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Oxford Arts Blog


Fancy a swift read?

Matt Pickles | 2 Jun 2017

This week, we are celebrating what must be the most committed visitors to an Oxford University museum.

They have travelled from Africa to visit the Museum of Natural History every year since 1948.

But although they stay from May to August, they don’t count towards the museum’s visitor numbers or leave any money in the donation box.

They are a colony of 60 pairs of swifts who settle in the ventilation shafts of the tower of the Museum of Natural History.

Keen birdwatcher Ronan Ferguson, 29, says: ‘Like the swifts, I make the journey to Oxford at around this time every year.

'It is a magnificent story that they have been coming here for so long, and there is no better setting to watch them from than from the Museum of Natural History.’

The swifts have been studied by the Edward Grey Institute of Ornithology since 1948.

Earlier this year, the Museum hosted the launch of the Oxford Swift City project, which aims to study swift populations in Oxford. Numbers of swifts in the UK have fallen by 47% since 1995.

The University is partnering with the City Council and the RSPB on this project.

You can keep an eye on the swifts via a live webcam.

Updates on when the chicks are hatched and how they are getting on are also posted on the Museum’s diary.


Legendary Pakistani singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan has hundreds of millions of views on his YouTube channel.

But he will play to a more intimate audience at Oxford University this week.

He will play alongside Oxford students in a ‘once in a lifetime concert’ at the Sheldonian Theatre tonight.

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan is giving a concert to help raise money to support the work of Oxford University’s Faculty of Music.

The money raised will be invested in further concerts that promote musicians from diverse backgrounds including Indian classical musicians.

He is also donating a harmonium played by his celebrated uncle, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Mr Khan is a popular Pakistani singer, primarily of Qawwali, the devotional music of the Muslim Sufis.

‘We are thrilled and honoured to be welcoming distinguished musician Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan,’ says Professor Jonathan Cross of the Faculty of Music. ‘Both as a player of traditional Pakistani Qawwali music and as a leading figure in Pakistani and Bollywood film music, his reputation is global.

‘We expect this to be the first of many concerts of music from the Indian subcontinent hosted by the Faculty. It represents a new and exciting opportunity for our students and staff to engage with these important musical traditions.’

Unfortunately the concert is already sold out. But stay tuned for more Pakistani music coming to Oxford in the future. And in the meantime, enjoy his song Zaroori Tha, which has been watched almost 200 million times:

ASAP Rocky

Most hip hop promoters could only dream of signing ASAP Rocky and Stormzy.

But last week, they were both in the headlines for stories involving Oxford University.

On Monday, grime artist Stormzy helped one of our students reach her goal of studying for a master’s at Harvard University by donating £9,000 to her crowdfunding page.

Fiona Asiedu, a final-year Experimental Psychology student at New College, says she was “completely overwhelmed” when she saw the donation and that it will be “life-changing” for her.

She met the musician when he visited Oxford’s African and Carribean Society last year, and has promised to thank him by taking him for dinner at Nando’s.

She is now hoping to put any extra money she raises to provide financial support for black British students from low-income backgrounds who gain places at Oxford and Harvard.

The next day, our Twitter mentions blew up after a talk by rapper ASAP Rocky went viral.

Rocky spoke to the Oxford Union back in June 2015 and last week, nearly two years later, a freestyle rap he performed during the lecture was shared online thousands of times.

Part of the reason why both of these stories have been so popular is that people are surprised that these artists would visit Oxford University, which is well-known for its world-leading choirs and classical musicians.

But many people living and studying in Oxford are not surprised – musical tastes and even the University’s music curriculum are changing all the time.

Since 2012, Oxford University has offered a course on global hip hop to first-year undergraduates at Oxford University. To date, nearly 400 students have passed the course.

Earlier this year, the Race and Resistance Programme in The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) hosted a lecture about the cultural value of hip hop.

The lecture hall was full as participants including a professor from Harvard University’s Hiphop Archive and Research Institute discussed the significance of hip hop’s rising popularity.

In his speech, ASAP Rocky said he was pleasantly surprised by what he found in Oxford.

‘‘When I was coming here, I expected to see a bunch of stiff, fancy schmancy people,’ he said.

‘You guys are fancy but you’re not stiff, you’re cool. To come to Oxford and to be walking around and you see people looking like hipsters, you see people who like hip hop, you see people who look kind of regular, who look like they don’t really care about what they wear.

‘It’s really diverse, and it shows the progress, man.’

We cannot confirm the rumour that ASAP Rocky is a devoted reader of Oxford University’s Arts Blog – possibly because we have only just started that rumour.

But in case Rocky is spending his Monday morning browsing this page, we want him to know he is welcome back here any time he wants.

Mona Leaser

It has been claimed that the new £1 coin is 'forgery proof'. But Martin Kemp, professor of the history of art at Oxford University and an expert in art forgeries, is sceptical.

'In theory, any technological efforts to prevent forgery can potentially be overcome,' he says. 'It's all very well to have technological means to detect forgeries – it’s very much another matter to detect them in all the billions of transactions.'

The Royal Mint has released a new 12-sided ‘counterfeit-proof’ £1 coin after an influx of fake round £1 coins into the UK.

Professor Kemp is not a coin expert, but when it comes to forgery he knows what he is talking about – he is perhaps the world expert in detecting forged Leonardo da Vinci paintings, having spent 50 years in what he calls the 'Leo business'.

'I get sent lots of dodgy Leonardos,' he says. 'One was a very clever forgery of a mechanical which was going to be sold in one of the major London auction houses.'

What happened after Professor Kemp unmasked the painting as a forgery? 'It's now gone underground,' he says mysteriously.

Professor Kemp says there is more of an incentive for conmen to forge money rather than art. 'The potential number of forged coins is huge and the returns massive,’ he says. ‘With works of art, the question is whether it is worth the effort, given the difficulty, time, skill and costs,' he says.

Nor is all art equally difficult to forge. Modern art is much easier than the Old Masters. 'Older paintings were elaborately-made, layered structures using historic materials - very different from modern ones,' he explains.

'The old materials can be replicated to a degree but it is hard to get round all the modern methods of scientific examination. It’s easier to fake a more recent painting - say a Russian abstract work in oil paint from 1914.'

Arts Blog accepts no responsibility for any readers who now try to flog a Russian abstract painting at Christie’s.

Levi Roots

Our answer to 'Dragons' Den'

Matt Pickles | 5 May 2017

At Arts Blog, we love the BBC show Dragons' Den.

But we have never seen a historian, a classicist or a linguist going up before the panel of dragons.

And believe us, we have watched a lot of Dragons' Den.

But that could be about to change, as Oxford University has announced its own pitching competition to find the most innovative and entrepreneurial ideas from staff and students in the faculties of the Humanities Division.

Unfortunately, candidates for the Humanities Innovation Challenge will not be offered £200,000 by Peter Jones or Deborah Meaden.

But the winner will receive £1,000 to launch the idea and £5,000 of in-kind support to help it to grow.

Last year, the first Humanities Innovation Challenge was won by a startup company which is bringing the Mexican superfood pinole to the UK.

Azure, which was founded by Dr Alexandra Littaye, believes pinole will be popular with Latin Americans living in Europe, the rapidly growing gluten-free market, and the sports nutrition market.

Second place went to MSt Creative Writing student Josephine Niala, who is looking to develop an app which trains people in the skills necessary to attract funding for local projects aimed at tackling climate change.

Third place went to another app – Hippo – developed by Michael Plant, a doctoral student in the Humanities Division. The app aims to help users tackle anxiety and depression.

The competition is a collaboration between Oxford University Innovation (OUI) and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). Staff and students are invited to apply for the scheme by Monday 8 May.