project will also give volunteers the opportunity to acquire new skills as they help to digitise the collections and work with community groups and partners to organise events.
  • BSML is owned by Birmingham City Council - built through purchase and donation by individuals and organisations over 150 years. As well as its world-famous First Folio, BSML contains the second, both editions of the third, and fourth folios, about 70 further rare editions, Pavier quartos, and a near-complete set of 18th / 19th century English language editions, plus books in 93 languages from Abkhazian to Zulu.
  • The library contains over 40,000 volumes, 17,000 production photographs, 2,000 music scores, hundreds of posters, 15,000 performance programmes, 10,000 playbills and unique material relating to great Shakespeareans from Ellen Terry to Lawrence Olivier, and remarkable works of art such as Salvador Dalí’s Macbeth illustrations.