Using Birmingham’s forgotten past to inspire our future
Unlocking the world’s first great people’s Shakespeare Library for all
Team
Ewan Fernie
Project Director

Ewan Fernie is Chair, Professor and Fellow of Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, and Director of the 'Everything to Everybody' Project. Central to establishing the University's historic collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company and its pioneering MA in Shakespeare and Creativity (co-taught with the RSC), he has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Malmo and the University of Queensland (twice), and a Research Fellow of the Centre of Advanced Studies at the University of Munich. Ewan has nine books to his name, the latest of which is Shakespeare for Freedom: Why the Plays Matter. He is General Editor (with Simon Palfrey) of the influential Shakespeare Now! series. He has lectured across the world on Shakespeare, modernity and progressive culture.

Ewan has always been committed to civic engagement and fomenting a more vital and creative relationship between 'high culture' and contemporary life. His 'Redcrosse' project invented a new civic liturgy for St George's Day, which premiered in Windsor Castle and Manchester Cathedral in 2012, and was adopted by the Royal Shakespeare Company for a high-profile event marking Coventry Cathedral's 50th anniversary. In conjunction with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra Choir, he commissioned a people's 'Shakespeare Masque' by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and the major contemporary composer, Sally Beamish, for the big Shakespeare anniversary in 2016, when he was also Academic Advisor for the Library of Birmingham's 'Our Shakespeare' exhibition.

Ewan was an ambassador for the British Council's Shakespeare Lives campaign, and as part of that campaign he addressed large audiences in especially Eastern Europe. His books and projects have featured on radio, television and in the national and international press.

Ewan was humbled and inspired to discover Birmingham's astonishingly rich Shakespeare collection and challenged by its forgotten founding ethos of sharing and remaking culture with everybody. He is proud to be leading a project which follows in the footsteps of that collection's visionary founder, George Dawson. And he is excited to see what communities from across Birmingham and beyond can make of Shakespeare and establishment culture today.

As part of the 'Everything to Everybody' Project, he will be writing a book, provisionally entitled Lost Prophets: The Unfinished Dream of the Nineteenth Century, which will restore Dawson and Birmingham to their rightful place in the story of modern culture and urge us to update and fulfil their best hopes and projects in the changed circumstances of today.

Adrian Lester
Project Patron

'Everything to Everybody' is delighted to announce the renowned actor Adrian Lester OBE as our Project Patron.

"I was born and bred in Birmingham. I started acting with the Birmingham Youth Theatre, right next door to the Library of Birmingham. I sang, as a boy chorister, in St Chad’s Cathedral choir, just around the corner from the new Library.

I left school without any real understanding of Shakespeare’s work - a serious setback for me as I wanted train as an actor and Shakespeare’s plays seemed a vast, intimidating obstacle. I just didn’t understand the writing when I tried to read the plays. I felt this element of our classical culture wasn’t for me, or perhaps, for the likes of me. I was able to get over my aversion to Shakespeare by hard work. I had a look at a glossary to help translate some of the words, I read the synopses before the plays and then I sat down and read his plays over and over again, I made them mine and in time I began to appreciate how no other writer in the English language has continually reflected such detailed characters in incredible life and death circumstances. I was dealing with a gap in my knowledge and as I practiced I have ironically made a career for myself as a Shakespearean actor.

So you can imagine my excitement to discover that Birmingham, my home city – so often underestimated as a cultural and historic centre – is the home of an internationally significant Shakespeare collection. Not only that, but a collection that was always intended for people like my younger self, who might otherwise find themselves excluded and disenfranchised in relation to this core part of English culture.

I was delighted to learn that Birmingham is home to what is the first great Shakespeare Library in the world and still remains a uniquely democratic Shakespeare collection, one intended for the use and development of everyone across the city.

This project will help revive the legacy of that great people’s Shakespeare Library, connecting it to the forgotten history of Birmingham as a pioneering cultural centre. It will seek to engage and involve ordinary people from all of the city’s diverse communities with this fantastic cultural resource. I’m proud to be its patron.

‘Everything to everybody,’ urged the Library’s visionary founder, George Dawson. What belongs to Britain, belongs to you. No obstacles, no gaps, no separation. It remains an inspiring and relevant challenge."

Tom Epps
Operations Director

Tom Epps is the Cultural Partnerships Manager at the Library of Birmingham. He works with a wide range of partners to deliver a mixed programme of events, activities and exhibitions at the library. During the last few years, he's worked with major national and international institutions, local heritage organisations, community groups and individual artists. His constant focus is the development and delivery of high quality cultural products that speak to wide, diverse and popular audiences.

An adoptive Brummie, Tom has lived in Birmingham since coming here to study economics in the mid 1980s. He's worked for Birmingham Libraries for 30 years and has led in the development of new commercial services, the evolution of public libraries in a digital world, and the launch of the new Library of Birmingham in 2013. During the 1990s, Tom was a postgraduate in Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham (formerly the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies). His research explored various aspects of identity politics and specifically the complex discursive constructions of sexualities and genders in contemporary Western societies. Tom currently works with other major libraries across the UK on the development of collaborative projects and innovation in public library services.

In 2016, Tom worked with Ewan on the Library of Birmingham's 'Our Shakespeare' exhibition (supported by the British Library). They have since worked together on the remarkable story of George Dawson's Birmingham Shakespeare Library - this collaboration has now evolved into the 'Everything to Everybody' Project. Tom leads on operational aspects of the project and is excited about working with a wide number of differently positioned partners on events, exhibitions and other project activities. He's particularly interested in working with individuals, groups and organisations who would like to explore and expand understandings of words like “History”, “Library” and “Shakespeare”.

Ruth Millington
Project Manager

Ruth Millington is excited to join the team as Project Manager. Ruth has extensive experience of managing projects across the cultural and education sectors, and is committed to widening access to the arts for all. Ruth began her career working in museum education, leading outreach and volunteer programmes, and encouraging young people to engage with the arts in a meaningful way.

Since 2016 she has worked for the University of Birmingham, successfully establishing and project managing paid internship and placement programmes for arts students in Birmingham. She has brokered relationships with cultural partners including Birmingham Museums, The REP, Ikon Gallery, and Birmingham Hippodrome. She also delivered the University’s annual literary festival ‘Book to the Future’ in 2018, engaging new audiences with the written and spoken word.

Ruth brings with her real enthusiasm for the arts in Birmingham. Outside of the project, she is a freelance writer and blogger, promoting - and encouraging everyone to access - the city’s diverse cultural offering. You can find her writing on her award-winning blog www.ruthmillington.co.uk

As Project Manager of 'Everything to Everybody', Ruth is excited to engage communities, Ruth is excited to engage communities from across Birmingham, and beyond, with the world’s first great people’s Shakespeare library.

Jo Smith
Funding Partner

Jo Smith has worked across a wide variety of cultural, arts and heritage organisations in Birmingham for 30 years. Jo is an experienced heritage project manager and fundrasier and projects include - the £35m restoration of Grade 1 listed Birmingham Town Hall from 2003 to 2007 and several major museum development projects and masterplans from 2007 onwards. She is currently Charitable Funding Partner for the University of Birmingham and a Trustee of the Chamberlain Highbury Trust.

Elizabeth Hardy
Heritage Ambassador Lead

Elizabeth Hardy was born into a family of Shakespeare enthusiasts – teachers and actors – and brought up in Warwickshire. She is an English graduate of four UK universities, a trained actor, director and qualified dance instructor. She has worked extensively in mainstream education, teaching English, Latin and Theatre, and specialising in the active teaching of Shakespeare. In 2010, she established her own company ‘Rough Magic’, leading Shakespeare workshops in a variety of educational centres across South Warwickshire. She has organised conferences on Shakespeare’s works in Stratford for the Society for Teachers of Speech and Drama, and has delivered LAMDA training (in acting and public speaking) to sixth form students and adults. In 2016-17, she studied for the unique MA in Shakespeare and Creativity, established by Professor Ewan Fernie, at the Shakespeare Institute. She has continued to work closely with Ewan on her PhD project investigating the presence of female agency in Victorian interpretations of Shakespeare. She is delighted to be involved in the ‘Everything to Everybody’ Project, the democratic cultural ethos of which chimes with her own ‘sharing Shakespeare’ initiatives. She is looking forward to working with enthusiastic undergraduates at the University of Birmingham to open up the archives of the rich and under-explored Shakespeare Collection at the Library of Birmingham for the communities in the city to whom it truly belongs.

Dr Islam Issa
Advocacy & Engagement Consultant

Islam Issa is a local writer, curator and broadcaster. He is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University and has been named “one of the UK’s most significant new thinkers”.

A proud Brummie, Islam has an international repertoire of award-winning books, exhibitions, documentaries, and speaking tours. He has written three books on the poet John Milton and curated three exhibitions, most famously the acclaimed Stories of Sacrifice about Muslims in World War One. His Shakespeare-related exhibitions – Shakespeare in South Asia and Ageless Cleopatra – were both housed at Shakespeare’s Birthplace. His broadcasting work includes presenting Radio 3’s “The Essay” – When Shakespeare travelled with me – as well as two documentaries about the playwright: Cleopatra and Me (TV, BBC Four) and Shakespeare and Terrorism (Radio 3). Islam has spoken about Shakespeare at such venues as TEDx and the International Arab Film Festival, and has represented the British Foreign Office and British Council at events around the world. He has also offered expert advice to BBC Arts, BBC Drama, Birmingham Museums Trust, British Muslim Heritage Centre and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. You can find out more at www.islamissa.com

Islam considers Ewan one of his mentors and is dedicated to ensuring that the project is relevant and exciting to the people of Birmingham and beyond.

George Dawson
Project Muse

George Dawson was born in 1821, and came to Birmingham in 1844, where he quickly made a reputation for himself as a radical lecturer, preacher, and activist, and Shakespearean. He was known as 'Brummagem Dawson', so identified was he with his adopted home-town, which he helped to put on the map as ‘the most artistic town in England’ and ‘the best governed city in the world’. He has long been dead, and yet he remains ahead of us: the prophet of an ambitiously inclusive and creative culture we still haven’t truly attained.

Before English was taught in schools or universities, Dawson lectured, in Birmingham and around the country, on literature, English and otherwise, which he insisted could change the world. Shakespeare, Dawson urged, was the prophet of a more vigorous and inclusive liberalism because of the sheer range of vividly realised characters he created in his plays. Dawson was president of the ‘Our Shakespeare Club’ in Birmingham, and the visionary founder of the world’s first great Shakespeare library—which opened its doors in 1868 to all the people of Birmingham, regardless of class or creed.

Minister of a heterodox, city-centre church which he himself was pleased to call ‘The Church of the Doubters’, Dawson developed a distinctive ‘Civic Gospel’, which proclaimed culture as much as material welfare an essential public good. He spearheaded countless initiatives, he sat on almost innumerable committees, and he changed the face of the city forever.

Nor was Dawson’s Birmingham remotely provincial or inward-looking. He lectured in America, and he was notorious before becoming much admired in Australia. When Dawson brought the freedom fighter Louis Kossuth to Birmingham, some 60 to 80, 000 men welcomed the Magyar hero to Small Heath, and then processed with him to a city centre that was festooned with the Hungarian tricolour. Though completely forgotten today, it was arguably the biggest political event in Birmingham’s history.

Dawson died suddenly in 1876, and it was said that all of Birmingham’s men, women and children mourned. His was a life of struggle, scandal, and survival, but it also was a life of heroic, self-sacrificing achievement. Birmingham was on the rise; it had got Matthew Arnold rattled. It was Birmingham, not Oxford, which seemed destined to become the cultural capital of the new world.

The moral of this story is twofold. We should never underestimate—still less look down upon—Britain’s second city. And we urgently need to rise to the challenge of the past, albeit in the changed conditions of today.

Dawson was a man of his time and, according to his own principles, he was spectacularly wrong about some things. We need to update what he taught for today’s world, but his essential inspiration remains prophetic. To that extent, George Dawson is the muse and guiding light of the ‘Everything to Everybody’ Project.

International Champions

Professor Katherine Scheil
International Champion

Katherine Scheil is Professor of English at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and is the author of several works on the reception history of Shakespeare. Katherine shares Ewan’s long-standing commitment to the history of civic Shakespeare and to revitalizing the role that Shakespeare can play in local communities around the world.

In her ground-breaking book She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America (Cornell, 2012), Katherine uncovered a hidden layer of civic Shakespeare that extended to every state, encompassing over 500 Shakespeare clubs comprised mainly of women. As the American Lead for the “Everything to Everybody” project, Katherine is researching how George Dawson’s vision and ideals extended well beyond the U.K. In the 1870s, Dawson embarked on a lecture tour in America, where he met and influenced the major American Shakespeare scholars of the day, but also spread his Civic Gospel to ordinary citizens, due to his “desire to see those people in America who bear the chief burdens of national life,” as he put it. Described as a “famous and electrifying” speaker, Dawson lectured widely on progressive topics from Shakespeare to women’s rights, in places from Rochester, New York, birthplace of the suffrage movement; to Marietta, Ohio, a station on the underground railroad. Dawson’s influence on mid-nineteenth-century America linked Shakespeare with progressive causes, and laid the groundwork for connecting reading and studying Shakespeare with civic improvements. This mandate was later carried out by women’s Shakespeare clubs in particular in America, who saw in Shakespeare an opportunity for intellectual development and for civic improvement. The full impact of Dawson’s influence on America remains to be explored, but his legacy is clear in linking Shakespeare with the most progressive causes of the day.

Katherine and Ewan have already traced important components of George Dawson’s international influence. They recently uncovered 327 unsorted letters from Dawson’s colleague Samuel Timmins, in the collection at the Folger Shakespeare Library. This substantial correspondence clearly links the Birmingham Shakespeare Memorial Library to the development of Shakespeare studies in America, and will provide further evidence of the influence of Dawson and his supporters on the ethos of American cultural democracy.

Katherine is also leading a major international scholarly partnership entitled “Citizen Shakespeare.” This new venture will link both academic and community projects that share a commitment to the vision of George Dawson by providing democratic access to Shakespeare’s works. Amateur performance groups, Shakespeare reading clubs, libraries, private individuals, and scholars will join together to help promote global access to Shakespeare in communities large and small around the world. Katherine is excited to see the Shakespeare Memorial Library re-established as a premiere site for Shakespeare research, and she is thrilled to help the “Everything to Everybody” project become a model for how to combine intellectual inquiry, cultural exchange, and civic life in the modern city.

Professor Tobias Döring
International Champion

Tobias Döring is Chair of Literature in the English Department of Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Germany, where he takes a special interest in Shakespeare as well as in postcolonial writing. As part of his ethos as a reader and teacher of literature, he has long made it his project to work also outside the classroom and make his literary concerns and passions the subject of wider public debates, e.g. through organizing readings and literary festivals but also by reviewing books in the national press or serving as President of the German Shakespeare Society, the oldest civic Shakespeare society in the world, founded in Weimar in 1864. The son of a librarian, Tobias grew up literally between bookshelves and he continues to be thrilled by the riches and enrichments that libraries offer. He is fascinated by the Shakespeare collection in Birmigham Public Library, especially its German holdings, which he had a chance to survey in 2019 and which offer a true treasure house, not just for scholarship, but for all theatre and Shakespeare lovers round the world.

Professor Peter Holbrook
International Champion

Peter Holbrook is Professor of Shakespeare and English Renaissance Literature at the University of Queensland, Australia, Director of the UQ Node of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He is the author of Shakespeare’s Individualism (Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Literature and Degree in Renaissance England: Nashe, Bourgeois Tragedy, Shakespeare (University of Delaware Press, 1994), and co-editor, with David Bevington, of The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque (Cambridge University Press, 1998). English Renaissance Tragedy: Ideas of Freedom was published by Bloomsbury/Arden Shakespeare in 2015. With Paul Edmondson he co-edited Shakespeare’s Creative Legacies: Artists, Writers, Performers, Readers, for Bloomsbury/Arden Shakespeare in 2016.

'It’s sometimes observed that our present moment is haunted by unrealized past projects for a better, more sharing and equal, world—that, as a society, we haven’t made good on some of the hopes for a genuinely democratic and participatory civic life that arose in a great age of progress (for some parts of the world, at least): that of the nineteenth century. The “Everything to Everybody” initiative being steered by the University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council is an attempt to live up to those past hopes, in particular the aspiration for a “cultural commonwealth”—that is, a world in which high culture is available not just to those who will encounter it anyway, but to everyone.

What is so exciting about what Ewan Fernie and his team are doing is that they are reviving, in a very concrete, practical way, some of the optimism about cultural democracy that was at one time so prominent—in particular, by restoring a landmark collection of Shakespeareana directly inspired by the “civic gospel” of the great social reformer, and lover of poetry, George Dawson. Dawson dreamed that Shakespeare might become the property of working people as much as the well-off, and the establishment of the Shakespeare Memorial Library was an ambitious effort to realize that ideal. The current “Everything to Everybody” initiative will help to make the Library’s Shakespeare collection far more accessible and meaningful to the people of Birmingham (who own it as a key part of their cultural inheritance).

As someone who writes about Shakespeare from down in Australia, I’m fascinated to see this project come to fruition, not least because it so happens that there is a link between the Birmingham Shakespeare Memorial Library and Australia’s only copy of the so-called “First Folio”, that precious edition of Shakespeare’s complete plays published in 1623 (and without which many of Shakespeare’s masterpieces would never have come down to us). The Sydney “Folio” was donated to Australia by two Birmingham manufacturers, Richard and George Tangye, who had the casket for the volume constructed in Birmingham and were themselves inspired by Dawson. And Dawson’s proclamation of a progressive “civic gospel” was known in Australia. Indeed a writer for The Telegraph, in Brisbane, where I live, wrote in 1896: “Brisbane needs a Dawson! some fearless man who would preach persistently the gospel of civic elevation: deliverance from ignorant peddling and from shameless littleness. Oh! for just one Dawson!”. Ignorant money-worship and littleness have hardly perished from the earth, and even now many people can feel that Shakespeare or other great artists are somehow above them, a no-go zone. Birmingham’s “Everything to Everybody” project is a bold, generous, and imaginative, attempt to change all that.'

Professor Yan Brailowsky
International Champion

Yan Brailowsky is Senior lecturer in early modern literature and history at the University of Paris Nanterre, in France. He is the General Editor of Angles, a peer-reviewed online journal, and Secretary of the French Shakespeare Society, co-organising annual conferences on Shakespeare and spearheading outreach activities throughout France.

Yan has also worked as a professional actor for over a decade, performing mostly Eastern-European plays at the Avignon Festival and elsewhere in Europe and the Americas.

His research interests include prophecy in early modern drama, the history of the reformation, and the relationship between gender and politics in Renaissance Europe. He is the author of several book-length studies (notably on A Winter's Tale and King Lear), and co-edited several collections on early modern literature, as well as more contemporary topics. More information is online at www.yanb.ey

Yan is excited to support a project which will make the Shakespeare Memorial Library and its incredibly rich collection more accessible and intensely relevant. He believes that the project will re-kindle the radical spirit of Dawson for the 21st century, bringing to life what makes up humanity, aspects explored by Shakespeare throughout his work, and documented by the tens of thousands of items currently held by the Shakespeare Memorial Library, for the benefit of the people of Birmingham and beyond.

Get in Touch

To get in touch with the team, please email us at shakespeare@birmingham.gov.uk