British Museum blog

Looking again…

The Expulsion from Paradise, Giulio Benso, 1610-1670

Sarah Longair, education manager, British Museum

We spend much of our time here at the Museum analysing, researching and contextualising objects and finding ways to communicate effectively with our visitors. So when the chance to bring a fresh perspective on our collection comes along, it’s always a great moment: challenging us and our visitors to think again.

Late in July, the result of an exciting collaboration between the British Museum and a group of Year 12 students from Camden School for Girls went on show in Room 90 in the display: ‘Isolation: from text to image’.

The project originated late last year, when Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, and our Schools and Young Audiences team decided to invite students to curate a display of works from the collection. We particularly wanted to encourage an innovative yet relevant approach to looking at the collection so we approached English literature students and asked them to use texts they are studying as inspiration. The literary sources, which included Hamlet, the Great Gatsby, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, John Osborne’s Look back in Anger and Keats’s poetry, would definitely give varied and intriguing possibilities through which to look at the collection.

The Expulsion from Paradise, Giulio Benso, 1610-1670.

The Expulsion from Paradise, Giulio Benso, 1610-1670.

From those who applied, an enthusiastic, inquisitive and thoughtful group of 12 students was selected to participate as an extra-curricular activity. We were very impressed by their commitment during two very busy school terms. I went to the school to deliver seminar-style sessions at the end of the school day and the group came to the Museum several times. During the Museum sessions, we discussed different approaches to drawing inspiration from images, the varied ways in which their texts related to images, how to measure and evaluate audience behaviour and practiced writing a succinct but engaging display label.

In one of the early discussion sessions, students selected ‘isolation’ as a theme which bound their texts together. From a long-list created by curators, the students selected prints and drawings to look at in the Museum’s print room.

One of the students explained how access to the original print, after seeing reproductions, was a powerful experience:

“Seeing these images gradually unfurled from their protective cloths, amid the hush of the Prints and Drawings room, is not one I will forget in a very long time.”

Left with the freedom to write creatively, they experimented in a variety of styles: in prose and poetry; as a participant in the image; from the perspective of the artist; as a character from their set text. From these various experiments, they created a final label for their selected print.

Together they decided how to arrange the works – an exercise in diplomacy for all concerned – and joined in with hanging them. One of them described their overall experience:

“The result is an exhibition that is incredibly varied. You will find a drawing by the seventeenth century Italian artist Giulio Benso beside modern artists such as Isidoro Ocampo and George Bellows. Linking such images to set texts has proved fascinating – even with prints and drawings that appeared to have concrete interior storylines, it was possible to illustrate our individual responses to our chosen texts, whether through creative or analytical writing.

If our accompanying texts make you look again at the image we have been describing, we’ve done our job. The result is an exhibition that is not only the culmination of an incredible learning process, but also one of which we are all genuinely proud.”

We were extremely impressed by the students’ thoughtful interpretations which really do make you look again at the image. We’d like to thank them for their commitment to this unique project and we hope that visitors will also be excited by this fresh perspective on the collection from these young writers.

Isolation: from text to image is on display in Room 90 until 3 September 2012

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Filed under: At the Museum, Collection

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. ritaroberts says:

    This sounds like a very interesting project with a worthwhile result.


  2. beeseeker says:

    What a fantastic and truly worthwhile concept, my congratulations to all involved.


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You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

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