Decolonising the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Collections as an Inside-Outsider: A Perspective on Collaborative Research

This NCACE micro commission built on the findings of my Midlands4Cities funded collaborative doctoral project with BCU and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT), which aimed to determine what might make up an SBT ‘international collection’ and to the determine the best pathways to implementing positive change at the heart of Shakespeare’s cultural iconography: the museum of Shakespeare’s life and times in Stratford-upon-Avon.

As a continuance of the partnership between BCU’s Institute of Media and English and the Trust, the funding enabled the production of a series of reports that translated the academic recommendations of the doctorate into positive and achievable actions with clear objectives, methods, and timelines. The reports reflect the urgency  indicated by the prior research to do three principal things: to recognise the role Shakespeare has been forced to play in establishing and upholding imperialistic narratives of  cultural supremacy; to purge the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s interpretative policies and brand narratives of Anglocentric and colonialist thought; to institute new communicative strategies to address societal inequities that are embedded in imperialism and associated with Shakespeare’s global cultural status.

The reports spotlight the Trust’s sub-collection of objects related to the Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore, as the research highlighted the ways in which interpretation to date has prioritised Shakespeare’s value as a cultural figure over Tagore’s. The doctoral thesis noted the Trust’s scarce acknowledgement of Tagore’s astonishing body of literary work as well as the circumvention of the horror of the British atrocity in Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 in its explanation for Tagore’s renunciation of his knighthood.  The action plan acknowledged the need for a dedicated project that is co-curated with Tagore experts and diasporic community stakeholders to celebrate and honour Tagore through the connections forged by the Trust’s collection, but without prioritising Shakespeare. The project would act as a case study for future decolonial work for the Trust and would mark the beginning of a new relationship between itself and the multicultural and global communities it serves.

The reports also emphasised the importance of collaboration in order to reach those communities. Through reflection on the successes of the doctoral project, it was clear that collaboration begins with the cultural institution’s approach to the external researcher. During my PhD, I was given a dedicated workspace, surrounded by the SBT’s collection experts, and full and free access to the stacks where the collection items and the library books were stored. I worked alongside staff members as if I was also a staff member, being invited to attend relevant meetings, meet relevant visitors, and even get involved in relevant projects. The access I had not only to the objects that I was studying but the people who knew their histories and understood the practices of the SBT through history was invaluable.

Through this inside-outsider, embedded researcher role I was able to immediately express my concerns about the Tagore interpretation. Because of the relationships I had built with members of the collections team, raising the issue of the Trust’s perpetuation of harmful narratives of Anglo-supremacy was understood in the spirit of the ‘critical friend’ who understands how the situation has occurred, and recognises the institution’s desire to improve practices. Following informal ‘water-cooler’ style conversations with collection team members of varying levels the process of removing the problematic interpretation began and was complete before I had finished my thesis.

It is rare for critical research findings to be met with such openness, to receive such an immediate response, and to be further rewarded by the Trust’s continued interest in challenging its own practices. This is as much due to the fact that the SBT in general and the collections team specifically wanted to know more about their collections, wanted to respond to socio-political changes in the world, and wanted to keep Shakespeare relevant. Understanding the benefits of such a partnership throughout the institution is crucial to its success.

Meanwhile, the fact that I was to all extents and purposes employed through the HE institution, BCU, and not the SBT, meant that I could make my criticisms with the indemnity of the outsider. As an academic with my own priorities, I was not obliged to protect the SBT or filter any of my interpretations as one who relied on the Trust for their livelihood might feel they needed to. In this way my embedded role meant that I was able to build an uncompromised picture of the Trust and its international collections, while the space that remained between myself and the institution made it possible for me to present an uncompromising critique.

As the researcher who poured their heart and soul into producing the thesis, it is gratifying and encouraging to know that my work will have a real-world impact. Indeed, the Trust’s eagerness to harness the momentum of the doctoral work indicates the first layer of impact that has been made through this work. A series of funding applications are now in progress to begin the next stage, the Tagore interpretation case study project, which will take the impact beyond the institutional level at the Trust and into its audiences. Those audiences will be enhanced by the community partnerships that are a crucial part of the project as they will ensure the work is truly representative and will help the Trust to engage with people who might previously have found its narratives exclusory and unwelcoming. Furthermore, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) has now been signed between BCU and the Trust as a sign of the benefits and the potential of the relationship between HE and cultural organisations, to enable the translation of complex, and therefore contentious ideas like decolonisation into the public realm. The MoU will help the Trust reach key stakeholders through BCU’s extensive community connections, as well as ensure that the relationship is sustainable and supports the aims of the project as long-term rather than representing a fleeting engagement with the decolonial trend.

An audio recording of a presentation I gave at the NCACE Festival of Cultural Knowledge Exchange in October 2022 is available here, and the short film produced with Prof. Vanessa Jackson about the Trust and its Tagore collection is available here. My full doctoral thesis is available on the BCU open access repository here.

Image credit: Tagore Bust, courtesy of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust