At Paul's Cathedral from the Whispering Gallery

St Paul’s and the Poets: bringing new audiences to historic buildings

Posted on 31 March 2017

What do you get when you mix five contemporary poets with one of the oldest and most recognisable landmarks in London? Donna McDowell, Head of Schools and Family Learning at St Paul’s found out, with help from NPO Poet in the City.

St Paul’s Cathedral with its iconic dome is a symbol of London. During the Blitz of WWII, Prime Minister Winston Churchill recognised the shattering blow it would be to London’s morale if it were to be destroyed. He ordered that it was to be protected at all costs – and it survived.

a real opportunity for me as a Londoner to delve into a bit of our history

In recent years however, this relationship has been challenged. In some ways this landmark has come to be seen as a place for tourism – and as an icon recognised for its presence in James Bond films and royal occasions – and not always as a place for the London community in the fullest possible sense. The Cathedral wanted Londoners to take ownership of its space and reclaim its history and purpose in society.

St Paul’s and the Poets

Donna McDowell, Head of Schools and Family Learning at St Paul’s reached out to NPO Poet in the City.

Poet in the City is a producer challenging the boundaries of live poetry, curating imaginative events and commissions which bring classic and contemporary work to life for new audiences. The two organisations had worked together before, and this time, Donna wanted Poet in the City to use its expertise in generating new audiences, in particular young people.

For this project, Poet in the City asked five contemporary poets to retell the story of St Paul’s Cathedral in their own words.

The poets were Kei Miller, Patience Agbabi, Anthony Anaxagorou, Deanna Rodger and Inua Ellams.

Anthony Anaxagorou performs a poem in St Paul's
Anthony Anaxagorou performs a poem in St Paul's. © Poet in the City, credit Graham Lacado

Ranging in age, style and audience-appeal, they would lift the lid on a cultural giant, reimagine its history and its place in the public imagination, and provide a new human layer between this great space and the London community.

Deanna Roger said of the project:

“It’s been really fascinating to lift the lid on this building. I grew up in London and came when I was eight years old, but I hadn’t been back since then, or even thought to come back. This has been a real opportunity for me as a Londoner to delve into a bit of our history and have a nosy about and reflect on it.”

Reaching out

It was important to both organisations to reach beyond the Cathedral’s typical audience and find those who might never have considered entering St Paul’s before. Poet in the City didn’t just use its existing database, it worked with grassroots poetry marketers to spread the word on social media, as well as finding a network of talent development organisations to spread the word.

It’s important to open the doors to people

The team also reached out to 30 young poets to ask for their advice and support in spreading the word. They discussed barriers to accessing London's iconic spaces and asked how poetry could be used to re-engage people, and how the event at St Paul's could create an opportunity to do this.

"We wanted to ensure that engagement with St Paul's did not start and stop with the event, and to create a deeper relationship which genuinely broke down barriers to access it was critical to involve the target audience in the process. We know that the most successful arts marketing to under 25s is peer-to-peer and therefore it was even more important to provide a meaningful opportunity for engagement with creative young people who would go and advocate for the event and help us to reach the large numbers we wanted."

A young crowd enjoys poetry in St Paul's
A young crowd enjoys the readings. © Poet in the City, credit Graham Lacado

Under the Skin

On 26 September 2016, around 2,000 people attended the event: Under the Skin, held right beneath the famous Dome.

the biggest audience the Cathedral had attracted where the Queen wasn't present

The five poems explored the spirituality of the whispering gallery, St Paul's as a place for civic debate throughout the ages, Florence Nightingale's powerful feminism, the St Paul's Watch and the historicisation of knowledge. They span first encounters and famous names, revolution and regeneration, and reconnected modern Londoners with the Cathedral.

According to Cathedral staff, it was "the biggest audience the Cathedral had attracted where the Queen wasn't present, other than Christmas!" At least 40% of these were under 25, 30% had never attended a poetry event before and 55% had never been to St Paul's. The main channels through which people heard about the event were word of mouth (42%), social media (34%) and eventbrite (8%).

87% were new to the Poet in the City database and 98% were new to the St Paul's database, demonstrating the organisation’s success in finding and bringing in an entirely new audience.

Poet Patience Agbabi performs at St Paul's
Poet Patience Agbabi reads her poem at St Pauls. © Poet in the City, credit Graham Lacado


The event had a lasting impact on those who attended: as a result 88% were likely to attend St Paul's again and 77% said the event had changed their perception of the Cathedral. 93% of the audience was more likely to attend poetry events in the future and 96% rated the event positively overall.

The partnership went even further, recognising this as a perfect opportunity to expand both of their catchments. Every audience member was given a voucher to return to the Cathedral for just £5, and bring a friend for a fiver as well. A beautiful online audio exhibition was created to host the poems, share information about the event and to help word spread even further. 

Poet Patience Agbabi said:

“I think a lot of people are in awe of buildings like this but a bit intimidated by them as well. It’s important to open the doors to enable people to actually see what’s inside. There is a lot here, and people don’t realise that.”

Poet in the City introduced the Cathedral to lots of youth poetry organisations and they are now working together. Some of the young poets who advised the project have set up their own projects as a result. Others are due to get involved in the next iteration of the Poet in the City Producers scheme, and will be delivering their own events and roundtables to inform the future of live poetry. 

Poets and presenters stand together in St Paul's
Poet in the City and St Paul's Cathedral staff enjoy the event. © Poet in the City, credit Graham Lacado.

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