Michael Rosen interview: Finding inspiration in forgotten treasures
With the Easter Holidays rapidly approaching, it's the perfect time to introduce your children to the historical artefacts in our galleries and museums. And now poet Michael Rosen is part of a remarkable new project bringing them to life for a new generation.
Wandering around the galleries of the British Museum it’s easy to lose sight of the poignancy of what is on silent display in the row upon row of glass cases. But make no mistake: there are stories here.
The last, tear-stained hands to touch some of those amber beads or small bits of pottery before they were buried in the ground hundreds, thousands of years ago, were those of grieving relatives enacting funeral rites – probably the most emotionally-charged events most human will ever experience. And the poet Michael Rosen is part of a new project exploring the latent power of these so-called ‘grave goods’ as a means of evoking the remote past.
As well producing an academic output, the project, which is run jointly by the British Museum, Reading and Manchester universities, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), will share its findings with the public, including schoolchildren.
It’s for this reason that the former Children’s Laureate has been invited to write three poems inspired by a selection of grave goods. “Since the death of my son [from meningitis aged 18] I’ve been more aware of different cultural traditions around how we handle death, how we accept it or how we fight against it,” he says.
“It’s become something that I think about much more than I used to, and so the idea of looking at death across thousands of years is a thrill, really. How do we memorialise? How do we make death part of our lives? Or how do we hide it away? The idea of a skeleton in the ground that has objects placed with it is fascinating to me.”
Part of his curiosity comes from the fact that these objects from ancient graves retain such a strong echo of the people they were laid next to in the ground. As humans we have always represented ourselves in some way through the things we own, whether it is a pencil or a sacred object, and this remains long after memories fade and bodies turn to dust.
“When my son died we debated whether or not to put an Arsenal football scarf in with him,” says Michael. “But you can imagine 2000 years ago this would have already been established. Presumably, for example in a warrior culture, you knew that you would be buried with the weapons that you fought with. That was culturally known; these things were your choice but not your choice. They were kind of culturally-owned. And that’s interesting.”
He also wants to explore questions around the meaning of particular objects in a world very different from ours. “A mirror is a powerful thing,” says Michael. “We look at them to see how we appear. But the polished bronze mirrors we find in graves could have an entirely different, more mystical meaning in the past. That intrigues me.”
The power of these items to communicate to us across the millennia is further enhanced by the fact they are handmade. “The wonderful thing about an artisan culture as opposed to a mass-produced cultured is that the hand of the maker is so apparent,” says Michael. “There are finger prints in pottery and other imperfections. They were handled from their creation right up until the moment that they were put into the ground.
“You can’t really understand these objects without some historical knowledge. Without some understanding of the context in which they were valued – of a world without cars or electricity or mass media. This is the hardest stuff to get over.”
But poetry has a particular power to help us imagine ourselves into someone else’s experience and it’s because of this that Michael Rosen believes it should be at the heart of history teaching.
“I’ve always pleaded – and it’s usually fallen on deaf ears – that when we teach children about a period, we find the poems from that time,” he says. “Read Beowulf when you are studying the Anglo Saxons. When kids are studying the Black Death they will read contemporary accounts; but why not the ballads and songs that were written at the time?”
Of course, in the end we can never be sure exactly what grave goods meant to the people who were buried with them – and they will always retain some of their mystery for archaeologists, curators and schoolchildren alike. But in talking and thinking about what they were for we can open up a conversation about what life and death meant then – and now.
“I would like people to talk and think about stuff in the poems I write. As a poet I want to say: ‘hey! Have a little think about this’. Think about these people that came before us and think about what we owe to previous generations. We are only here because of them. Our forebears are not aliens; they are us. We are only here because they were there. I would hope some of that will be churned over by the people who read the poems.”
But Michael Rosen was drawn to the project by more than his fascination for the lives of those that held and handled these enigmatic artefacts. He also applauds the project’s openness to new ways of thinking about the objects in our museums and the way we all relate to them.
“We have a sense now that the only way to interpret an art object is to write an essay about it,” he says. “But it doesn’t have to be like that. Art inspires art and that’s the way it has always been.
“When Shakespeare sat down to write Romeo and Juliet, he didn’t just sit there with a quill in his mouth thinking: ‘how can I do this?’ He had texts in front of him and he was thinking: ‘how can I interpret these?’ This is what we do. People make films and write novels based on the Greek Myths. And I think it’s wonderful that museums are thinking like this as well.”