Poetry and science make powerful partners, the Science Museum's first poet in residence tells Diana Hinds. If you ask Lavinia Greenlaw, the Science Museum's first poet in residence, which part of the museum she likes best, she will take you straight to the top, to the galleries of 18th and 19th-century medical history.
"Here is something I'm writing about," she says, pointing excitedly to a fake "merman", a weird assemblage of fish tail and animal fur from the collection of a 19th-century pharmacist. One object of her six-month residency has been to produce a series of poems based on the museum's exhibits, which the museum plans to publish. An iron lung, and a "cloud mirror", for observing weather patterns, are among the scientific artefacts that have already inspired new work.
"I hope the poems will be displayed next to the exhibits," she says. "I love the idea of the public just coming across them as they look around the museum."
Using poetry to help elucidate science has been a major theme of the Science Museum's collaboration with Lavinia Greenlaw. "Especially for those at secondary school age," she says, "science needs poetry. Scientific ideas can be very abstract and complex, and poetry can be a way of illustrating them: it gives science teachers another tool.
"For girls in particular, who tend to be drawn to the arts rather than sciences, poetry could be a way of bringing them back into science."
Lavinia Greenlaw was included in the Poetry Society's 1994 New Generation Poets promotion and was an obvious choice for the Science Museum, in that much of her work to date tackles scientific subjects. Her parents were both doctors, and her father ran a dispensary, and when she first began to write, the images and the language of science were what came to her most readily. In "Electricity", for instance, from her first collection, Night Photograph (Faber), an electricity circuit becomes a striking metaphor for the relationship of lovers. And a poem about a young woman dying from radium poisoning, "The innocence of radium", has elicited letters from physics teachers wanting to use it in school.
Greenlaw studied English at Kingston Polytechnic, but she regrets now that her science education came to a halt after one science O-level. "I miss the Monday afternoonsof inactivity under the microscope, the Petri dishand pH scale with its odd capital letter," she writes in Science for Poets. But science has always suffered from an image problem, she says.
"It was considered boring at school. But my siblings are all scientists, and I feel as if they are bilingual and I am not. If I had developed a scientific fluency, I think it would have helped my thinking now. One thing we are trying to do here at the Science Museum is to animate science for young people. "
As well as organising two highly successful events for adult audiences, Greenlaw has worked with the education department to find new ways of using poetry in the museum to benefit its younger visitors. "Discovery boxes" around the museum - where a box on light, for instance, would include a poem on the subject, as well as objects of scientific interest - are to be introduced this autumn.
A "garden" for under-sixes is among the new galleries to be opened in October in the basement. Children will be able to explore water, construction, light and sound, with large interactive exhibits and simple poems (written by museum staff, under the watchful eye of the poet in residence) acting as instruction labels.
"It's a way of making scientific words part of everyday language," Lavinia Greenlaw says. "You can use a word like pivot, for instance, and make it memorable through rhyme."
Drop-in poetry workshops are impracticable for a museum which may receive 40 or more school parties in one day, but Lavinia Greenlaw has helped devise a series of poetry and science posters which will be produced with the Pictorial Charts Educational Trust and made available to schools, together with a teachers' resource pack.
"The posters, rather like Poems on the Underground, will be there to be wondered at and casually observed," she explains. "Many people, if you gave them a book of poetry, would worry about being out of their depth. But if the poem is on a poster, their response is much more direct and spontaneous. "
Lavinia Greenlaw leaves the Science Museum this month to be British Council Fellow in Writing at Amherst College, Massachusetts, but the museum is so delighted with her work it hopes she may continue the residency, possibly with sponsorship, when she returns from the United States.
Graham Farmelow, head of programmes at the museum, said: "She has the gift, not only of being an outstanding writer, but of being able to use her skills in the context of an institution like this one.
"We are always looking at new ways of interpreting science, and it has been very helpful for us to see how poetry may be used."
If she does return, Dr Farmelow says that the new galleries will create more opportunities for her to work directly with visiting schools.
* Science Museum, London. Tel: 0171 938 82222.