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.

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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.



Beauty, strangeness and science

This year the Museum is playing host to three poets in residence as part of our Visions of Nature year. The poets, John Barnie, Steven Matthews, and Kelley Swain, have been working alongside staff in our collections and out in the Museum itself to gain inspiration for their writing over the past six months. 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.

Here Steven Matthews reveals what has inspired his poems during one of his recent visits to the Museum.

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Fossil in the Charles Lyell collection

I was struck strongly, during our early visits as poets-in-residence behind the scenes at the Museum, by one particular aspect of the research being undertaken. The history of the Museum collections, their vast reach, is being traced in several instances by the identification of the particular individual specimen which was drawn and lithographed as part of a key scientific paper, in the nineteenth- or twentieth-centuries. Out of the many thousands of specimens held at the Museum, for example, we were shown the exact fossil in the Charles Lyell Collection which had helped, when reproduced in a paper, confirm the geological record of part of the United States.


'Observations on the White Limestone and other Eocene or Older Tertiary Formations of Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia' by Charles Lyell, 1845
‘Observations on the White Limestone and other Eocene or Older Tertiary Formations of Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia’ by Charles Lyell, 1845

The history of the Collections, in other words, is the history not just of their remarkable beauty or strangeness, but of their usefulness in advancing scientific thought; just as it is the history of the individual people who have recognised something new to say from the specimens they were studying. There is a firm analogy between this activity and what the making of poems involves. Concise comparison is, after all, what poetry also seeks to attain, bringing the multifariously divergent elements of the world into intense and new combinations with each other.

In preparing to write poems in response to the Museum building and Collections, I have kept that history in mind, researched it. I have read pamphlets by Henry Acland and John Ruskin, Victorians key to the impulse behind the creation of a Museum here to Science, and to defining what the nature of a building on these principles should look like. I have re-read much Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite poetry in order to steep myself in the kinds of language being used to describe Nature by poets at the time the Museum was becoming active. I have read in the work of scientists working at, or associated with, the Museum in its early days and subsequently.

One of the capitals that adorn the Museum court carved by the O’Shea brothers

Out of this reading, but also out of the looking, the many hours spent with the Collections on public display or behind the scenes, have come what is a surprising variety of poems which reflects the wonderful and overwhelming reach of the items at the Museum. I have written about the O’Shea brothers who did much of the amazing carving of column-tops on the Ground Floor; there is a poem on the crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin, whose lab I was privileged to spend some time alone in.


Nonsense verses have arisen from contemplating the presence of Lewis Carroll here; the astounding collection of multi-coloured marble blocks, the Corsi Collection, has impelled me to create blocks of prose-poetry in their shape. There is a poem ‘voiced’ by an ammonite. The sadness of some specimens, posed in isolation (or in glass jars) far from their original contexts, has moved me; as has the shocked intensified awareness that the history of the Collections is a history of accelerating losses, as more and more of the species gathered in the Museum are extinguished from the world each day.