Unlocking Winson Green

Having contributed to the ‘Unlocking Winson Green’ piece for Project Birmingham (but unfortunately not being present for the set-up of the piece due to looming exams), I wasn’t sure what to expect when my friends and I visited Project Birmingham on the opening Saturday.

 
 Benedict preparing the exhibition.

Benedict preparing the exhibition.

 

I was thrilled to see the 106-year old prison door centre piece, brought alive by the work of the Project Birmingham team. I had been eager to contribute to ‘Unlocking Winson Green’, as the project appealed to my dual interests as a History and History of Art student. The prospect of working with a historical fragment, so rich with incredible narrative, and incorporating this with ex-prison officer Gary Biddle’s personal story to create an engaging art installation was beyond exciting. It was really fulfilling to merge historical enquiry with a consideration of curation and display.

 
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I had previously been responsible for compiling the questions for an interview with Gary about his time as a prison officer at Winson Green, and for selecting quotes from his responses to use in the exhibition. Sophie Hibberd and Becky Davies then translated these quotes into the tags that are tied to the wire surrounding the door. Becky’s calligraphy and Sophie’s key designs, along with the keys tied to the tags, all hanging from the wire, have ensured that the piece encourages exactly the kind of interaction we had in mind; people circling the exhibition, turning the tags to read the quotes, engaging with the piece.

 
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It was while I was circling the exhibition that I met Gary Biddle himself and was able to thank him for his invaluable contribution to Project Birmingham, and for entrusting his story to us.  Lots of people who have attended the event have never heard of Winson Green prison, which is more formally known as HM Prison Birmingham. I think its safe to say the exhibition is opening people’s eyes to the wider history and story of the second city.

It is clear to see that Project Birmingham has successfully compiled a diverse range of outlooks concerning our city. While ‘Unlocking Winson Green’ is entirely concerned with a specific place, the other exhibitions - photos of strangers on the train, illustrations of landmarks, local art groups and even a board full of personal suggestions of local restaurants and attractions - all successfully communicates A Sense of Place.

Seeing people ascend the stairs of Medicine Bakery (hungrily eyeing the beautiful confectionary on the way), not knowing what to expect from the free art exhibition advertised outside, and then watching their expressions of ‘ah, look what we’ve stumbled upon!’ is really affirming. I am honoured to have been involved in Project Birmingham - roll on next year!

- Orla Taylor-Davies