A City with No Memory
In a recent a public meeting held to discuss the impact of the City Council’s proposed budget cuts on Library of Birmingham Dr Chris Callow, a historian based the University of Birmingham, suggested that the potential reduction of staff, expertise and opening hours to the city’s archives would leave Birmingham as a ‘city with no memory.’
Callow, who previously worked as a Saturday assistant in the Local Studies Department in the old reference library, suggested that the cuts would serve to severely restrict access by Birmingham’s citizens (often the very people who have deposited or gifted collections) to their own heritage. It will he suggested become difficult if not impossible for researches – from local and family historians to international scholars – to research the history of the city and its likely that it will cease to acquire new collections which tell the story of the city and its people past, present and future.
In a blog post ‘Birmingham’s history is for everyone’ Callow went on to declare that
“the public needs to know (as do the decision-makers) what is kept in the stores in the Library of Birmingham (LoB) and the wider importance of those archives. The archives are vast, they are important to many different people for many different reasons, and it is in everyone’s interests, especially those people in Birmingham, that they continue to be readily accessible. Like so many other public services, you only discover their value when you go to use them.”
In an effort to raise awareness – both inside and outside the city – about the huge threat posed by the cuts to the city’s locally, nationally and internationally significant photography collections, a vast number of photographers, curators, writers and historians from around the world have recently written letters to the national press, set up online petitions, submitted to the formal consultation process and written directly to the officers and members of Birmingham City Council. Whilst out of necessity many of these comments have focused on the more high profile collections, the Library’s photography collections are also an absolutely vital and unique part of Birmingham’s visual memory.
The collections document the history of the changing face of the city from 1840 to the present day; they document the lives of its people, its communities and everyday life; they document the history of education and learning in the city; they document the life and work of the City Council; they document the history of manufacturing and industry; and they document the life and work of some of the key cultural institutions such as the Birmingham Rep which are seen as playing such an important role in the growth and profile of the city. If it happened in Birmingham in the last 150 years there was more often than not a camera there to record it!
The collections also document the huge, significant and often pioneering role Birmingham played in the history of photography: a history which remains to be properly studied, understood and celebrated. From the birth of photography in 1839, Birmingham made pretty much every kind of apparatus and material associated with the creation and distribution of images – cameras, glass negatives, film, photographic paper, studio lighting equipment and furniture, albums, mounts, frames – you name it, we made it.
The collections also include major archives relating to many of the most important professional and commercial photographers who lived and worked in Birmingham; they include important collections which document the work of amateur photographers such as the members of the Birmingham Photographic Society and the Midland Counties Photographic Federation; they include work made by some of the leading photographers who studied at the once famous Birmingham School of Photography; they include work by some of the leading photographers currently working in the city; they include the extraordinary snaps shots and family photographs taken by everyday photographers; and they include work by some of the students and emerging photographers who will go on to make a name for themselves as photographers in and beyond the city in years to come. Whichever way you look at it photography is present in documenting and reflecting the history of the city somewhere. The city’s role in photography past, present and future represents the perfect embodiment of its civic motto and coat of arms, art and industry working together in a spirit of progress.
Whilst many of the photography collections sit as distinct collections in their own right, much of the history of the city bound up in these fragile documents is embedded in the archives of individuals, companies, and organisations. The threat to the archives service as a whole is therefore intricately entwined with the threats posed to the photography collections.
There are huge implications in the long and short term posed by the proposed cuts for the people of Birmingham. There are also profound implications for the city itself which go beyond historical and cultural concerns. For example, what happens if organisations like the City itself, Marketing Birmingham, the City’s Business Development Districts, or any of the local and national companies based in the city want to celebrate present exhibitions about some aspect of the city’s history and want photographs to illustrate them? If there is no-one at the library with this knowledge, and who can provide access, the city and its economy as a whole stands to suffer.
There are more people taking photographs now than ever before. There is also a greater demand to see and use the collections from an ever widening group of people and organisations that all play a key role in the economic and cultural life of the city. The people of Birmingham who follow Brumpic clearly know how important photography is to our personal and cultural lives, it’s time to tell everyone else.
So here’s what to do!
Check out the posts and letters which are already online.
You could also:
Text ‘Budget’ followed by a space and your message to 07786 200 403
Write to Budget Views, Room 221, Council House, Victoria Square, Birmingham B1 1BB
The public consultation process on the proposals is open until 12th January.
Sign the online petition about the photography collections by clicking here