The Placement Diaries: Part 1

I’m one month in and loving my placement at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I’m spending one day per week at the SBT as a Research Advocate (see this post to find out more about the placement), and it’s already proving a really exciting experience! Read on for week-by-week details of what I’ve been up to so far, and to find out more about what can be found in the Trust’s strongrooms…

Week 1

My first day! I spent the morning sitting in on an SBT Winter School discussion on the RSC’s Tempest, followed by a Q&A session with Simon Russell Beale and Dr Paul Edmondson. My afternoon mostly involved getting to grips with the resources available in the Reading Room. Figuring out the card catalogues, microform facilities, and online collections database was an important place to start, and speaking with the members of staff that manage the SBT Collections was very useful. I also looked at some of the Reading Room staff’s favourite items from the archive: a printed burlesque version of Hamlet (titled Hamlet Travestie: In Three Acts), and a book of handwritten letters relating to the Shakespeare Jubilee Celebrations. Finally, I had my first weekly supervision meeting with Paul Edmondson, and was warmly welcomed to the SBT as part of my formal induction.

The Ghost sings in Hamlet Travestie. Why would you not want to read this version of Hamlet? Image courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Week 2

I’d pre-ordered costume designs for various productions of Antony and Cleopatra, and had great fun leafing through these gorgeous original artworks during the morning. My second supervision session was great – we talked about my PhD research and how this placement might sit alongside it, and also made some good progress in thinking about what outputs my work at the SBT might result in.

Costume designs for Antony and Cleopatra, created by Ann Curtis (1972). Copyright of Ann Curtis, in the RSC archive collection at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

In the afternoon, I was very lucky to be given a guided tour of the Trust’s Library Collections by Mareike Doleschal – the Librarian at the SBT. Mareike showed me around two of the Trust’s strongrooms: one featuring tens of thousands of (mostly modern) books about all things Shakespeare- and Stratford-related, as well as an archival collection focussed on Henry Irving and Ellen Terry; and the other filled with a fantastic array of rare books. My inner Shakespeare nerd quivered at the sight of a 1574 first edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles (used by Shakespeare as source material for many of his history plays), but my favourite item was a beautiful, hand-painted, scrapbook-style version of Julius Caesar, illustrated by Ethel Webling.

Julius Caesar, illustrated by Ethel Webling. Image courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.


Week 3

The excitement continued in Week 3 as I kicked off my day with a tour of the Trust’s Museum Collections with Jessie Petheram. Seeing an early-17th-century embroidered bodice in incredibly good condition was a very special experience, and I loved looking through shelves filled with early modern weapons, cauldrons, furnishings, and the Trust’s carefully-wrapped collection of Anglo-Saxon artefacts.

An embroidered bodice, early seventeenth century. Images courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
An original 1755 playbill for Julius Caesar at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Image courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The rest of my morning was spent looking through various illustrated editions of Shakespeare’s plays (blog post now published here), and in the afternoon I pored over some very delicate 18th century playbills. I also spent some time investigating the illustrated Julius Caesar that Mareike showed me last week. The item’s history is shrouded in mystery at present – very little is known about the artist who created it, why it was made, and exactly what the images depict. However, early findings suggest that it might turn out to be a hidden gem. More to follow in a future post! (Blog post about this item now published here.)

Week 4

My fourth morning in the Reading Room was spent putting some finishing touches to my first two blog posts (to be published soon on Blogging Shakespeare – one of the SBT’s official blogs). I looked through each of the illustrated Shakespeare editions I’d written about in the posts to make sure I’d got my facts right, and put in requests for the relevant pages to be professionally digitised. After my weekly supervision with Paul, I was given a guided tour of the strongrooms I’d not yet seen by Madeleine Cox – the Trust’s Reading Room Services Co-ordinator. I practically skipped my way around the room containing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s archive. I’ve spent a lot of time looking through RSC promptbooks, recordings, and photographs in the Reading Room over the years, and it was REALLY COOL to see the masses of material stored in this particular strongroom. Here are a few highlights from my trip below ground level:

The strongroom containing books, art, and the Bram Stoker collection (archival items mostly relating to Henry Irving and/or Ellen Terry). Image courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
A shelf in the Rare Books strongroom featuring the first edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, published in 1574. Image courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
A large collection of theatre plans in the RSC strongroom. Image courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Winston Churchill’s signature in the SBT’s VIP Visitor Book. Image courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
A page from a scrapbook filled with Christmas cards sent by Queen Victoria. Image courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
A page from the first edition of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. Image courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

What a month it’s been! I’ll share links to the online content I’ve been working on here once it’s all been published, and do check back soon for more behind-the-scenes details of my time with the SBT.

To view any of the items featuring in this post, or to find out more about the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Collections, contact the Trust’s Reading Room Services. Further information about the Collections can be found here.

My thanks to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for their ongoing support, and for generously allowing me to share these images. I’m also very grateful to the Midlands3Cities AHRC DTP for funding this placement in addition to my PhD research.