Open Doors

OXFORD UNIVERSITY MUSEUMS AT THE INTERFACE OF ‘TOWN’ AND ‘GOWN’


By Rawz, Sound Artist in Residence for 2022, St John’s College, Oxford


Oxford is a curious place and, for me, it’s getting curiouser and curiouser. 

I love this city; I’ve called it my home for more than three decades. I couldn’t picture myself living anywhere else. But recently, I realised I’d only ever really seen half of my fair city, that there was a world beneath the dreaming spires that I had never even considered that I would be permitted to explore. I realised that I had never really walked through Oxford city centre; I had always been guided around it by 10 foot high fortifications and locked doors.

I grew up very much on the town side of Oxford’s notorious ‘town versus gown’ divide. I left school with no qualifications, and since then have spent much of my working life supporting the most marginalised people in the city, particularly young people struggling with formal education as I did. Doing this in a city whose very name is a buzzword for elitism and privilege means that I’m no stranger to juxtaposition. It continues to influence my art to this day.

I’m a hip hop artist, primarily focused on lyric writing and poetry. In 2009 I set up my own business, the Urban Music Foundation, with the hope that I could pass on some of the art skills that helped me get through tough times growing up, and that have enabled me to express myself fluently as an adult, and build a career around my art. I’ve found music and lyrics to be a uniquely useful tool in communicating ideas that are hard to transmit in any other way. Someone once said to me that music is what emotions sound like, and I’ve found that to be true.

After a video call with one of GLAM’s community engagement team during the lockdowns of 2020, I had an idea for a project that became Digging Crates — a decolonisation project using hip hop music to reinterpret the musical instrument collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum, next door to the Museum of Natural History. I immediately saw the project’s value as a way to analyse and address some of the divisions and imbalances I see in Oxford, and in wider society. Just over a year after I sat down and wrote the original proposal for this project, I was offered the position of Resident Sound Artist for 2022 at St John’s College. Even as I write this I feel a surreal mix of pride and disbelief — not many people from my community in Blackbird Leys would have considered the idea of being offered such a post in their wildest dreams!

The front doors of the Museum are open every day from 10:00 to 17:00.

The past 18 months have seen doors open – both literally and figuratively – that I had never even considered walking through. I hope they continue to do so, and that they remain at least a little ajar for those following my path. Many of you, dear readers, will be glad to know that one place I have enjoyed exploring, both as a “townie” and, more recently, in my newer self-proclaimed title as “Town Ambassador to the Land of Gown”, is the Museum of Natural History. Of all Oxford’s museums, the Museum of Natural History has the biggest impact as soon as you walk through the doors (which are usually wide open). I’ve taken many “disengaged” and “hard to reach” young people to visit, and the heady cocktail of stuffed animals, dino bones, and cool rocks almost always proves irresistible to all but the most sceptical children, young and old. I would love an opportunity to get creative in this amazing space and am often trying to think of an excuse. Any ideas – you know where to find me! 

Whatever happens next, stepping through the looking glass into this strange new world of the gown with its quirky, bizarre traditions, and its fascinating, inspiring, and problematic histories, is an experience I will never forget. I’m honoured to be the person taking this step on behalf of my community, and grateful for all those who worked hard and made sacrifices for me to be able to do so.


Want to find out more?

This link will connect you to some of the projects I am working on and some of my past works: https://linktr.ee/rawz_official I’d love to connect with you on social media or via any other means, I’m always up for discussing this important work.

If you’d like to attend my next workshop at St John’s on March 10th, we will be watching the documentary made during Digging Crates and I’ll be sharing some behind the scenes photos and stories, you can sign up via this link: https://www.sjc.ox.ac.uk/discover/events/workshop-digging-crates-project-and-film-screening/

Earworms and Hummingbirds

Music and film from the Museum Library


As a part of her Master’s in Wildlife Filmmaking, Alicia Hayden recently visited OUMNH to produce the short film “A Song for Maria”. Featuring the music of Will Pearce, “A Song for Maria” takes its inspiration from the eighteenth-century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian.

In 1699, aged 52, Maria Sibylla Merian made a trip to Suriname with her daughter to document the metamorphosis of insects, where she spent 2 years illustrating unique species and behaviours. Many of these illustrations are featured in Merian’s incredible publication Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705), or Insects of Suriname.

Over three hundred years later, Will and Alicia visited the OUMNH library to view our copies of Insects of Suriname. Here, the pair discuss film-making, songwriting and the impact of Maria’s legacy.


Alicia: Hi Will! You’re a physics student and amateur entomologist at Oxford University. Why were you so keen to visit OUMNH’s copies of Insects of Suriname and what did you think of Maria’s gorgeous illustrations?

Will: I first found out about Maria from a postcard, which was part of a series on influential female scientists. When I got to see OUMNH’s copies of Maria’s work, they did not disappoint. Maria reared all of the insects that she illustrated, allowing her to observe their life cycles in incredible detail.

Alicia shooting for “A Song for Maria” in the Library at Oxford University Museum of Natural History

What about you, Alicia? Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to make a film inspired by Insects of Suriname for your Master’s film project?

Alicia: In addition to studying film-making, I also do a lot of art and poetry, and I was really keen to try and incorporate my love for wildlife-art and creativity into my Master’s film project. After chatting with you about your music, I thought it would be so exciting to merge our mutual love for art and insects into the film!

Like you, I first found out about Maria through a set of women in science postcards, and since then she’s been a big inspiration in my own work, so it was also really special to see her art in person!

I know that you have recently been working on a series of songs about beetles, Will. Why do you choose to sing about nature, and how did Insects of Suriname influence your latest song, “Watercolour Caterpillar”?

Will: During lockdown, the things which kept me going were music and the pond that I built with my dad. For the first time, I started paying attention to nature, and it quickly became as big a part of my life as music. After that it just made sense to combine the two interests! I am constantly looking for inspiration, and almost always find it in either the natural world or others’ art. The life and work of Maria Sibylla Merian seemed like the perfect topic to make a song about.

What were your first impressions when you saw Maria’s books, Alicia? You work in watercolour yourself — did any piece in particular catch your eye?

Alicia: I already knew about Maria’s work, and the intricacies of her drawings, before we saw them. But her illustrations are just phenomenal! She was an exceptional scientific illustrator. The drawing which stays with me the most is of the tarantula eating the hummingbird. The detail of the hairs and feathers is just exquisite, and I’m really pleased you can see some of this in the film.

When we were filming “A Song for Maria” together at the Museum, you decided that you not only wanted to write about the invertebrates Maria drew but also her life. How did this impact the final song?

Will: Well, originally the song was going to be about beetles (I’m a bit obsessed with them), but Maria documented a range of incredible species during her time in Suriname. So it seemed only right to diversify. The wafer-thin Surinamese Toad and handsome Hawk-moths were hard to deny! Her life was a real mixed bag, but her determination and her love for the natural world shine through.

Alicia: I had so much fun filming with you in the Museum’s Library, and I could see how much you loved looking at Maria’s work! I was wondering if you had a favourite illustration?

Will: There was one page in particular which I kept flipping back to — in fact you’ve already mentioned it! It shows leaf-cutter ants bridging between twigs using their own bodies, as well as a tarantula tackling a hummingbird! Many of Maria’s illustrations were called into question when the book was published, as they described behaviours not seen before by Europeans and they seemed all too fantastical to be real!

Hopefully, we were able to capture some of the magic of the illustrations in our film. What do you want people who watch the film to take away about Maria?

Alicia: Like you, I really want more people to know about Maria Sibylla Merian and the fantastic contributions she made to entomology. I hope that by watching “A Song for Maria”, people will realise the importance of Maria and her work, and she starts getting as much recognition as her male counterparts of the same era.


A Song for Maria” is available to watch on Alicia’s YouTube channel. You can find out more via Alicia’s website, Alicia’s instagram, and Alicia’s facebook.

Will’s song about Maria “Watercolour Caterpillar” is available to listen to on YouTube. You can find out more via Will’s website and Will’s instagram.

Robin

The dawn chorus

By Chris Jarvis, Education Officer

With the noises of the hectic morning commute temporarily silenced, it has never been a better spring to enjoy the sounds of the dawn chorus. If you are able to get out early it’s a great way to reduce some of the stresses of lockdown. But if you can’t, or would rather have a lie-in, here we bring a little of the dawn chorus to you.

The video above shows the beautiful grounds of Harcourt Arboretum, a site a few miles outside Oxford that is part of Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums. The chirruping, tweeting soundtrack was recorded at the start of the pandemic lockdown, and is an excerpt from 50 minutes of uninterrupted dawn chorus which you can listen to in full here (recommended background while WFH!):

The enveloping sound of the dawn chorus is an ensemble piece, but who are the individual players? To hone your birdsong identification skills and practice picking out individual songs of some common British birds, Andy Gosler at the Edward Grey Institute for Ornithology has put together this beautiful resource.

So now we’re in the zone, let’s find out a little more about the dawn chorus and how it’s made.

A sense of dawn
Why are so many birds singing at dawn and not at another time of day? There are several good reasons which may explain this.

At dawn, there are fewer other environmental noises cluttering the airwaves and the air density and temperature allow sound to travel further. Many migrant birds arrive in the UK overnight and early morning, and those that are ready to breed begin looking for mates and territories early in the day. So singing at this time stakes a clear claim to new arrivals and announces that the territory is already taken.

For insectivorous birds and those that use sight to find food, dawn is the least profitable time to search. Insects are more dormant in colder temperatures and food less easy to spot in dawn’s lower light levels and early morning mists. It’s a better use of time and energy to sing!

But why spring? What triggers birds to start singing? It clearly makes sense to breed at this time of year when there is a steady supply of food, as insect population growth coincides with the re-growth of the plants that feed many insects.

But the real trigger is day length. Increased light boost hormones in birds that spark incredible physiological changes. Unlike humans, birds have an amazing ability to reduce and increase the size of various organs according to their use, carefully regulating the amount of energy expended by those organs.

Robin
The Robin (Erithacus rubecula), Britain’s national bird, is one of the many voices contributing to the dawn chorus. Image: Scott Billings

Shifting sounds
As hormone levels increase, not only do birds’ sexual organs increase in size ready for the breeding season, but the part of their brains dedicated to sound processing and sensitivity also increases, meaning that birds’ hearing abilities fluctuate throughout the year.

Imagine not being able to recognise what people were saying or who was talking in winter, then suddenly being able to pick out every minute difference in tone, volume and timbre in spring! When you listen to the cacophony that is the dawn chorus, this is exactly what each bird is doing – recognising each individual and its territorial and breeding condition – and many birds show less acuity for this outside the breeding season.

Sound location also improves. Humans have relatively large, wide heads and this allows us to judge the direction a sound is coming from by detecting the slight differences heard by each ear. With their tiny heads, birds cannot do this when their heads are still, so they move their heads around a lot to help locate sounds.

You might be thinking that with such sensitive hearing birds would be in danger of going deaf during a raucous dawn chorus. But they have another adaptive trick up their sleeves. Inside the inner ears are tiny cilia, or hairs, that detect the vibrations of sound. In mammals, these hairs gradually diminish over time and don’t grow back, but birds have the ability regrow cilia throughout their lives!

Hidden music
Birds are also able to process birdsong much more quickly and fully than we can, hearing things that our brains are just too slow to cope with. Whilst we may love the musicality of the dawn chorus, we are actually missing many of the individual notes.

A verdant scene at Harcourt Arboretum

Sonograms of bird songs show that where humans often hear just a couple of notes there may be several more emitted at rapid speed.

How do they do it? We sing by passing air over flaps of skin in our sound-producing organ, the larynx, a bit like blowing over a piece of grass trapped between your thumbs. But birds have separately evolved another and more impressive way of singing. They don’t just have one organ to produce song, they have two – called syrinx.

Syrinx are more like drum skins that can be tightened or loosened by muscles as sound passes over them. They can be operated independently or together enabling a single bird to sing a chord of several notes at the same time in harmony with itself!

Time to tune in to the dawn chorus and marvel at the complex, beautiful phenomenon of birdsong…