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.