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.

Cathedral to nature

To mark National Poetry Day 2017, former Museum poet-in-residence Kelley Swain writes about her residency, getting to know the Museum, and the Guests of Time anthology.  

Throughout 2016, I was one of three fortunate writers to be invited into the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s first poetry residency. It was our task to engage how we wished with the collections, curators, history and architecture of the Museum, and produce seven new poems each in the first third of the year. The next two-thirds comprised editing and publishing the residency anthology, Guests of Time, and running poetry engagement events.

Kelley Swain - Guests of Time launch blog
Kelley Swain reading from the Guests of Time anthology at the launch event  – December 2016

But this wasn’t the first time poets were inspired by the Museum. The building opened in 1860, an exemplary Victorian ‘cathedral to nature,’ heavily influenced by art critic John Ruskin who involved Pre-Raphaelite artists in its design and decoration.

Guests of Time
Guests of Time anthology

Guests of Time includes new work from the resident poets (myself, John Barnie, and Steven Matthews,) as well as contemporary Victorian poetry related to the Museum. This includes ‘The Lay of the Trilobite’ by May Kendall, a student at Somerville College, Oxford, and ‘A Year and a Day’ by Lizzie Siddal, who was invited to contribute designs for decorative carvings in the building (though, ultimately, decorative work was cut short due to lack of funds).


Continuing to spend time getting to know the building and its contents, I’ve been able to more fully appreciate the astonishing attention to detail throughout, and the sometimes seemingly ‘superfluous’ garnishes in which the architects indulged, such as this decorative ironwork on one of the Museum towers.

IMG_1654 (2)
Decorative ironwork on one of the Museum towers

It is not a weathervane; it is not, of course, any kind of antennae. It is beautiful, seemingly unnecessary, yet somehow integral. It was the Victorians (Darwin, always, is a good example,) who began to understand that many things in nature considered ‘superfluous,’ (such as the blue decoration of a male bowerbird’s bower,)  had in fact evolved through mate preference (sexual selection) or another competitive advantage (camouflage, fitness).

Blue decoration of a male bowerbird’s bower

Oxford University held an architecture competition to choose a design for the building. The winning team included architect Benjamin Woodward, iron-master Francis Skidmore, and sculptors James and John O’Shea. The Victorians were striving, in Ruskin’s words, towards ‘truth to nature’. They were selecting for what Darwin called ‘grandeur in this view of life’. We do well to remember that no attention to detail, however small, is superfluous: in nature, in architecture, in poetry. On a grander scale, the arts are as essential to humankind as is blue to a bowerbird.



The beautiful spiral

By Mark Carnall

At this year’s Oxford Festival of Nature I ran a spotlight session on cephalopods, the group of molluscs that includes squids, octopuses, cuttlefish, nautiluses and ammonites. While many visitors recognised the distinctive shells of nautiluses, they often weren’t too sure about the animals that made them.

Top: Chambered nautilus (Image: Manuae) Middle: Glassy nautilus (Image: Johan Jacob Tesch) Bottom: Paper nautilus, or argonaut (Image: Comingio Merculiano)

This is not surprising because, confusingly, there are three different animals often referred to as ‘nautiluses’ and which all create strikingly similar shells or shell-like structures. This is deeply mysterious because there is no direct biological relationship between either the animals or the structures they make…

To helpful clarify just what’s going, here’s a quick guide to glassy nautiluses, chambered nautiluses and paper nautiluses, and the beautiful spiral structures they create.

Glassy nautilus

Shell of a ‘glassy nautilus’ Carinaria lamarckii.

The glassy nautilus is the outsider of the ‘nautiluses’. It is actually a free-swimming gastropod – the group of molluscs that includes snails, slugs and limpets. The glassy nautilus creates extremely fragile transparent, glass-like shells, but unlike many other shelled gastropods, it can’t retract into its shell, which only covers a small portion of the body.

These fragile shells are understandably quite rare and are said to be worth their weight in gold; unfortunately that wouldn’t be very much as they are extremely light.

Chambered nautilus

Bisected young Nautilus shell showing the internal chambers. The small tubes along the middle of the chamber walls is where the siphuncle runs, a structure that moves fluid and gas in the chambers.
Bisected young Nautilus shell showing the internal chambers. The small tubes along the middle of the chamber walls are where a structure called the siphuncle runs; this moves fluid and gas in the chambers.

Perhaps the most familiar of the three creatures here are the chambered nautilus,  cephalopods belonging to a very old group that first appeared nearly 500 million years ago. Despite being known and collected for a long time – examples of polished Nautilus shells mounted in gold and silver from the 16th century can be seen at the Ashmolean Museum – the living animals weren’t actually scientifically described until the 19th century.

‘Chambered’ refers to the internal walls of the shell which form chambers as the animals grow. The living nautilus occupies the most recently grown and largest chamber. A structure called a siphuncle runs throughout the chambers, adjusting the gas and fluid in each to aid in buoyancy.

A nautilus shell cut in half, or sectioned, is often used as a symbol to demonstrate the mathematical beauty of nature, and you’ll see it in logos worldwide. Unfortunately, as with most biology, these chambers aren’t formed with mathematical regularity; growth rates are affected by environment and diet.

It was thought that measuring the chambers in fossil nautiloids, if they were laid down regularly, could tell us how far the moon has been from Earth in the past. Disappointingly, this is not the case.

Argonauta, or paper nautilus

The fragile ‘paper nautilus’ the egg case and brooding chamber of an argonaut, Argonauta.
The fragile ‘paper nautilus’: the egg case and brooding chamber of an argonaut, Argonauta.

The last of our ‘nautiluses’ is the argonaut, or paper nautilus, which is a type of octopus. The structure it creates looks superficially similar to the shells of the chambered nautilus and glassy nautilus, and not surprisingly it was thought to be a paper thin shell with some affinity to the chambered nautiluses. In fact, paper nautiluses ‘shells’ are not true shells at all, but are structures secreted by female argonauts as a brood chamber for eggs.

Preparation showing series of argonaut egg cases of varying sizes.
Preparation showing series of argonaut egg cases of varying sizes.

Argonaut shells are arguably better known than the animals that make them. But unlike other kinds of mollusc shells, which can be reliably used to delineate different species, argonaut shells take a diverse array of forms across individuals thought to be of the same species. Female argonauts can also repair and replace these cases, adding to variation in their forms.

A strange similarity
What’s striking about chambered nautilus and argonaut shells is their superficial similarity, despite the animals being in two distantly-related cephalopod groups. Both argonauts and nautiloids use their shells to remain buoyant in the water column but there are a myriad of different biological solutions to solving this problem, so why so similar?

The three different kinds of ‘nautilus shells’ from left to right chambered nautilus Nautilus, glassy nautilus Carinaria and paper nautilus Argonauta.
The three different kinds of ‘nautilus shells’ from left to right chambered nautilus Nautilus, glassy nautilus Carinaria and paper nautilus Argonauta.

It’s tempting, though not scientific, to suppose that argonauts are somehow tapping into their deep evolutionary history of chambered shelled relatives; however, superficial resemblance aside, the shells of argonauts are chemically, mechanically, structurally and physiologically completely different to those of the chambered nautilus.

So how and when did argonauts evolve this egg case-making behaviour? Fossil examples provide little evidence of how it happened and don’t reveal whether case-making is the ancestral state that has subsequently been lost in related free-swimming cephalopods that brood their young differently.

So the strange similarity between these three structures – the shell of the chambered nautilus, that of the glassy nautilus (not a nautilus really, but a gastropod), and the egg case of the argonaut – remains a beautiful and intriguing mystery.

A poetic ending


Steven Matthews, one of our three Poets in Residence, reflects on his residency at the Museum during our Visions of Nature year.

It is sad that our poetry residency is at an end; I shall miss the frequent escapes for the hustle of the everyday Oxford streets into the light and space of the Museum.

As a resident in Oxford for over twenty years, I had gradually accumulated a bit of knowledge about the building. I had, like so many local parents, hugely enjoyed taking our two sons there when they were young, and loved to see their delight at the displays. Seeing the fossil, mineral, and animal world, as it were, through their eyes, really re-engaged me with its wonders.

The Museum's centre court
The Museum’s centre court

I have been very privileged, then, to go ‘behind the scenes’ at the Museum, and to speak to the scientists engaged in research into its collections and history. They are bringing new knowledge and understanding to bear at a moment when, let’s face it, humankind has inflicted catastrophe upon the natural world, and so upon itself.

The Victorian spirit and vision which instigated the building of the Museum, a spirit revelling in creation and in exorbitant creativity, seems very remote. This is tragically borne home when looking at the cabinets of butterflies and moths, the Lepidoptera, where the majority of the specimens are of species that no longer exist.

A photograph from the Museum Archive showing the construction and layout of the building in the mid-19th century

The prime mover behind the Museum, the Victorian Henry Acland, said in an early promotional lecture that the ambition behind it was to show that all branches of science needed to work together to produce a greater understanding of the world. The zoologist could not understand the physiological structure of animals without deploying information and knowledge held in common with the geologist and the anatomist.

The Museum should be a place where that type inspiring dialogue could occur daily. It feels as though we are in a moment now where that collaboration, and collective and imaginative ingenuity, is hard-pushed to find solutions to the divided interests and dire afflictions of the world.

The Visions of Nature year at the Museum, which brought artists and us poets together with the scientists, has been one way in which all of these things have been, for me excitingly, furthered. It has been a challenge and a thrill to imagine and write – ‘in their own voices’ –  lives for some of the Museum’s specimens which have particularly fascinated or moved me. But also a great delight, for which I’ll always be grateful.

The stars our destination?


John Barnie, one of our three Poets in Residence, reflects on claims that the future of life from Earth lies deep in the Solar System…

In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, physicist Freeman Dyson speculates that in three or four hundred years it may be possible to seed promising planets and moons in the solar system with organisms genetically engineered to withstand their harsh conditions, eventually transforming them into environments which could support humans – fleeing, perhaps, from an irreparably damaged Earth.

Does Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, offer a viable site for the seeding of life? Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s moon Enceladus is one example he gives; geysers pierce its hostile icy surface, and Dyson hypothesises a warm sea hidden below. The process would be achieved by landing ‘pods’ of self-sustaining life forms – ‘Noah’s Arks’ he calls them. The rocket technology is well on its way, he argues, and will be perfected by small cost-effective space companies rather than lumbering giants like NASA. Biotechnology, too, will develop by leaps and bounds to produce, for example, ‘warm-blooded plants’ that would absorb energy – on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, say – concentrated from starlight and the distant rays of the Sun.

In the increasingly stressed and chaotic twenty-first century, it is impossible to predict what will happen in two or three years, let alone two or three hundred. In the meantime, while Professor Dyson elaborates his techno-fantasies, we are here, on the only Ark we have, and the only one, I’d say, we are ever likely to have.

John Barnie meets some of our live residents, the Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, during his residency at the Museum

My year at the Museum has been a fascinating and unforgettable reminder of this, the Museum itself forming an ark within an ark, celebrating the extraordinary diversity of multicellular life as it evolved over 650 million years. Many of its specimens, of course, represent extinct species, and they, too, are a reminder – of how life on Earth is fragile but also robust, endlessly reacting and adapting to changing circumstances. Life has survived at least five mass extinctions in the geological record, and will survive the largely human-induced one many biologists and naturalists, from Niles Eldredge to David Attenborough, think we are entering now – though our species may not be around to see what gets through the inevitable extinction bottleneck.

For techno-utopians like Freeman Dyson, the future is out there in space, not here where we evolved, where we have the grounding of our being. The new biotechnology, he argues, will have to be perfected on Earth first, filling ‘empty ecological niches’. They may, he suggests, ‘make Antarctica green before they take root on Mars’. There are so many things wrong with this it is difficult to know where to start. Luckily for us, the Museum of Natural History represents a very different vision of the Earth, its creatures, and our place among them.

“Yet With Time’s Cycles Forests Swell”

As part of the Museum’s Visions of Nature year in 2016, we have had the pleasure of hosting three poets in residence: John Barnie, Steven Matthews, and Kelley Swain. During the year the poets worked alongside staff in the collections and out in the Museum itself to gain inspiration for their writing. A small anthology of the resulting poetry is published at the end of 2016.

In this video Steven Matthews reads his poem “Yet With Time’s Cycles Forests Swell”. The title is taken from a line in a poem called Emblems by one the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelites, Thomas Woolner.