Once upon a time, when people went to university they were mostly developing a deeper interest in the subjects they had already been learning at school.

English, French, maths, physics, chemistry, history, biology and so on.

The idea that you might arrive on a red brick campus having studied Russell Brand’s views on drugs, or Caitlin Moran’s Twitter feed for your A Levels would have been treated with even more contempt than it was earlier this month when the Department for Education rubbished the OCR exam board’s plans.

Today, students in further education can study just about any subject under the sun – and it’s all largely due to a ground-breaking department at the University of Birmingham.

In a city of invention which had already mass produced the first steel nib pens, created the first x-ray and pioneered the microwave, The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) was also at the cutting edge when it launched 50 years ago in 1964.

Richard Hoggart, the newly-appointed Professor of English at the University of Birmingham, invited Stuart Hall to help him to develop a research centre that would be concerned with studying post-war popular cultural forms.

Having grown up in Leeds, Hoggart’s book The Uses of Literacy attempted to examine changes that were taking place in working class communities.

The results of this type of thinking form the backbone of a major new exhibition that has just been launched at Birmingham’s mac.

There’s a series of 1980s photographs by Nick Waplington, including one of a man servicing his car on a road with oil and parts everywhere.

Born to an Iranian mother and a Kentish father, photographer Sarah Maple has contributed some arresting self-portraits exploring how women are portrayed in society, while Pakistani photographer Mahtab Hussain – no stranger to the mac – studies race to “humanise the British Muslim label”.

A 1978 portrait of a relaxed Stuart Hall was taken by Roy Peters, then a postgraduate student and now known by his Buddhist name of Mahasiddhi.

Photo taken in Balsall Heath by CCCS postgraduate student Janet Mendelsohn between 1966-68
Photo taken in Balsall Heath by CCCS postgraduate student Janet Mendelsohn between 1966-68
 

The roles of emerging magazines like Jackie and Just Seventeen are highlighted, too, and there are contributions from fine art artist Sarah Taylor Silverwood, whose piece News in Briefs is based on newspaper headlines over the course of a year.

She has been inspired by Dick Hebdige, who wrote Subculture: the Meaning of Style, and an interview with him in which he explains how you can never get the perfect vantage point.

Another contributor is leading artist David Batchelor, who joined the CCCS in 1978 and has never before exhibited his series of 34-year-old black and white drawings.

Since he found the period he drew them in was “dismal and depressing”, he says: “Looking at the them again makes me feel very strange.

“At one level I can see in these fragments an isolated, insecure and unhappy young man.

“I feel for that person, who I still recognise from this distance.”

But perhaps the most striking images are a handful of the thousands taken in Balsall Heath by US scholarship postgraduate student Janet Mendelsohn between 1966-68.

Her desire to show how photography could be used as a tool for academic field work and cultural analysis captured a society in a state of flux during the swinging Sixties.

Transcripts of interviews with her subjects have been donated to the centre’s archive at the Cadbury Research Library.

The exhibition might be celebrating a 50th anniversary, but it’s 12 years after the department was actually axed in 2002.

Interested parties from as far afield as China, Italy, Japan and South Africa will converge on a 200-delegate weekend event on June 24/25 to celebrate the fact that it ever existed at all.

But, even more remarkably, perhaps, the University of Birmingham will be covering the travel costs of some 35 speakers from around the world.

“That’s the irony,” says School of History and Cultures’ research fellow Dr Kieran Connell. “Yet people were suspicious of the CCCS because it was Marxist based.

“Now, there’s a blue plaque at the bottom of the university’s Muirhead Tower in recognition of the work, which says ‘the focus for British cultural studies founded here 1964’.

“And, in the basement of the tower, there’s an archive of the papers of Stuart Hall, which the public has access to on production of their identity.”

Kieran has more reason than most to be thankful for the CCCS. His parents, Myra Connell and John Dalton, met there as postgraduate students.

“I have an emotional attachment to the CCCS,” he admits.

Photo taken in Balsall Heath by CCCS postgraduate student Janet Mendelsohn between 1966-68
Photo taken in Balsall Heath by CCCS postgraduate student Janet Mendelsohn between 1966-68
 

“After I studied history at Bristol, I did my own PhD here, about the history of Handsworth – a work that was somewhere between cultural studies and history.

“My professor was Matthew Hilton (currently professor of social history in the department of history) who was an honorary member of the centre in the 1990s.”

The course was originally set up for people who already had degrees.

And, while numbers were small to begin with, Kieran says there is a huge international awareness about its 50th birthday.

“The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies is known around the world,” he says.

“I taught on a course in Sweden called ‘From Birmingham to Gothenburg’.

“Yet in Birmingham, very few people know how important it was, so the idea now is to communicate that to the general public in the city.”

Kieran reminisces about how the centre’s origins were labelled Marxist. Were his parents raving lefties then?

“Mum was a feminist,” he smiles. “Certainly on the left.

“My parents never married and I took her name. That was the ethos of the day.

“The CCCS was there because there was always this battleground between the ‘left’ and ‘right’ and politics permeated every aspect of life.

“Everything the centre did was political.

“It had an egalitarian approach to academic work.”

Hall became the centre’s director in 1969.

“He tried to share decision making with students and that was completely unheard of,” says Kieran.

“I interviewed him late last year and filmed it and we are going to show that at our June convention.

”Even though Hall died shortly afterwards in February of this year, Kieran noted how he was still arguing for the importance of cultural studies – and the need for engagement with popular culture.

‘“He thought it was too convenient to assume that popular culture was politically neutral,” says Kieran.

“His whole intellectual work showed that that wasn’t the case.

“He argued that people didn’t just passively watch television, but would take different things from it in a way that the makers wouldn’t always intend.”

Kieran also questions the political meanings behind common sense, a subject Stuart Hall had written about in the exhibition’s brochure, 50 Years On.

“Both the centre – and Stuart Hall – would argue that common sense has a whole series of things behind it,” says Kieran.

“Common sense would say something like ‘British jobs for British people’.

“But real life is more complex than that.

“What should the hours be? How much should you get paid? Who counts as ‘British’?

“Common sense (itself) would argue that it’s a lot more complicated than that.

“In the 60s and 70s, it was ‘common sense’ to see the mods and rockers as engaging in mindless violence.

Photo taken in Balsall Heath by CCCS postgraduate student Janet Mendelsohn between 1966-68
Photo taken in Balsall Heath by CCCS postgraduate student Janet Mendelsohn between 1966-68
 

“They were carrying out a resistance by buying scooters and motorbikes.

“That was an expression of their alienation in British society, like a trend in Birmingham in the mid-80s for kids to ride round on buses wearing ski gloves.

“The centre wanted to show that is not common sense.”

When the CCCS was first established, the recognised authors to study on the English course included Shakespeare, Chaucer and Austen.

“Here we’ve had someone studying female body hair in history,” says Kieran.

“That would have been inconceivable before the CCCS.

“Its broader legacy is for us to be able to compare culture in all aspects of our life.

“At least half of today’s newspaper review sections are about popular culture.

“This broad shift, that it’s OK to be interested in it and to analyse it, is the CCCS’s legacy.”

Although today’s plethora of media studies and film studies courses owe their existence to the CCCS, Kieran says the centre became increasingly ostracised because of its own radicalism.

“I was being run by young upstarts tearing up the rule book and saying that English and history had got the whole thing the wrong way round,” he says.

“The centre was defined by Richard Hoggart who’d given evidence at the obscenity trial involving DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover in 1960.

“Penguin gave him an annual guarantee of some £2,300, which helped to get the centre off the ground and to employ Stuart Hall.”

It seems odd, looking back, that the CCCS would have been closed at the height of the New Labour government’s bid to get 50 per cent of people into university any which way.

“The centre’s political energy was just unsustainable in the long term,” says Kieran.

“There was The Gould Report, about the threat of Marxist academics working in universities but, in the end, it wasn’t the government which closed it down, it was the university itself.

“When the CCCS started there were just three full-time members of staff with five to six post graduate students in the 1960s.

“Year on year those figures were increasing.

“In 1974 there were 20 students on the MA course and when Hall went to the Open University in 1979, the staff had risen to 15-20.

“By the mid 80s the course was being combined with sociology, which then attracted huge numbers of undergraduates.

“The energy was then going into undergraduate teaching and the course had the highest satisfaction rate of any course in the country.

“But it had also become something quite different to what it was doing before.”

Overall, what was the one big idea behind the CCCS?

“It was to challenge people to think again about their role in the world in which they live,” says Kieran.

“Birmingham is continually changing at a great rate of knots.

“In 1964, when the CCCS started, the Bull Ring was brand new.

“It was a concrete, modernist, futuristic look at what a city was going to look like.

“Immigration was growing and there was a huge change in the type of people living here.

“People were coming from Asia, the Caribbean, Yemen and culturally the city was reinventing itself.

“New relationships were forming right under the centre’s nose.

“David Batchelor has become one of the most prominent artists in Britain today.

“Paul Gilroy, after Hall, was the most potent intellectual. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987) was the most ground-breaking book on race relations in the UK, republished three times.

“But, do you know what... Stuart Hall never finished his PhD!”

Photo taken in Balsall Heath by CCCS postgraduate student Janet Mendelsohn between 1966-68
Photo taken in Balsall Heath by CCCS postgraduate student Janet Mendelsohn between 1966-68
 

* 50 Years On: The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies is at mac Birmingham until June 29. For more details visit: www.macbirmingham.co.uk. The main June 24/25 CCCS conference will take place in the lecture theatre of the Arts Building at the University of Birmingham. Back In the CCCS exhibition – photographs taken of staff and students by Mahasiddhi will be on display in the Bramall Building on the Edgbaston campus from June 2 until July 30. The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies’ Archival Exhibition will be in the Muirhead Tower foyer from June 10-29.

Championing working class

In a piece written shortly before his death this year, Stuart Hall explained the importance behind the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies 50 years on.

“This exhibition represents an attempt to reflect on the relevance of the centre’s vast body of work, 50 years on. In the early days Hoggart, myself and the talented postgraduate students that we began to recruit were all involved in a sort of shared experiment.

We wanted to research ‘mass culture’ – magazines, for example, Hollywood films or popular television programmes. But this was a subject that was often looked down upon by academics, many of whom thought that their focus should be solely on ‘high’ culture, what was regarded as the ‘best that has been thought and said’.

There was no pre-existing programme for the study of the kind of things that ordinary people listened to, watched and read in their daily lives. So together we set about trying to work out what we would do, and how we were going to go about doing it. We were attempting to make up, almost on a week-to-week basis, something that today has become widely known as ‘cultural studies’.

Stuart Hall
Stuart Hall
 

The artists featured in this collection are not working in ‘cultural studies’ – not formally, at any rate. Like all good artists, however, they are engaged with the political and cultural contexts of their time.

A great deal has changed since we began our experiment five decades ago, but as the work of these artists demonstrate, the kind of questions that we were interested in remain pertinent.

Why, for example, are women represented in the media the way that they are? What is the significance of how a person chooses to present themselves to the world stylistically?

What do anxieties over ethnic and other minorities say about British society more generally?

Through a variety of mediums and using a range of contrasting approaches, the artists featured in this collection are united by a shared interest in the world around them and their own place in it. Their work takes subjects that may on first glance appear familiar and challenges you to take a second look.

I spent 15 years at the centre working alongside people who I regarded not merely as colleagues but as friends, political allies and intellectual interlocutors. Despite the best efforts of staff, students and well-wishers, cultural studies at Birmingham was closed in 2002.

Yet as a field of study, it has expanded and – in different guises – has spread around the world in a way it would have been impossible to envisage in 1964.’’