University of Birmingham (June 16)
by Tom Hawks (Kenyon College)
After a damp but exhilarating visit to the University of Warwick—blog entry forthcoming—where we cheered on riders in the Aviva Women’s Cycling Tour, NAFAns boarded the Marshalls bus for a quick jaunt across the Midlands to Birmingham, where we were welcomed to the University of Birmingham by Professor Michael Whitby, Pro Vice Chancellor and Head of the College of Arts and Law. Professor Whitby introduced us to the many resources of the university and the city of Birmingham, where over 100,000 students work on various campuses in what Professor Whitby described as a “diverse and energetic” city. In particular, Professor Whitby emphasized the university’s commitment to humanities and the arts. Twenty-two new arts and humanities faculty positions testify to this commitment, as does the “small but excellent” collection of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.
Another institution central to Birmingham’s embrace of the arts and humanities is the Shakespeare Institute, a research unit within the university dedicated to studies of Shakespeare and Renaissance drama more generally. Postgraduate students at the Shakespeare Institute can pursue master’s and doctoral work in Shakespeare studies, Shakespeare and theatre, Shakespeare and education, and Shakespeare and creativity. Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute, outlined for us the University of Birmingham’s historical connection to Shakespeare through its proximity to Stratford-upon-Avon. From its founding in 1900, the University of Birmingham identified itself as “the great civic university of Shakespeare’s home region.” This connection is made manifest in numerous ways in Birmingham, particularly through the Shakespeare Institute’s many collaborations with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Working with the RSC, the Shakespeare Institute has recently reopened The Other Place, a studio theater in Stratford that will serve as a hub for research and performance. (This 2016 reopening was set to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.) The Shakespeare Institute also helped celebrate the Shakespeare Quadricentennial by joining the Ex Cathedra Choir and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to revive David Garrick’s 1769 Shakespeare Ode, originally performed as part of the Shakespeare Jubilee that was, Dobson explained, a signal moment in the development of the Shakespeare tourism industry in Stratford. The Shakespeare Institute brings together the London theater scene, the material culture of Stratford, and the resources of the University of Birmingham to provide students a unique opportunity to study Shakespeare and the historical and literary contexts in which he produced his plays.
After Professor Dobson’s talk, NAFAns toured the grounds of the University of Birmingham, taking in the Accrington brick architecture that marks Birmingham as the first of England’s “redbrick” or civic universities, open to students of all classes and religions, and providing training in practical fields such as engineering, science, medicine, and business. NAFAns toured University Square and stood beneath the Chamberlain Clock Tower (known as “Old Joe” and, according to Robert S. Blackham, the inspiration for Tolkien’s Eye of Sauron.) Our walk concluded at the Great Hall, designed by Sir Ashton Webb (1849–1930) as the heart of the university. Though the Shakespeare talk was behind us, Shakespeare’s spirit continued to make its presence felt, standing above us as we posed for a picture at the entrance to the Great Hall, in the center of a pantheon of the university’s intellectual forebears: Beethoven, Virgil, Michelangelo, and Plato to his left; Newton, Watt, Faraday, and Darwin to his right.
Next, we walked to Muirhead Tower to visit the Special Collections of the Cadbury Research Library, a collection that includes a Qur’an from 632, possibly the oldest Qur’an in the world. The Special Collections are open to students, staff, and members of the public, and many of us marveled at being able to handle and explore delicate manuscripts of works such as John Urry’s 1821 illustrated Works of Chaucer, a first edition of Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and the stunningly vibrant botanical illustrations from Elizabeth Blackwell’s 1737 A Curious Herbal. We also visited the University Heritage collection, which houses photographs and correspondence documenting the university’s founding and history, including its kinship with U.S. institutions such as Cornell University and MIT.
After our tour, we enjoyed a companionable dinner with Birmingham faculty, staff, and students at the Horton Grange. Finally, as darkness fell on Birmingham, we boarded the Marshalls bus, where Steve Gump from Grinnell College regaled us with Mystic Meg horoscopes for one last time as we drove through the night, onward to Manchester and, for some of us, the tour’s end.