British Museum blog

Winning Words spoken at the British Museum

British Museum curator, Richard Parkinson looking at a tomb-painting


Richard Parkinson, curator, British Museum

Curators are often requested for media appearances, but not always in the way they might expect. The Museum was recently approached about participating in Winning Words, a project by the Forward Arts Foundation about creating short films of a cross section of Britons reading inspiring poems, to enhance people’s lives through poetry as part of the Cultural Olympiad 2012. I happen to work on Ancient Egyptian poetry, and particularly on how such works can be performed, doing for example ‘experimental philology’ sessions at an academic conference with the actress and novelist Barbara Ewing. Poetry lies at the heart of my research and because Sian Toogood, the Museum’s Broadcast assistant knew this, she approached me.

The poem I was asked to read was ‘Leisure’ by the Welsh poet W. H. Davies (1911 AD), with the famous opening couplet ‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?’. I must admit that the poem does not appeal to me in terms of style, but every academic would applaud its sentiment about time, as the lack of time for research is always the hardest part of our daily experience.

Sian and I suggested that the filming could be done in Gallery 61, with the famous Ancient Egyptian wall-paintings from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun (1325 BC). The importance of looking and staring at them was central to the concept of the gallery, and we thought that various details of the paintings could relate to the poem’s mentions of trees, cows and female beauty. Both the poem and the paintings express the wonder of experiencing the world around us, despite their different cultures and dates.

The film crew arrived before the galleries open to the public, and were a joy to work with; the whole session took about 20 minutes. ‘Leisure’ was recorded in two takes (I was too fast in the first as I was worrying that I’d sound too bitter and sad when talking about lack of time!), and I also read a few lines from Sean O’Brian’s ‘Dignified’ (a poem that was new to me and which I admire immensely). This became part of a very evocative mash-up film of 12 people across London speaking it in a single day.

This is a very inspirational project, and marvellous to have been part of – and for someone who works with ancient texts it is always useful to be reminded how poems work so differently with the voice than just on the page: performance is the very essence of their life no matter how old they are.

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Filed under: At the Museum, Collection

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  1. tankonyves says:

    Great, thank you.

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In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap We’re exploring the Churchill War Rooms – the secret underground headquarters of the British government during the Second World War – in partnership with @ImperialWarMuseums for #MuseumInstaSwap.
The fear that London would be the target of aerial bombardment had troubled the government since the First World War and in 1938 the basement of a Whitehall building was chosen as the site for the Cabinet War Rooms. From 1940 to 1945 hundreds of men and women would spend thousands of vital hours here and it soon became the inner sanctum of British government.
Here you can see the wall of the Map Room, detailing the positions of British convoys across the world, which has not changed since 1945! Today in #MuseumInstaSwap we’re beneath the streets of Westminster to discover the hidden secrets of the #WW2 Cabinet War Rooms, which is part of @ImperialWarMuseums.
This is the underground bunker that protected the heart of Britain’s government during the Second World War as Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his inner circle plotted the route to Allied victory. It’s an amazing experience to step back in time and walk in the footsteps of Churchill, glimpsing what life would have been like during the tense days and nights of the Second World War. This archive photo shows Churchill at his desk in the Map Room at the Cabinet War Rooms. Beside him, Captain Pym of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) takes a telephone call. To this day, the Map Room has remained exactly as it was left on the day the lights were switched off in 1945.
© IWM (HU 44788)
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