Bringing exhibitions to life through poetry

Poet in the City and the British Library are collaborating to establish a new approach to touring exhibitions. Over three years, Poet in the City will commission new poetry and create events across England to tell the story of British Library exhibitions.

Working closely with local communities and artists in the North, South East and South West, we will present locally-specific versions of the exhibitions. Libraries in Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield, Reading and Exeter will become homes for ambitious live poetry events – creating new opportunities to celebrate and share exhibitions which would otherwise be difficult to access for local people in their city.

By bringing together poets, curators and local people to create exciting new work that weave local stories into the narrative of British Libraries exhibitions, we’ll be animating and amplifying the exhibitions in ways that resound specifically within the local community. The resulting commissions and curation will be presented in exciting and ambitious ways, from dazzling library lates to poetry busking, poetic residencies, panel discussions and creative installations in public spaces.

Bringing the British Library’s Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition to life in Leeds.

The project had a massive impact in the city of Leeds on so many different levels - people are still talking about it [two months later]. Sound system culture in the library was a big deal for many - never done before. But more than anything, the whole take-over of the central library was amazing for so many, it opened it up as a more accessible space for those who wouldn’t otherwise enter the space.

Khadijah Ibrahiim

The Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition marked 70 years since the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex carrying over a thousand Caribbean migrants to Britain. The exhibition also marked the anniversary of the British Nationality Act, which established common citizenship and granted all British subjects the right to settle permanently in Britain. Through literature, music, personal correspondence and official publications – from a 1940s suppressed report detailing labour protests and rebellions across the Caribbean to E.R. Braithwaite’s annotated typescript of To Sir, With Love – this free exhibition shed new light on the significance of the arrival of the Windrush, and told a story of Caribbean people’s struggles for social recognition, self-expression and  belonging throughout history.

To bring the exhibition to life in Leeds, we commissioned three celebrated Leeds-based poets of Caribbean descent – Khadijah Ibrahiim, Malika Booker and Vahni Capildeo – to create new poetry responding to the exhibition and the legacy of Windrush in Leeds today. Working with communities at three library branches – Compton Road, Dewsbury Road and Chapeltown – to embed local stories and experiences into their work, we are presenting a range of creative and ambitious events from library takeovers to roundtables, creative workshops, poetry busking and public installations at Leeds Libraries and partner venues across the city.

Explore the events here:

The finale event was a spectacular ‘Library Late’ event at Leeds Library, bringing the library to life after hours through an evening celebrating the explosive impact of Caribbean culture on Leeds and the UK. Over 500 people attended, and the night featured performances from a number of celebrated artists including musician Ayanna Witter-Johnson, poets Rodger Robinson and Anthony Joseph and legendary Sound System Iration Steppas.

I thought libraries were meant to be quiet 😂😂. I loved that different cultural events were on several floors. Plenty to see and learn about black people in Leeds over the years and their contribution to Leeds and England. It was thought provoking, fun and it brought back many memories.