Birmingham Stories: from communities of interpretation to communities of understanding

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Education


Summary: Birmingham Stories

The living stories found in local archives hold an important key to understanding urgent social issues surrounding identity, citizenship and belonging. By using archives and library resources, we can make discoveries about ourselves that allow us to become better informed and empowered in our understanding of history. In this context, 'Birmingham Stories' is intended to extend an awareness of the diverse histories of the city, in its many voices and cultures, by making research on archive collections available to a wider public audience.

Birmingham Stories will organise an informative series of presentations and workshops in local community libraries based on research at Birmingham University. These sessions will be aimed at those who would like to know more about the history of Birmingham and its many communities. The workshops will also make available a number of useful resource guides that will provide information as well as practical advice. Both the workshops and the resource guides will be based on a wide range of socially significant archive collections held by Birmingham Libraries and Archives Service.

The workshops and resource guides will cover the ten following themes and areas of research:

Travelling Communities: Voices from the Margins
Urban Childhoods: Contexts, Cultures, Images
Visualising Birmingham: Reframing the Photographic Collections of Birmingham.
Radical Religions: Exploring Birmingham's Faith Diversity through the Archives
Researching Race History in Birmingham.
Refugee Movements: From the Eighteenth Century To Today.
Migration Stories: the Making of Modern Birmingham.
Slavery and Abolition: A Guide To Birmingham's Resources.
Women's Rights: Tracing the Struggle in Birmingham.
The Civic Gospel: Networks for Social Change.

At the same time, Birmingham Stories will also hold workshops for heritage practitioners who would like to become better informed about research into the collections that Birmingham holds and their true historical and community potential. Raising awareness among users and heritage practitioners in this way will result in wider promotion of archives and dissemination of research ideas that are central to our understanding of ourselves, issues around identity and social justice in a culturally diverse society.

Finally, in order to underline the importance of Birmingham Stories in national and international debates about identity, the project will culminate in a one day conference on the subject of public history.


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Description Please see the detailed 2011 end of project report submitted to the AHRC in May 2011
Exploitation Route Again see the end of project report 2011
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The following is taken from the end of project report from 2011 'Raising the profile of the archive collections through community workshops led to new research materials being deposited including a collection of 100+ photographs on Traveller history in Birmingham and a collection of educational materials on Traveller history, including children's educational materials. The project also deposited with the city assorted Birmingham Stories Project materials, including research materials of Professor Grosvenor The project raised the profile of the University with 'hard-to-reach' communities in the city and promoted the importance of research into the past as a mechanism for understanding the present and issues around citizenship, identity and belonging. This became clear through community workshop evaluations - see below. At the same time the project also provided evidence of the persistence of race thinking and intolerance of difference as illustrated in, for example, comments written about an exhibition organised by the project and displayed in the Central Library: 'I think this exhibition is biased against the white people of Birmingham'; 'Absolutely disgusting minority exhibits only the British haters are given publicity'. Material placed on the website, including the Learning Guides, will be used on existing undergraduate teaching at the University of Birmingham and a new Level 3 module is currently being developed for the BA Childhood, Culture and Education degree which will reflect the ideas behind the project and the experience of bringing together academic and non HEI partners. In an interview at the end of the project with the Head of Archives and Heritage Service, Paul Hemmings, pointed to Birmingham Stories having both an operational and strategic impact on the Service. Operationally staff were 'more prepared to consider other ways of presenting information' and 'better at finding other kinds of information,' that local studies staff in particular were better equipped to offer support beyond their 'usual client group of genealogists and local historians' and that the project had changed 'staff perceptions' of how research could be applied in the workplace and could 'connect with different communities'. Strategically, the project had 'given a steer' on how the ICT strategy for the new Library of Birmingham needed to emulate the Birmingham Stories 'outward facing' agenda and that the 'Birmingham Stories way of working' was informing 'an emerging HR strategy' for the new Library of Birmingham. In a second interview Angela Skit, Head of Public Services, Archives and Heritage Service, stated that the project: 'brought to staff attention collections which were underused and which had potential for meeting user needs, provided the inspiration for two exhibitions, which developed as a consequence of research findings presented by the Birmingham Stories project and discussions between staff during the workshop sessions. Staff worked collaboratively to draw archives and printed material together to address themes linked to the project. This collaboration was a new approach to exhibition production. The content of the learning packages and the Faces and Places part of the website also acted as a stimulus for staff to engage in their own small scale research projects' In addition, she observed that the project workshops had a major impact on the Service as it was restructured: 'The Birmingham Stories team had a very visible presence both in terms of the project and in the daily routines of Birmingham Archives and Heritage and at a time of change with the merger of two departments with very different cultures [it] offered a mechanism to bring staff together'. She recognised, along with her staff, the importance and value of the Learning Guides and would be incorporating them ' into a planned new resource collection guide on the Archives and Heritage website']. Finally she felt, the project offered 'a model way of working which addressed the needs of users and fostered greater user independence', with the project team 'having an "in-reach" as opposed to an "out-reach"' role. Workshop material produced by the project was also used separately in outreach work [community groups, schools] organised by Birmingham Central Library during 2009. Materials were also used as the basis of library led workshops during Black History Month. In an end of project interview with Izzy Mohammed, Community Outreach and Education Officer Birmingham Archives and Heritage, he stated: "The Birmingham Stories project has had a valuable impact on the work that we do in outreach. Each of the learning guides is in effect a deliverable outcome. Not only do they provide a diversity of narratives on the city's history and heritage, they contain specialist knowledge that is readily accessible, providing, too, ideas on how we might go about delivering activities to community groups, including sourcing archive material, the narratives, themes and topics, critical issues Birmingham Stories provided the opportunity for outreach and education to develop and progress; helping us to identify material, stories, communities, topics and themes - increasing capacity, in a sense, for the period the project was in place. Given the volume of work, and the size of the task with respect to engaging the city's communities, the presence and work of Birmingham Stories was well received. More critically, it demonstrated to me the need for additional capacity to bridge the work between outreach and education and the collections. A specialist position that would make the service truly progressive." The project also acted as a catalyst for the establishment of the Friends of Birmingham Archives and Heritage [fobah] an independent organisation of archive users committed to the future development of Birmingham Archives and Heritage, supporting the conservation of existing collections and purchasing new collections, and acting as an advocate for the service. Fobah was launched at the conference on public history organised by Birmingham Stories 13 June 2009. Statistically the best indicator of the project's impact in translating its core aim into practice: moving from communities of interpretation to communities of understanding is the number of Learning Guides downloaded. The number, far higher than the project team expected, while indicative of success numerically does not offer evidence in terms of knowledge transformation or of changing of attitude regarding understanding of Birmingham's history. However, taken alongside the qualitative data generated through workshop evaluations and end of project interviews and the sheer amount of other related activity which the project stimulated and engaged with during its life cycle, there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Birmingham Stories achieved its original objectives'. Since 2011 much of what was identified above as success has disappeared. The budgetary difficulties faced by Birmingham City Council have meant significant and damaging cuts to the Birmingham archive service and the loss of institutional and collections knowledge which will take years to replace.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services