Jo Coupe at Durham Castle


Project Info


  • Jo Coupe

Art Forms

  • Performance


  • Durham Castle
  • Arts&Heritage
  • Arts Council England’s Museum Resilience Fund

Project Outline

The project is part of the Meeting Point programme.

Jo Coupe’s work emerges from a fascination with transience and decay and encompasses small objects to photography, video and sound. Vital Signs was created by artist Jo Coupe who used data from the castle, such as visitor numbers, relative humidity and temperature readings, to compose a musical score which was played on a selection of medieval percussion instruments.

Curator at Durham Castle, Gemma Lewis, explained:

“Durham Castle is nearly a 1000 years old, but it’s not like so many other castles and museums frozen in time – it is a living castle where spaces like the kitchen and chapel have been used for the original purposes for hundreds of years. Today it’s also the home to University College, the oldest of Durham University’s colleges, and has over 1000 students associated with the building and over 100 actually living in the Castle. All this makes for interesting fluctuations in the data Jo has been looking at. Jo has used some of the data that is collected here at the castle – such as temperature readings and even the amount of post that we receive – and translated it into several pieces of music which people will be able to hear performed at a live event in the castle’s beautiful Great Hall.”

Jo Coupe worked with percussionist and composer Brendan Murphy and three other musicians, who were hand-picked for their ability to play instruments similar to those which might have been played at the castle many hundreds of years ago.

The instruments which were used in the performance include a variety of frame drums made with wood and animal hide, a riq or timbrel which is an early tambourine, tuned bells and cow bones played like spoons. The various fluctuations which can be heard in the music reflect all sorts of activities and changes in conditions in the building.

“By using medieval percussion instruments I hope to create a connection between the building today and the sounds that might have been heard here in its earliest life,” Jo Coupe.


  • To reveal and explore the environmental and conservation mechanisms which maintain a historic site
  • To engage with the Building and Services department of a historic site


Arts&Heritage supported the nine participating museums throughout the process, sharing knowledge of presenting contemporary art projects and commissions in non-traditional art spaces.

A networking event between the participating museums and 40 artists from across the UK took place at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and visits to artists’ studios were arranged. Museum teams also met with peers at other properties to learn how they successfully delivered contemporary art projects at their museums and heritage sites.

All museums developed their own Artist’s Brief. Following the networking event artists were invited to send in an expression of interest to museums that interested them.

Three artists were shortlisted by each museum to draw up a more detailed proposal and were paid £500 each.

The Artist

Jo Coupe (b. 1975, Stoke on Trent) studied at Newcastle University and Goldsmiths College and now lives and works in Gateshead, UK. Temporary commissions have included: Crystalline Energy for Rio Tinto Alcan (Ashington, UK); Rarified for Tatton Park Biennial, Tatton Park, Cheshire) and Fruitbody for Locus + (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK). Solo and group exhibitions have included: The Ashes of Other Elements, Workplace Gallery, Gateshead; A Distance between Two Points, Airspace Gallery, Stoke on Trent; You shall know our Velocity, BALTIC, Gateshead, UK; Pertaining to things Natural, Chelsea Physic Garden, London, UK; Satellite Satellite, Workplace Gallery, London and A Foreign Encounter, Gallerie FOE (Munich, Germany). She has work in several public and private collections and is represented by Workplace Gallery, Gateshead.

See Jo’s profile on Workplace Gallery’s website