National Lottery funding enables Birmingham to re-connect with 'trailblazingly democratic' Shakespeare heritage

Professor Ewan Fernie, Library of Birmingham conservator Lucy Angus and Councillor Jayne Francis study some of the items held in the collections.

A major project to re-connect Birmingham’s communities with the city’s Shakespearean heritage, re-establish the West Midlands as the world’s ‘go-to Shakespeare centre’, and recover Birmingham’s once proud reputation as the most democratic and progressive cultural centre in the world has won National Lottery support.

The University of Birmingham and Birmingham City 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 ‘Everything to Everybody’ 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.

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. The full four-year project aims to revitalise Dawson’s dream of creating a culture actively involving everyone in Birmingham.

A comprehensive programme of working with the 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 University of Queensland and Brisbane City Council (Australia), 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 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.

University of Birmingham Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir David Eastwood said: “We are delighted to lead this landmark project since opening up the Birmingham Shakespeare Memorial Library will make a real contribution to world culture at the same time as restoring an important but forgotten historical association between Birmingham and the Bard.

“George Dawson was a pioneering figure, an inspiration for our founder Joseph Chamberlain in establishing the University of Birmingham as England’s first civic university in 1900. Work on the George Dawson Collection will provide vital historical background to the establishment of his world-leading people’s Shakespeare library.”

Birmingham City Council Cabinet member for Education, Skills and Culture Cllr Jayne Francis commented: “Thanks to this great opportunity from the Heritage Lottery Fund, we’re developing an extensive programme of community-led activities which will help people of all ages and backgrounds rediscover Birmingham’s Shakespeare Library and reinvent it for the future.

“The project will transform the relationship between Shakespeare and the wider region in which he was born, confirming the West Midlands as a world-class Shakespeare centre, with Birmingham’s rich heritage and cultural diversity right at its heart.”

The project is led by Professor Ewan Fernie, from the University’s Shakespeare Institute, in Stratford-upon-Avon, who said: “The vast majority of the Birmingham Shakespeare Memorial Library‘s publicly-owned treasures are unknown, their potential to excite new audiences untapped.

“Using modern digital technologies will allow us to realise Dawson’s radically democratic programme for sharing the Library, and working with Birmingham’s diverse communities will breathe new life into traditional English heritage and culture.”

Both collections are housed at the iconic Library of Birmingham. Whilst some items are displayed in the rooftop Shakespeare Memorial Room, most treasures - including artwork by Picasso and Dalí - are shut away in the vaults. Two sculptures of Dawson would also be restored to prominent positions in the Library of Birmingham and city centre.

BSML’s importance is reflected in its holdings, including the only First Folio in the world ‘acquired specifically for a public institution as part of a vision of working-class education.’

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 and Midland Institute, Cadbury Research Library, History West Midlands, Birmingham Rep, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the Shakespeare Institute Library.

ENDS

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.

  • Sarah Kirby, Press and PR Manager, Birmingham City Council on +44 (0)121 303 3885 or +44 (0)7920 088571.

Note for editors

  • 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. www.hlf.org.uk. Follow HLF on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and use #NationalLottery and #HLFsupported.
  • 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.
  • 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.