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SHAPE Involve and Engage: The exhibition on Birmingham’s number eleven bus route inspiring passengers to reimagine their daily commute

29 Nov 2023

Professor Kathryn Moore and Dr Alex Albans, recipients of the British Academy’s SHAPE Involve and Engage award for public engagement, share the inspiration behind their project ‘Number 11: Know Your Place’, and its role in inspiring people to understand their own stories by exploring the relationship between Birmingham, its rich history, diverse culture, identity and landscape. The new funding scheme offers exciting opportunities for humanities and social sciences researchers to seek innovative new ways to engage with the public.

For our project Number 11: Know Your Place, we (the West Midlands National Park Lab) have partnered with the Library of Birmingham to map an exhibition of artefacts and narratives along the locally iconic number 11 bus route. The SHAPE Involve and Engage funding will help pay for street portraiture of people and places along the route and an exhibition at the Library of Birmingham to juxtapose contemporary images with archive material. Facilitating an exciting collaboration with Birmingham’s celebrity historian Professor Carl Chinn, the project will link our research on the city’s landscape with historical stories of its diverse communities.

Kathryn first encountered the 27-mile route on her daily commute to Birmingham City University’s previous campus, and we are both fascinated by the West Midlands’ diverse terrain, its immense, rolling landscape and many distinct urban communities. Through the bus route, narrative, exhibition and feedback from the public, we will explore how the environment plays an important role in shaping our cultural identity, regional pride and sense of belonging.

Birmingham’s Number 11 bus route, the longest urban circular route in Europe, winds past places such as Cadbury’s famous Bournville Village and Sarehole Mill – widely recognised as the inspiration for JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The route is a daily commute for thousands of people and our research question looks at how it has become so much more. This project will spark a dialogue with Birmingham’s passengers about appreciation for the everyday landscape that is so often taken for granted. Working with Stan's Cafe Theatre company (another of our partners), the photographer – Ming de Nasty – will speak to people waiting at the bus stop and ask if she can take their photograph in situ, on the street. We will provide the photography subject with a signpost to hold signalling the place to which our research relates.

We hope that the experience of the curated bus journey and accompanying narrative, supported by the exhibition of portraits, artefacts and maps, will help awaken and strengthen the connection passengers have in relationship to their home and landscape and help locate their own stories in the context of Birmingham’s wider history and the lives of others who have lived and worked in the city over generations.

Our research shows that around the world, in matters of urban development and planning, the significance of landscape is too often ignored, putting the very fabric of our identity under threat. The West Midlands was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution but today is one of the most neglected regions of the UK, with 34.5% of local areas in the most socio-economically deprived in the country. With this funding, the collaboration between the West Midlands National Park Lab and the Library of Birmingham will help showcase the power of the everyday landscape, by encouraging people to view it as a life-sustaining resource that must be cared for and celebrated.

As part of a long-term strategy for change, the West Midlands National Park is reimagining landscape as the foundation of society and the basic infrastructure upon which we depend. This opens up a wealth of possibilities and new ways of understanding the potential of our region, and is an approach that is applicable globally. With perseverance, determination and with buy-in from decision makers and local communities, it is proving to be a powerful way to help improve communities’ wellbeing and resilience. Here in the West Midlands, this approach is helping to raise ambitions, challenge perceptions and create a healthier, safer, and more inclusive region, embracing all communities from its most urban to most rural places. The number 11 bus route is a vital part of this transformation in ways beyond our imagination!

Councillor Saima Suleman of Birmingham City Council, Cabinet Member for Digital, Culture, Heritage and Tourism said:

“The iconic number 11 bus route is deep-rooted in the city’s fabric and it is fantastic that it will be celebrated thanks to the British Academy and Birmingham City University. The 27-mile route, the longest in Europe, covers a remarkable breadth of Birmingham’s physical and cultural landscapes.

“The new artwork installed at key points on the bus route and an exhibition at the Library of Birmingham will undoubtedly provide residents and visitors with fascinating glimpses into the diverse stories that make Birmingham’s neighbourhoods and communities so vibrant and distinctive.”

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