Knowledge Matters blog

26 August 2016

Our Shakespeare: a collaboration between the British Library and the Library of Birmingham

You may have noticed that 2016 is the year of William Shakespeare. Four hundred years ago, the Bard of Avon ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’, to quote Shakespeare himself (Hamlet, III.1). Since that time, the plays and poems of one of our greatest writers have inspired people around the world. His plays continue to captivate audiences, and to amuse (and occasionally to bemuse) schoolchildren in their thousands.

Birm_Shakespeare_Prelim_21Putting the finishing touches to the exhibition: image courtesy of Dave Warren.

This year, the British Library has commemorated Shakespeare’s legacy by mounting not one but two exhibitions devoted to one of the most innovative and imaginative writers of all time. Here in London, our landmark exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts (open until 6 September) continues to wow our visitors: ‘this is the best exhibition I have ever been to’, declared none other than Peter Brook, director of the monumental Stratford-upon-Avon Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970. Meantime, and equally significantly, the British Library has been involved in the staging of another Shakespeare exhibition, in collaboration with our friends at the Library of Birmingham.

FG3A6408The First Folio pavilion at the centre of the Our Shakespeare exhibition: image courtesy of 4D.

The Our Shakespeare exhibition has been the centrepiece of a year-long cultural relationship between the United Kingdom’s national library and the Library of Birmingham. Birmingham holds one of the largest Shakespeare collections in the whole world, let alone the UK, comprising thousands of printed books, playbills, photographs, programmes and posters. Some of the highlights of that collection are currently on display, for free, in the third floor Gallery of the Library of Birmingham: they include not only Birmingham’s very own copy of the famous First Folio of the plays of Shakespeare, printed in 1623, but also donations from around the world. One of our favourites is this Russian translation of Romeo and Juliet, presented to the people of Birmingham by a delegation from the Soviet Union in 1964 (the gift comprised some 300 other Shakespearean books and photographs). Shakespeare clearly has the capacity to transcend national boundaries, and to override linguistic and political divisions.

  OurShakespeare_23The Library of Birmingham’s First Folio of the plays of William Shakespeare (1623).

Our Shakespeare showcases some of the Library of Birmingham’s Shakespearean treasures, and it also features a number of exhibits on loan from the British Library. These British Library loans range from some of the oldest printed copies of Shakespeare’s plays to items relating to Laurence Olivier’s aborted film of Macbeth in the 1950s. Indeed, the exhibition was put together by colleagues from London and Birmingham, drawing upon the joint expertise of curators, project managers and conservators from both institutions. We are justifiably proud of our achievement, and we hope sincerely that William Shakespeare would have been proud of it, too. Our Shakespeare celebrates his status as one of Warwickshire’s most famous citizens; the history of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Library, and its recovery after a disastrous fire in 1879 to form one of the greatest Shakespearean collections anywhere; and the genius of Shakespeare’s writings, numbering among them some of the greatest works of world literature, such as The Tempest and King Lear.

1st edition Romeo  Juliet in RussianRomeo and Juliet in Russian (1963): image courtesy of Dave Warren.

You need to hurry if you wish to see Our Shakespeare in person. It’s fun, it’s free, but it’s only open until Saturday, 3 September. Otherwise, you can see a selection of images of the exhibition here, and you can also read more about The Real Macbeth in one of our earlier blogposts.

FG3A6492Visitors to the Our Shakespeare exhibition have been encouraged to leave messages to their loved ones on our very own Juliet’s Wall: image courtesy of 4D Projects.

I should like to take this opportunity to thank Tom Epps, Claire Robe and my colleagues across the British Library and the Library of Birmingham, all of whom worked tirelessly to put together the Our Shakespeare exhibition in record time.

Julian Harrison

Lead Curator, Our Shakespeare exhibition