How Birmingham's citizens came to own a priceless Shakespearean First Folio
It’s such a privilege to work with the exhibitions team at the Royal Shakespeare Company. They always feed me with incredible ideas and stories, and then seem to enjoy digesting the writing I produce.
It is evidently a similar experience for Birmingham’s esteemed Poet Laureate, Casey Bailey. His original work features in the exhibition Everything to Everybody, now open in Birmingham Central Library. On the launch night of the show, he reflected that when he is commissioned to write poetry, some patrons get cold feet about his approach. The RSC team however, working with the University of Birmingham, were wholehearted in their enthusiasm for his visionary video piece, which responds to the story of Black Shakespearean actor and activist Ira Aldridge.
The Everything to Everybody exhibition is built around vision and discovery. It reveals the story of the world’s first public Shakespeare library, founded in Birmingham 150 years ago. This history was forgotten until Ewan Fernie, now chair of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham, realised what a trove the library held: 40,000 books… 17,000 photographs… 2,000 music scores… 10,000 flyers… 15,000 programmes… posters, scrapbooks, promptbooks, newspaper cuttings, and editions in 93 languages – including a priceless First Folio, stamped with the library’s red-inked name.
But despite the glittering hoard, this is much more than a show about Shakespeare. The Everything to Everybody project, part of Birmingham 2022 Festival for the Commonwealth Games, aims to re-connect Birmingham’s communities with the city’s pioneering and politically progressive heritage – which Shakespeare’s work originally inspired. The resulting exhibition is filled with books, images and ideas that challenge us all to take action.
The library’s intellectual founder was George Dawson, a radical preacher who left his Baptist roots behind and established the Civic Gospel. He believed passionately that a city could not be great or beautiful without equity, social welfare and access to culture. Art, song, theatre, architecture and books are the means by which different people can find a common purpose.
Dawson’s new church embraced science, culture and activism, and Birmingham’s leaders and citizens in turn embraced Dawson. The city fathers founded the first public Shakespeare Library in the world, in the belief that free access to masterpieces, including the works of Shakespeare, was a right. The time had come to give everything to everybody.
I worked on the exhibition text with Ida Ballerini, Curator for Creative Placemaking at the RSC, and we tried to show that the empowering history of the collection has a vital legacy for citizens today. We need to create change in our world – and everyone can take up a role in making better cities through the culture they love. Culture is not a nice extra or a gentrified privilege. It is an engine of progress and fairness. In such a class-aware society as Britain, this is still radical.
Thank you to Jas Sansi for this fantastic photo of Ida, and the image above of the whole exhibition.
See the other exhibitions I have worked on with the RSC, including The Play’s The Thing in Stratford’s Swan Theatre.