Making Space: Celebrating Women at the University of Birmingham

Following traditions established by the oldest academic bodies, the University of Birmingham has always immortalised its key protagonists, its figureheads and academics in portraits since its foundation in 1900.

However, the portraits, which adorn public spaces around campus, are almost all of brilliant men.

This is only part of the story. Whilst it is important to celebrate our heritage it is equally important that we reflect the wonderful diversity of our academic community. This diversity is an essential ingredient in making our University a contemporary global institution and an exciting, inspiring place to be.

To this end we have launched the Making Space project. Making Space begins to bring the story of the University up to date, to make space for women’s immense contributions.

We commissioned artist and anthropologist Liz Hingley to create a photographic series of group portraits of inspirational women who have worked or studied at the University. These new group portraits, launched to coincide with International Women’s Day, now hang alongside our historical portraits to begin a lasting, more balanced legacy for the future.

The sitters are a remarkable bunch, chosen to reflect the breadth of women’s contributions to the University of Birmingham and beyond. Although some of the women represented are the first or foremost in their field, breaking new ground and pushing knowledge forward, others have contributed in less obviously academic ways – such as campaigning for student rights, offering support networks and helping to create a safer society. What unites them all, however, is that their work has a huge impact on people’s lives.

Group portraiture reflects the ethos of this project – one of representation, support and collaboration. The group interactions that were caught on camera were genuine moments of discussion around the idea of ‘Making Space’ and what it meant to those involved. Each sitter was invited to ‘bring a thing’ that would also feature in the portraits. These objects had a special meaning for them and reflected their stories, the iconography of their life and work in some way. They ranged from an Olympic medal, to an origami swan, to a 3D-printed Venus de Milo.

Some of the women involved were already familiar with each other, others met for the first time that day, but all engaged in a debate that raised questions about representation, support, inspiration, achievement, balance and teamwork.

The atmosphere of the resulting portraits is engaged and interactive; their composition is evocative of conversations around a hearth. Despite the starkness of the dark drapery used as a backdrop to the portraits, there is warmth exuding from the figures and their relationships. Although all portraits are inevitably contrived – the stage is set and the props are present – there is an air of informality about these photographs, a convivial mood.

Making Space is a creative response to the significant role that women play in shaping our University. So the exhibition is rightly celebratory – but it is also realistic. It is impossible to represent all female staff, students and alumni and the immense contributions they have made to our communities.

So this is a starting point, a platform to celebrate individual and collective achievement, but also a space for discussion and improvement. What do we need to achieve in order to make a better space for women on campus and beyond?

Making Space: Celebrating Women at the University of Birmingham is on display in the Rotunda, Aston Webb Building from 8th March to the 21st July 2017.

Clare Mullett, University Curator and Head of Research and Cultural Collections