Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has invited ten of the best UK poets writing today to take part in an unprecedented series of residencies at the University of Cambridge, supported by Arts Council England.

This is a stunning level of commitment to poetry and poets. These ten residencies will create a unique collaboration of poets, creating a meeting of minds and disciplines and providing a catalyst for ideas.

Carol Ann Duffy

Duffy launched the project, Thresholds, on Friday night (2nd November) at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge as part of the University’s Festival of Ideas.

The launch also celebrated the new commitment to work in partnership between the University of Cambridge, Arts Council England, Cambridge City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council that aims to enhance the impact of their shared investment in arts, museums and libraries across Cambridge and the County. Further, the Thresholds project demonstrates the quality, ambition and reach of activity to be supported through the University of Cambridge Museums’ Connecting Collections programme.

Thresholds matches ten poets, including Don Paterson and Jo Shapcott, with museums and collections across the university - home to objects of limitless historic and cultural importance such as Captain Scott’s farewell letter to his wife (The Polar Museum), Isaac Newton’s own copy of Principia Mathematica (Cambridge University Library), and Charles Darwin’s animal specimens collected on the Beagle voyage (Museum of Zoology).

Each poet will spend two weeks in residence at his or her institution over the length of the project (which runs January-March 2013), meeting researchers and staff and exploring the collections. They have each been commissioned to write a poem informed and inspired by the collections and use the material and exhibits at their disposal as an opportunity for significant artistic development.

The poets and their places of residency are: Sean Borodale - Museum of Classical Archaeology; Gillian Clarke - Museum of Zoology; Imtiaz Dharker - Cambridge University Library; Ann Gray - Cambridge University Botanic Garden; Matthew Hollis - The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences; Jackie Kay - Kettle’s Yard; Daljit Nagra - Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; Don Paterson - Whipple Museum of the History of Science; Jo Shapcott - The Polar Museum; Owen Sheers - The Fitzwilliam Museum.

Duffy said: “This is a stunning level of commitment to poetry and poets. These ten residencies will create a unique collaboration of poets, creating a meeting of minds and disciplines and providing a catalyst for ideas. They will be renaissance poets for Cambridge in the truest sense – and it could only happen in museums and in relation to these remarkable collections.

“These ten poets represent the best of poetry being written at the moment. I wanted to include up-and-coming poets and older poets, as well as representing different cultures and countries, too. All of them were the first ten names on my list and I’m delighted to say all said yes immediately with no persuasion.

“A poetry project of this size and scale, across so many different, remarkable and beautiful institutions is unheard of. This really is an unprecedented initiative – and very exciting for everyone involved; myself, the poets and the university.”

One of the fundamental aims of Thresholds is to engage hard-to-reach individuals and form new connections with those from areas of low cultural engagement. To that end, the poets and collections will work with around 150 young people, including pupils from nearby Manor School and Soham Village College, as well as young carers.

This is an unprecedented initiative supported by Arts Council England and the University of Cambridge, with support also from Cambridge City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council. Thresholds will present hundreds of young people, many of whom may never have set foot inside a museum, with the chance to develop their writing skills.

Once inside, they will be encouraged to engage with eclectic and diverse collections; collections that cover everything from archaeology, geology and the history of science – to fine art at the Fitzwilliam Museum, modern art at Kettle’s Yard, and polar exploration at The Polar Museum.

University of Cambridge Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, said: “We are delighted to be hosting the Poet Laureate’s Thresholds project, signalling our continuing commitment to open up the University’s museums and collections to wider audiences. Thresholds is part of our valued new partnership with Arts Council England and the local authorities, and will demonstrate ways of working that will underlie ‘Connecting Collections’, the Major Partner Museum programme at the University of Cambridge.’

Andrea Stark, Area Executive Director of Arts Council England, said: “Thresholds is a great project that further highlights the Arts Council’s continued support in improving the public’s access to great art and culture. In addition, this is also the beginning of an exciting partnership between us, the University of Cambridge, Cambridge City Council and Cambridge County Council which will help develop Cambridge’s cultural offer. Our work together will benefit the sector and enrich opportunities for local communities.”

Long-term friend and assistant to Carol Ann Duffy, Helen Taylor, the Thresholds project co-ordinator, matched the poets and the institutions once the Poet Laureate had invited the selected poets. Helen consulted with all the museums and collections and asked the poets involved to list their top three choices of museum. All the poets were able to get a residency in either their first or second choice.

Following the completion of Thresholds, an anthology of ten new poems by the ten outstanding poets will be published in March 2013. The poems will also be published online and it is hoped the legacies of Thresholds will include poetry becoming a catalyst for the exploration of University collections, as well as the museums becoming portals for writing groups.

An archive of drafts, notes and commissioned poems from all ten participants will be placed in the University Library, one of the UK’s Copyright Libraries, and home to the poetry collections of Chaucer, Sassoon, Tennyson, Donne and Kipling among others.

Attending tonight’s launch event at the Fitzwilliam Museum, where Carol Ann Duffy will also give a reading as part of the Festival of Ideas, are four of the Thresholds poets:  Ann Gray, Don Paterson, Jo Shapcott and Sean Borodale. Press are welcome to attend.

Sean Borodale said: “In a previous life I worked as a bronze caster in a London foundry, making large-scale works by contemporary artists – hence I find the prospect of exploring the plaster casts in the Museum of Classical Archaeology fascinating. I’m interested in the idea of the copy, and how it resonates between the ‘touch’ of the artist and the presence of the audience.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page.