Writing from experience

The Museum’s building and collections provide inspiration for scientists and artists alike, often acting as a springboard for the creation of new work. Following a year here as one of three poets-in-residence, Kelley Swain returned to lead a session with Oxford Scholastica students, showing how museum objects can inspire creative writing.

by Kelley Swain

The experience of looking at the taxidermy Little Owl (Athene noctua) provided inspiration for Tallulah’s poem

Delving into the archives and behind-the-scenes stores, meeting researchers and conservators, and finding inspiration in the architecture, history, and collections were all part of my residency at the Museum during 2016. I’ve always written poetry inspired by the history of science and its fascinating objects, and I have come to appreciate museum objects not only as inspiration for my own poetry, but as teaching tools, or “object lessons” to inspire others.

It was lovely to be asked to lead a new series of these “object lessons” for a group of summer school students at Oxford Scholastica. Some of them had never encountered taxidermy, let alone a room full of articulated, stuffed, and preserved specimens. Awe abounded – both its wonder and, for some, its horror. It was a great opportunity to teach the students not only poetry, and why writing poetry inspired by museum objects can be moving, thoughtful, and important, but also to teach them about conservation and preservation.

Here we share the work of 13 year old Tallulah Xenopoulos, who created this poem following an encounter with a taxidermy owl during the workshop:

Stupid dead owl.
The wooden door opens slowly, and, although there’s a green stone with bumpy edges and
shiny sides, a jar filled with silky insects and a board with beautifully painted butterflies.
Both your eyes land on the owl.
His feathers brush down his back and he stares down at his lightly spotted blanket where his
delicate legs connect and hatch onto the bumpy branch.
His eyes
And his beak
And legs
And nails
He stares at you almost like he knows what you’re thinking – which is dumb because he’s
dead – but he scares you and fascinates you at the same time.
A piece of dust has fallen beneath his eye and I bet he’d love to just brush it away, cause
he’s like that.
But also.
He’s an owl.
A stupid.
Dead owl.
With nothing but stuffed insides and scrawny legs.
And a heart. A dead heart which they slipped out and replaced with stuff.
-”do you think they stuffed him alive?”
The boy next to you whispers. You don’t reply. But the thought of death. And of his feathers
falling the second he felt the blood rushing through him go cold and dusty, travels across
your mind.
“Do you think he knew he was about to be?” you answer
Because the poor clueless animal looks as if he knew nothing.
knows nothing.

Kelley Swain’s own poetry from the Museum residency is featured in Guests of Time, a beautiful hardback volume edited by Prof John Holmes which features new work by John Barnie and Steven Matthews, alongside 19th-century poetry from writers linked with the early days of the Museum. Together, the poems in this anthology are a tribute to the Pre-Raphaelite origins of the Museum and a rejuvenation of its artistic legacy.

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