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Advocating Research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

I’m Ella Hawkins, and I’ve spent the last six months collaborating with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as a Research Advocate.

Ella Hawkins
Ella Hawkins
Ella Hawkins explores our library collection

My task has been to explore the breadth of the Trust’s Archive, Library, and Museum Collections, and to share my findings through blog posts, social media, video presentations , and a public-facing talk. I’ve spent the majority of my time working in the Trust’s Reading Room and strongrooms. It’s been a fantastic experience: as well as working closely with the SBT’s Collections team, I feel hugely privileged to have had such an in-depth insight into the range of treasures stored below ground level. 

My previous experiences with the SBT Collections had been mostly limited to using the Royal Shakespeare Company archive. The RSC collection is fantastic. The Trust cares for approximately 2,000 promptbooks, 10,000 programmes, and 150,000 photographs relating to productions from 1879 to the present day. Before collaborating with the SBT I had visited the Reading Room on several occasions to watch production recordings, and to work with promptbooks and photographs as I researched the history of Shakespearean performance.

I’ve since discovered that the Trust’s strongrooms are home to a broader and more extraordinary range of items than I’d previously thought. The many thousands of objects that make up the RSC archive are stored within a single strongroom: the SBT’s Library, Archive, and Museum Collections collectively fill a total of 8 rooms. In addition to tens of thousands of books that date as far back as the 16th century, the Trust’s Collections are home to an extensive collection of Anglo-Saxon objects, original artworks, items of 17th-century clothing, and pieces of furniture that were in use during Shakespeare’s lifetime. 

Selection of items from collections
A selection of items featuring in the SBT’s Archive, Library, and Museum Collections. © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

The SBT’s Reading Room is a wonderful place to work. The tables are often covered with an array of maps, scrolls of parchment, or production records. There’ll be someone consulting an enormous, fragile book on one side of the room, and another person tracing their finger across the lines of a prompt book while watching a production recording in the Reading Room’s library area. Visitors sometimes travel great distances to trace their lineage in the Trust’s collection of town records. Discoveries are being made all the time, and it’s been a real joy to work alongside people researching such a rich variety of topics.

Attending some of the Trust’s special events has been a particular highlight of my Research Advocate experience. The Research Conversations series provides a space for researchers to share their findings from using the SBT’s Collections, and takes place on the second Wednesday of each month. It was brilliant to hear about Tara Hamling and Cathryn Enis’ ongoing research into the long history of Mulberry-wood Shakespeare souvenirs back in April, and more recently Nick Leigh Birch’s work on the life of novelist Marie Corelli and Jim Ranahan’s findings in the recently-donated Levi Fox archive. I was even lucky enough to lead my own Research Conversation in June about my current PhD work on the history of design for Shakespeare. Sharing and learning about research findings from the Trust’s Collections has made me feel part of the local research community; I plan to continue attending these events in the future.

Ella cupcakes
Advocating research through cake: a set of cupcakes to celebrate the first SBT Research Conversation in April

My time as a Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Research Advocate has been immensely enjoyable and rewarding, and my findings in the Trust’s strongrooms will continue to impact upon my own research as I work towards completing my PhD in design for Shakespeare. What other discoveries are yet to be made from these outstanding Collections? The possibilities are endless.

To read more about Ella’s findings in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections, visit the following Blogging Shakespeare posts: 

Illustrating Shakespeare: A History of RomanRepresentations in Printed Texts

Solving Mysteries in the SBT Archives: Ethel Webling and Herbert Beerbohm Tree

19th-Century Superstardom: Six Months in the Life of Sir Henry Irving and Dame Ellen Terry 

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