New ways of seeing the Whipple

Lesley explaining the inspiration for her work.

One week ago I had the privilege of hosting poet Lesley Saunders for a reading at the Whipple Museum. In my previous post, I explained how we’d ended up crossing paths – thanks to Lesley getting in touch – and it was lovely to hear her read from her growing collection of science-inspired poems.

One of the amazing things we noticed was how certain objects had attracted our attention separately, such as the Sunshine Recorder and the Cloud Camera. Lesley has poems about each one, and I’ve particularly noticed those in the past, both at the Whipple Museum and at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, whilst carrying out research on the Herschels. Indeed, the Herschels were another topic we’d both been inspired by, and Lesley has a poem about Caroline Herschel – the heroine of my novel-in-progress. We’d both been amazed by the Dillon Weston glass fungi models; Lesley has a poem sparked by these, and I held the Fantastic Fungus Day at the Whipple because of the Weston models. Anatomical models also separately intrigued us, and my next poetry project is to do with the anatomical wax models at a museum in Florence, whilst Lesley has written about the Auzoux papier-mache anatomical models at the Whipple.

We held the reading in front of William Herschel's 10-ft telescope in the newly refurbished Main Gallery.

Why, we wondered, do some objects in the Museum capture the attention of poets? Or, to be fair, capture the attention – of anyone? Of course, many of Lesley’s poems were inspired by objects I hadn’t taken particular notice of, just as some of the Museum items I’ve been particularly interested in, such as astronomical compendia, haven’t come across Lesley’s path. But there was quite a lot of overlap. It is one of these circumstances where the artist side of me wants to be superstitious, and the scientist side of me wants to find a reason… In some cases, it seems the object itself captivates: the glass fungi or the compendium are pieces of art in their own right, and beautiful, and unusual enough so the function isn’t immediately evident. I might argue that the Herschel 10-ft telescope (in the photo on the right) is also a piece of art, but it’s also pretty clearly a telescope, and is important to me because of the story behind it.

After Lesley took us on a wonderful journey of words through the Museum’s collection, I read some new poems. There was, as one guest said, a complimentary contrast between our work. While Lesley’s selection for this reading were her Museum-inspired poems, my work this time is liminally ‘scientific’.

The poems I’ve been writing this past year are all to do with my family, specifically, with helping my grandparents at the end of their lives. I was home in the States for the autumn and Christmastime 2010 to help care for them; full-on, 24-7 care, and then home in February for my Grandmother’s funeral, and home in June/July for my Grandfather’s funeral. This has meant a seismic shift in my family dynamics, my family history, and my personal life, which is coming out in my writing. Because of my immersion in Herschel family research, most of these poems have astronomical and nautical metaphors, thus creating an unintentional but understandable link with both my novel and the Whipple Museum. It was the first time I shared the poems with a public audience and I’m very pleased at the warm response the work received.

Thank you to Lesley for her inspiring reading; thanks to everyone who attended the event; and thank you to Liba, Claire, and Allison at the Whipple. It was a wonderful afternoon.