Founded in 1864, Birmingham’s Shakespeare Memorial Library was the first great Shakespeare Library in the world. Expressly established for all the citizens of the town, it announced an exciting new epoch of cultural democracy, which helped catapult nineteenth-century Birmingham into the vanguard of modern culture.
More than buttons, pens and screws – important though those things are – were ‘made in Birmingham’ during the city’s industrial hey-day. ‘To Birmingham belongs the credit of having reared the noblest monument to the memory of England’s greatest poet,’ as one local historian put it.
Among the Shakespearean treasures which belong to Birmingham is a uniquely precious copy of the 1623 First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works. Emma Smith, author of Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book, states categorically that this volume is ‘the only copy of this valuable and culturally iconic book ever acquired as a part of a civic vision for working-class education’.
In total, Birmingham’s great people’s Shakespeare collection comprises more than 40,000 volumes in 93 languages from Abkhazian to Zulu,17,000 production photographs, 2,000 music scores, hundreds of British and international production posters, 15,000 performance programmes, 10,000 playbills, and large collections of illustrations, scrapbooks, annotated scripts, promptbooks, television and radio adaptations, and newspaper cuttings, as well as unique material relating to the greatest Shakespeareans from Ellen Terry to Lawrence Olivier, and remarkable works of art such as Salvador Dalí’s Macbeth illustrations.
But the city has forgotten this precious heritage.
And this has entailed another great loss, for as a result Birmingham has also mislaid the vision which this fabulous collection expresses of a democratic ‘cultural commonwealth’ – one where the cultural wealth of a city is held in common and actively enjoyed by all.
The library’s farsighted founder, George Dawson (1821-76), declared Shakespeare was ‘the water of life’. He wanted ‘to give everything to everybody’, including the most precious art and culture.
‘The day will come,’ he prophesied, ‘when a man will be ashamed to shut up a picture by Raphael or a statue by any great master in a private house. These gifts of genius should be like the gift of God’s sunshine, open to all, for all, to be reached by all, and ultimately to be understood and enjoyed by all’.
And in Birmingham Shakespeare was much more than posh entertainment. According to Dawson, the plays were a blueprint for a better world, their enormous cast of vividly individualised characters a window on what modern life could be.
Thanks to a generous grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and significant further support from Mike Gibbs and History West Midlands, we now have a chance to recover this inspiring Shakespeare heritage for today.
The ‘Everything to Everybody’ Project, a pioneering collaboration between the University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council, will take the city’s forgotten past as a spur to a better future.
Later this year we’ll announce an extensive programme of community-led activities which will help people of all ages and backgrounds rediscover Birmingham’s unique and democratic Shakespeare heritage and reinvent it for themselves.
Dawson knew that if we give everything to everybody and make the most of the life we live together, there is really no telling what we might achieve.
In Birmingham, he insisted, we could make a world as beautiful as Shakespeare is – right here in this city.
Our programme will be delivered via a range of more than forty collaborations with established and grassroots cultural organisations, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Birmingham Rep, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Desiblitz, Sense, the Canal and River Trust, the Muath Centre, the Jewellery Quarter Research Trust, Polish Millennium House and more.
Together we hope to secure a new reputation for twenty-first-century Birmingham as a world-leading centre for ambitious, engaged and inclusive culture in time for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.