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Sepia-coloured photo of members of the University of Birmingham's Mining Department in 1912; a group of white, black and Asian students
Members of the University of Birmingham's Mining Department in 1912

What does it mean for a university to be global? How should an institution grapple with its own complex history? A team of researchers in the School of Histories and Cultures has been investigating the University of Birmingham’s global past this spring in advance of this summer’s Commonwealth Games, in a project named Histories of a Global University: Exploring Empire at the University of Birmingham.

This past is complicated and, in some respects, painful. 

While Joseph Chamberlain is an obvious figurehead – as a founder of the University and a key figure in British imperial history as the Secretary of State for the Colonies (1895-1903) – this project deliberately avoids a focus on a single ‘great’ man. Instead, it asks about the many different ways that the University has been entangled with empire since its founding, from the knowledge and materials extracted from colonial spaces to support the University’s endeavours, to the many students from around the world who came to Birmingham to study and found both opportunity and restriction.

The research has focused on the University’s collections, which hold rich and often untold stories about empire, colonialism, migration, and diversity. Using materials at the Lapworth Geology Museum, postgraduate researcher Angeline Hayles-Henderson and Dr Chris Moores have been thinking about how the University made use of resources in colonized spaces. Mining, for example, is a literal form of extraction as well as a historic speciality of our University. This history has a lot of potential to inform our ongoing, contemporary conversations about the climate crisis and new forms of energy.

At the Cadbury Research Library, postgraduate researchers Savita Vij and Amira Ismail, together with Dr Manu Sehgal and Dr Mo Moulton, have delved into the University’s institutional archives. Vij is tracing conversations about empire and colonialism through student records, especially the student magazine Redbrick. Ismail is looking at staff records and considering how colonial knowledge production was part of the creation of expertise at the University.

Finally, postgraduate researcher Stacey Kennedy, with the assistance of curator Anna Young and Dr Juliet Gilbert, is analysing The Danford Collection and asking how the University might re-interpret that collection in order to highlight issues of colonialism and collection.

This project of institutional self-reflection is part of a broader trend. In 2006, Brown University, in Rhode Island in the United States, published its path-breaking Report on Slavery and Justice, detailing that university’s complex relationship to slavery and its proceeds. Since then, other institutions have followed suit, exploring not only complicity with slavery but with other forms of violence and oppression. For example, in 2018, University College London published the results of its enquiry into eugenics at the institution.

As a collective, the researchers have been reading these reports and asking: what should the University of Birmingham do to acknowledge more fully and adequately our own history? How might we better understand ourselves as a global university and also, historically, an imperial university? And how might such historical enquiry allow us to better serve our communities today?

Dr Mo Moulton, Senior Lecturer in the History of Race and Empire, University of Birmingham

As a time-limited project funded by the College of Arts and Law, this project can only begin to sketch out the questions and possibilities.

We will be in the Great Hall on Monday 14 March to share some of our findings.