Introducing John Barnie

Poets in Residence header image

As mentioned in a blog post a little while ago, we’ve launched Visions of Nature, a special programme of exhibitions, talks and workshops by artists and writers whose varied work celebrates the natural environment. Things will come and go throughout 2016 but one thread will weave throughout the season – our Poets in Residence.

We welcome three poets, who will work alongside staff in our collections and out in the Museum itself to gain inspiration for their writing: John Barnie, Steven Matthews, and Kelley Swain. In the autumn, they will take part in a number of events and activities to present their work, and will be publishing a small anthology at the end of the year.

But as the poets begin exploring the possibilities of their residency, we’ve asked them each to introduce themselves. First up is John Barnie, poet and essayist from Abergavenny, Monmouthshire.


I grew up in a small market town in the Usk valley at the edge of the Black Mountains, a place of rivers and streams, hill farms and upland moors, which shaped me both as a person and as a writer, for though I spent some twenty years living in cities, I was always drawn back to the only world in which I truly felt at home. It eventually became the deepest source for the kind of poetry I write.

John Barnie
John Barnie

I was educated in the Humanities but sometime in the 1980s it dawned on me that my ignorance of science was an appalling gap in my knowledge, and I spent many years reading around in evolutionary theory, palaeontology and especially palaeoanthropology which fascinated me, and continues to do so. Inevitably, this was very much the reading of an amateur, but it opened new ways of thinking for me about the evolution of humans and what that evolution means for our ability to solve the global crises we currently face. Understanding something of the history of life on Earth also gave me new perspectives on religion and its role in human affairs.

Digital reconstruction of a 425 million year old pycnogonid (sea spider), Haliestes dasos, from the Silurian Herefordshire Lagerstätte
A fossil that John saw behind the scenes: Digital reconstruction of a 425 million year old pycnogonid (sea spider), Haliestes dasos.

The opportunity to be a poet in residence at the Museum of Natural History is something I had never anticipated. Judging from my visits to the Museum so far, the experience is likely to lead me in new directions in my writing. It has been extremely interesting to go behind the scenes of the Museum’s public façade to get a sense of the extraordinary array of natural treasures that it holds, and even more so to be introduced by some of the scientists to their research — to follow the patient re-creation of a fossil sea-spider from a lagerstätte, for example, as a three-dimensional image on a computer, revealing the long-dead animal in the finest of detail.

Already my head is buzzing with images, impressions, and ideas, and I know that this is going to be an exciting year which may take me in directions I hadn’t previously thought possible.

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More than a Dodo

I'm Public Engagement Manager at Oxford University Museum of Natural History and I look after permanent displays and other interpretation. I do a bit of social media on the side, too.

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