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

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. tankonyves says:

    Great, thank you.


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Our #Celts exhibition opens today! It brings together the incredible Iron Age, Roman and early medieval collections of the British Museum and @nationalmuseumsscotland.
Roman control of southern Britain broke down around AD 410. New leaders established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England, and Roman towns and cities were largely abandoned. Neighbouring communities in Scotland, Ireland and Wales continued to develop their own unique identities. Monasteries in these areas stood out as European centres of art, learning and literacy, perpetuating and reinventing local traditions. Communities here spoke languages that we now call Celtic, and practiced a distinctive form of Christianity.
Striking stone crosses, such as this one found in Monifieth, Scotland, combined ancient Celtic curves with Anglo-Saxon knotwork and interlace designs to express these distinctive Celtic identities in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. This sculpture may have been a personal memorial or grave-slab.
Slab of grey sandstone with a cross on one side. From Monifieth, Angus, Scotland, c. AD 800–900. National Museums Scotland.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at Our #Celts exhibition opens today! It brings together stunning objects from the British and Irish Isles as well spectacular loans from across Europe.
This magnificent cauldron is one of the most important and intriguing finds from ancient Europe. It reveals connections between communities thousands of miles apart. Although it depicts objects used in central and western Europe,
it was found in a bog near Gundestrup in Denmark, beyond the northern edge of the Celtic regions. The style of the designs suggests that it was made further east, in Bulgaria or Romania. The strange animals and cross-legged pose of
the antlered figure hint at even wider influences, from as far afield as Asia. The scenes on the panels give a glimpse into a world of ancient myths, and the stories of gods and heroes whose names are now lost.
The Gundestrup cauldron was probably reserved for important rituals. It is likely that most people would have viewed it from a distance, seeing only the forbidding faces of gods and goddesses on the outer panels. The fantastical scenes on the inside would have been revealed to those allowed to experience the cauldron close up.
Gundestrup cauldron. Iron Age, c. 100 BC–AD 1. Found in Gundestrup, northern Jutland, Denmark. @nationalmuseet, #Denmark.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at Our major new #Celts exhibition is now open! Come on a 2,500-year journey tracing what it means to be Celtic...
The peoples first referred to as Celts lived across much of Europe north of the Alps, in villages or fortified hilltop settlements. Although not a single distinct group, they were interconnected, sharing cultural ideas across the continent. The objects they made for feasting, religious ceremonies, adornment and warfare were both stunning works of art and powerful ways to convey shared values and beliefs. Their unique abstract style set them apart from the classical world, but their technological accomplishments stand on par with the finest achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
2,000 years ago valuable objects like this were cast into rivers. This magnificent shield was found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge. It was not made for serious warfare as it is too short to provide sensible protection. Instead, it was probably made for flamboyant display. The highly polished bronze and glinting red glass would have made for a great spectacle.
The Battersea shield. Iron Age, c. 350–50 BC. Found in the River Thames, London, England.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at This 7th-century coin may be the earliest known depiction of a Muslim, the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik. The Umayyad dynasty were the first Muslim rulers to govern Egypt. This coin shows Abd al-Malik holding a sword and surrounded by the shahada, meaning ‘the testimony’ – a statement of faith in the Oneness of God and the acceptance of Muhammad as God’s Prophet.
Discover how Egypt’s religious and political landscape was transformed over 12 centuries in our #EgyptExhibition, opening 29 October.
#Islam #Muslim #coin #Islamic Christians adopted the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible as their Old Testament and understood many of its stories in the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This ivory box, known as a pyxis, shows Daniel, who was thrown into a lions’ den by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar but saved by his faith. On the other side, an angel rushes forward behind a ram, referring to the story where a ram is substituted for Abraham’s son at the last minute as a sacrifice to God.
Discover how Egypt’s religious and political landscape was transformed over 12 centuries in our #EgyptExhibition. In 4th-century Egypt many people of different faiths wore amulets, which were believed to provide protection. The menorah – a seven-branched lampstand – is one of the few ways of identifying Jewish material in Egypt. In time, it became the most common symbol of Jewish identity. Judaism never became a state religion in Egypt, but it had a thriving Jewish population from the Roman through to the Islamic periods. 
Find out more about Jews in Egypt in our forthcoming #EgyptExhibition

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