If your existing archive shelving system is no longer fit for purpose, what can it be used for? One solution: turn it into art. After Brighton and Hove City Council chose to relocate its local history archive to a new conservation and storage facility at The Keep, its old Edwardian reference library was rendered surplus to requirements, its shelves emptied of books. Step forward UK visual artist Yinka Shonibare MBE, who was commissioned by art curators HOUSE to create a piece on the theme ‘Migrations’ in the vacant library for this year’s Brighton Festival (extended to 22 June).

Before Shonibare visited the old library, on the first floor of Brighton’s Museum and Art Gallery, he considered building a ship in the space, cladding it in his trademark wax cloth. But when he saw the existing details, including the wooden shelving and the original etched glass windows, he decided instead to create a work that exploited the former Edwardian Reference Library’s unique structure, history, fixtures and fittings. The result is ‘The British Library’, a site-specific installation exploring the influence of immigration on British culture. Over the weeks leading up to the opening of the festival in May, Shonibare and his team of assistants bound more than 10,000 reclaimed books with his distinctive, brightly coloured fabric, using them to restock the empty shelves.
Each book has the name of an individual imprinted in gold foil on the spine. The names, selected by a team of researchers tracing genealogical records, are a roll call of individuals who have immigrated to Britain at some point in their family history – and left their mark on its culture and society. Browsing the shelves throws up some surprising and unusual names: from T.S. Eliot, footballer Rio Ferdinand, Mick Jagger, Tracey Emin and Darcy Bussell to Anish Kapoor and Liam Gallagher. The resulting artwork brought the defunct library once more to life, creating a library of immigrants, famous and less well known, who have helped shape contemporary Britain.

Archive of the future
After the current exhibition closes, the future of the old reference library will again be uncertain. The room will still be used for occasional meetings, and there have been suggestions that it will be converted into a café. Meanwhile, the future of the library’s original collection has been secured at The Keep, alongside the University of Sussex’s special collections and the East Sussex County Council archive. With its 14,000 linear metres of archival shelving supplied by Bruynzeel, climate controlled storage and room for expansion, The Keep is designed to meet the demands of the modern era, guaranteeing the future preservation of its archive for generations to come.