Britten’s Poets

For an exhibition on British composer Benjamin Britten’s use of poetry in his works, the Britten-Pears Foundation as asked me to look at this topic from a data-driven perspective.

Britten’s Poets is an interactive visualisation that maps poets’ lives against appearances of their works in Britten’s compositions. As part of the exhibition at the Red House in Aldeburgh (UK) we also produced a narrated screencast of the visualisation, which is now accessible online.

In anticipation of the exhibition, curators at the Britten-Pears archive wanted to get a sense of Britten’s taste in poets. Who are his preferred writers? What are his favourite time-periods? Which poets did he favour at what age and are there poets he was fond of throughout his working live? They tried to get to answers by putting the data into Microsoft Excel, but quickly reached the limits of the spreadsheet and the available diagram formats. That’s when they approached me to develop a custom tool.
The final visualisation was well received both by the exhibition visitors, as well as by the curators who were able to gain novel insights into Britten’s use of poets.

Together with the curators we drafted a set of questions that they wanted the visualisation to answer. Based on these requirements I began to make sketches, looking for a diagram format that is able to answer most – if not all – of them.

Analysing this data also meant comparing vastly different timeframes: the life time of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and those of the poets, ranging from Sophocles (400BC) to contemporary writers. I experimented with different ways of comparing and navigating time scales using interactive prototypes. These experimented resulted in a reusable timeline layout that is designed to allow a single dataset to be examined based on multiple temporal perspectives and across different timeframes.