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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

 

 

Stories from Stone, Body and Bone

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Each year the Museum works with members of the community on a wide variety of projects using our collections to enthuse and engage people in natural history. These projects often result in some amazing outcomes but until now we have been unable to find the right space to celebrate this work in the Museum. So this month we are very happy to unveil our new Community Case, dedicated to doing just that.

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Stories from Stone, Body and Bone in the new community case

Our opening display focuses on the Children in Need-funded Story Makers programme. In partnership with Fusion Arts, this initiative helps Oxford primary school pupils to develop their communication skills by taking inspiration from museum collections. And this year they teamed up with us to create Stories from Stone, Body and Bone.

Pupils from New Marston, Wood Farm, and Rose Hill Primary schools worked with Story Makers founder and arts psychotherapist Helen Edwards in two visits to the Museum, stimulating and developing imaginative ideas, stories and artwork.

During these visits the Story Makers met with our education officer Chris Jarvis and together they looked at rocks and minerals, tectonic plate formation, and the evolution of skeletons and animal posture. They explored the collections creatively through sensory observation, using the hands, body and senses to develop self-awareness and self-confidence.

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Getting creative with chalks and textiles

We work with the children as artists and we carefully designed a series of sessions that enabled them to have direct sensory engagement with objects in the museum. We then used art processes to portray their experiences and feelings about their interactions.
Helen Edwards, Integrative Arts Psychotherapist

Back at school, the pupils used visual art, drama, movement and modelling to communicate feelings and ideas that emerged from these museum encounters, sharing thoughts with the group in a playful and trusting atmosphere.

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Group sessions back at school involving movement, drama and art

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Detail from one of the Stone Age caves

Each Story Maker then created a Stone Age character – someone who might dream up and pass on stories full of meaning and myth. They imagined places in which their Stone Age characters might live, thinking about what they might see looking out from these spaces, through the cracks, crevices and windows in their caves.

From these ideas emerged beautiful, bright, and colourful models of these fictional abodes, as well as stories and poetry about their characters.

Story Makers built the children’s capacity to think reflectively, enriching their speech and language, and helped them to develop their writing skills as the stories were compiled into Story Makers books.

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Stone Age houses and landscapes as part of the Stories from Stone, Body and Bone project

Everyone should get to do this, it is like a dream come true
Story Maker, from the Stories from Stone, Body and Bone project

Stories from Stone, Body and Bone is on display until Sunday 21 May in our new Community Case. The next display, installed on 22 May, will feature artwork by our community of artists who use the collections as inspiration for their work.

“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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Gemstones, fairy boats and the Orchid Mantis

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 Kelley Swain reveals what has inspired her poems during one of her recent visits to the Museum.

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In May, I had the opportunity to meet with several curators who had previously introduced me to their collections. This time, with the orientation they’d provided, I had more specific questions:

Kelley2For Monica in Minerology, I wanted to know more about what people historically considered ‘sympathies’ of gemstones. She directed me to Nichols’ Faithfull Lapidary of 1652, the oldest book in English about the properties of gemstones. The Museum has a copy of the book on loan to the Bodleian, so I’m heading in the direction of that most famous library to get to see the book, perhaps on my next visit.

With Amo in Entomology, I was eager to pay another visit to the Orchid Mantis whom I’d named ‘Daphne’ on my last visit. In the interim, the Mantis had moulted to her final life stage – she has wings and is now fully adult, but we don’t know how long she’ll live. She might not be there when I next visit. (Amo said this is the reason she stopped naming the insects – she became too attached.)

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Daphne the Orchid Mantis in March 2016

It was especially wondrous to see that Daphne’s colouring had changed from that of a bright pink-and-white orchid blossom to something darker, that looks just like a dying orchid blossom – and she seemed much less alert than before – almost sleepy. I know a bit about cryptography and camouflage, but that the lifespan of the Orchid Mantis directly correlates with the lifespan of the orchid blossoms on which it hunts is more than I might have imagined. I’ve been working on a poem about Daphne, which, by the time of our poetry-residency anthology is published, is likely to be ‘in memoriam’.

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Daphne the Orchid Mantis in May after moulting

And thanks to Mark, Curator of Life Collections, I was able to finally see something that I’ve wanted to see for a very long time: not only one, but a large collection of fragile, mysterious Argonauta brood chambers. Cepalopods are a particular interest of mine, and while many people have collected marvellous ammonite fossils in Lyme Regis or admired the highly-polished specimen of a nautilus shell, Argonauta brood chambers are often mistaken for similar shells, when they are something rather different.

They are secreted by the female of the species (which is a type of octopus). Though this case is not attached to her body, she lives in it with her tentacles dangling out – she can spin it and turn it, but will never completely let go of it. This is the egg sac or brood chamber for her young: she lays her eggs in it, and when they hatch, they are in a safe, contained chamber in the sea. It’s likely that, as with many cephalopods, senescence sets in around the time the young are about to hatch – that is, the adults deteriorate and seem to have a kind of dementia, until they die and their bodies fall apart, just as the young hatch and need food.

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An Argonauta argo specimen from the Museum’s collections

The thing about the Argonauta that most intrigues me is that, though this papery shell is not attached to the female, she will die without it. Studies have revealed that other species of octopus, placed in cages, would squeeze out of the bars of the cage to reach food; the Argonaut, on the other hand, would not let go of its shell, remained in the cage, and died.

Argonauts can direct their buoyancy and swimming, but seem to drift with tides, and there are a few videos online of scuba divers happening upon them: they seem quite directionless and cumbersome. Despite this, to me they are, without doubt, one of the most beautiful, mysterious, and poignant creatures in the ocean, and it was a great gift to be able to see so many Argonauta cases in the Museum stores.

The Argonaut is often called the ‘paper nautilus,’ though their beautiful remnants were also called ‘fairy boats’. The best chapter I’ve read so far on these creatures is ‘Flight of the Argonauts’ by Helen Scales in her book Spirals in Time. I’m working on a poem about these marvellous creatures for the Museum residency.