By Jackie Adams
On 11th July 2016, Oldbury Writing Group members visited the Our Shakespeare Exhibition at the Library of Birmingham.
First, we ate lunch at an eatery on Bennetts Hill (near Broad Street). It was a longer walk than we had anticipated due to roadworks, traffic diversions, demolition cranes, and busy workmen. Birmingham is the second city – all the newness is so much that we got a little lost.
We entered the exhibition room to see numerous wonderful and priceless exhibits on the walls and in glass display cabinets.
Displays tell William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon.
A drawing showed Anne Hathaway’s cottage – Shakespeare’s wife. The drawing is part of the King George III collection.
There were maps of Warwickshire. A book by William Westley, written in the 1720’s, has a map of Birmingham – amazingly Broad Street and Moor Street was already there; however, Moor Street no longer exists.
Display information states Shakespeare’s connections to the Midlands, and Birmingham, which was a county in Warwickshire. Shakespeare’s play Cornelius may be referring to the Midlands Revolt, the information on the display stated.
The other cabinets displayed books from the time of the revolt. The Midlands Revolt was in protest of common land. Here’s a quote from the display: “People are hungry, forced into eating cats and dogs, and women their own children.” Captain Pouch, a Northamptonshire tinker, led the revolt. The Revolution of the Diggers of Warwickshire was issued on Hampton Yield in Warwickshire in 1607.
Shakespeare was given the title of Warwickshire in 1769 at the first Stratford-upon-Avon Jubilee.
On the wall, you’ll find Shakespeare’s death mask and pictures of the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, where he is buried. Shakespeare died on his birthday, April 23rd, 1616, his death purportedly caused by a day of drinking with playwright Michael Drayton and the poet John Bunyan.
The exhibition has books about Shakespeare’s words and music, the sonnets, with musical notes for illustration.
Another exhibit was a print of the Forest of Dean in “As You Like It”.
There’s also a scroll which celebrates a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Also, you can see an enamelled statue of Shakespeare, which is the work of William Essex, an enamel painter to Queen Victoria. The statue was made in 1862 and based on a portrait by Charles Burbage.
The other books that you can see in the exhibition are the 1634 The Two Kingsmen, Once More unto the Breed – History of the Chronicle (this book was printed in 1619), and a 1765 copy of Othello.
A little oddly, there were several Shakespeare playing cards with illustrations of his characters which were printed in 1902.
Further into the exhibition, the focus moves to the 20th Century. In particular, Sir Laurence Olivier’s supreme portrayal of Henry V. The film, made in 1944, was made at the request of the government’s Ministry of Information as a contribution to the war effort. Framed photos show Laurence playing Henry V, and King Lear, etc. on stage. Also on display is Laurence Olivier’s script of his film Macbeth.
The exhibition contrasts history with modernity – a large LCD TV on the wall shows a broadcast of excerpts of Shakespeare’s plays. There are also posters in a pop art style, with some in foreign languages e.g. Japanese. There’s also a signed Salvador Dali work, inspired by Shakespeare, and a poster which is autographed by Al Pacino. Not forgetting that TV’s Horrible Histories is represented. This program brings history to children in a fun way.
What really catches the eye is the fancy copperplate print and gold edging on the book of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s also a beautiful glass of grey etched with black which shows the forest scene in the play. This is dedicated to a performance at the Birmingham REP in 1936.
Another display tells the history of Birmingham Library. Samuel Timmins proposed Birmingham library at a dinner in 1858. He was known as Shakespeare Timmins – his middle name was Shakespeare.
After the exhibition, we looked for the Secret Garden, intrigued by its meaning, and we found it to be the library’s rooftop garden. Very high! The see-through glass barrier view down would make vertigo suffers feel queasy. But to look outwards, the horizon stretched for miles – I wouldn’t be surprised if as far as Warwickshire and Stratford-upon-Avon on a clear day. To the west, see as far as Wales and to the north to the Black Country – where Shakespeare probably was familiar with – some of his words we use in the Black Country dialect today.
The Secret Garden has purple-blue salvias and shrubbery, and hardy-tall flowers, which sway in the wind and brush the legs of people walking past to sit on the benches.
Today’s library has the Shakespeare Memorial Room, which is where we headed to after the Secret Garden. The magnificent wood-carved ceiling high bookcases span the room, and the ceiling dome is exquisite stained glass. The electric lighting was too dim to see many of the book titles – the books are kept in temperature and humidity controlled conditions to protect them, and the other valuable items on display.
In the crowd, French parents were translating Shakespeare into French for their children. Japanese people, also tourists, no doubt, and people of various nationalities and local dialects mingled.
To end the day, we went to the Library of Birmingham’s gift shop and bought souvenirs: bookmarks, keyrings, and postcards of Birmingham.
The Our Shakespeare Exhibition is on until September 3rd, 2016. You can visit their website to find out more about the event. http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com/blog/News/ourshakespeareexhibition
I definitely would like to go again.