Culture24's Sports Casual Guide to the Cultural Olympiad 2012

By Culture24 Reporter | 22 June 2012 | Updated: 23 June 2012
a screenshot of floating, glittery Olympic rings.
Confused by the Cultural Olympiad? Read on to navigate your way through this summer's cultural response to the 2012 London Olympics.
Panagiotis Soutsos, the romantic poet whose Dialogue of the Dead is said to have inspired the Olympic Games as we know them, could be lauded as the original link between the Games and culture.

Two centuries on, the modern day equivalent, the Cultural Olympiad, has been unleashed and billed as the "largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements".

Whatever your take on it all, there are loads of high-profile, frequently great cultural campaigns happening because of the Games. Organisers say more than 25,000 leading artists from over 200 countries are taking part in 12,000 events and performances at 900 venues all over the UK, including 130 world premieres and 85 UK premieres.

So how will sporting daytrippers know where to head, and how can gallery wanderers navigate the whirl of exhibitions, programmes and commissions spiralling from the Olympiad masterplan?

Let's take a look at the Olympiad myriad...

London 2012 Festival

a still from an operatic performance
Damon Albarn's Dr Dee is among the cultural spectacles lined up for the London 2012 Festival, which reaches well beyond the capital...
This is the daddy, the flagship cultural programme of cultural events for the Games and the best thing to do to get your head around it all is forget the "London" bit in the title. Because, as it turns out, it's UK-wide...

The dizzying array of events popping up the length and breadth of the country includes massive stagecraft spectaculars with giant puppets; collosal boats sailing through town centres; pop stars doing operas; TV comics popping up in cultural venues and major museum and gallery exhibitions proudly flying the London 2012 Festival/Cultural Olympiad flag.

The place to start wading through it all is of course the official website (link above), which has full listings and booking details for it all.

Alternatively, try the BBC's London 2012 Festival website, which has even more events happening during the festival period of June 21 - September 9.

Artists Taking the Lead

a photo of layered lacquered wood in all colours and shapes incorporating guitars and walking sticks
The South East's Olympiad public art project is a sailing boat made from wooden objects donated by the public.© Courtesy Lone Twin
From an open call for applications which drew hundreds of wannabes eager to grab a £500,000 public art commission in nine UK regions (plus Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales), the winners of this project have proved pretty diverse.

With the accent on community participation, Lone Twin are sailing the south coast in a boat made of public donations and bus stops across London have been turned into illuminated canvasses for public art.

Other projects encompass hand-crocheted 30-foot lions in a taxidermy case touring Nottinghamshire, The Quay Brothers turning urban Yorkshire into a place of myth and fantasy; a full-size football pitch in a forest in Scotland, and a "mobile art space" made from the wreck of a plane which will be hauled around Wales.

Discovering Places

a photo of an insect in a dish
Discovering Places includes British insect recording programmes like the Oxford Bioblitz.© Courtesy Discovering Places
This is the hands-on, workshoppy section of the Olympiad with various programmes encouraging us to get out and discover our green and pleasant land.

Events confirmed on the website include Matin Creed's country-wide bell-ringing ceremony on the morning of July 27 to mark the start of the Olympics and Meet the Species, a "challenge" to find 2,012 species in a scheme backed by the Open University, Natural England and a range of environmental agencies.

Another Discovering Places project called Walk the World can be explored at, and is full of beautiful walks and inspirational heritage places to see in the UK that have links to countries across the globe.

Film Nation

a film still animation of two paper figures running across an open book with a pop up city skyline
Paper Athlete by Imchez is one of hudreds of films sent into Film Nation.
© Courtesy Film Nation/Imchez
This is all about getting youngsters into film and, by the looks of the website, they are grabbing the chance with both hands.

Anyone aged 14-25 can enter a film for Olympic-themed categories such as friendship, respect and inspiration, and by the time our heroes are pelting down the tracks each film could be playing somewhere in the stadium.

Each film can be seen and voted for at, where there are also details of a few workshops taking place nationally and tips and question and answer sessions with some expert advisers including David Walliams and Matt Lucas, Ralf Little and Sir Ian McKellen.

Legacy Trust UK

A photo of people standing on a projection onto a paved pedestrian area
The Legacy Trust is trying to make sure the Olympics leaves a lasting cultural and sporting legacy.© Courtesy The Legacy Trust
A "principal funder" of the Olympiad, this strand aims to leave a lasting impression and a cultural and sporting legacy we'll all (hopefully) still be enjoying in all regions and countries of the UK by the time of the next Olympics.

Much of the work has been happening in earnest during the past few years. Musicals, film screenings, dance workshops, festivals and more have been held across Northern Ireland.

In Nottingham, three years of fun and games held by the Igniting Ambition group will culminate in the World Event Young Artist this year, featuring 1,000 emerging artists from more than 50 countries. Visit for details of other regions to look out for.

Stories of the World

a photo of a carved wooden sculpture of a tribesman riding a stylised fish
The Young Voices project at Brighton Museum has seen youngsters curate a new gallery for the world art collection.© Brighton & Hove City Council
There are some wonderful exhibitions as part of Stories of the World, which has seen young people work with museums and galleries to produce exhibitions with a world theme. 

Global Threads at the Whitworth Gallery weaves the history of cotton within work by contemporary artists and the gallery's own impressive textile collection, Fears, Foes and Faeries is a "a bizarre and beguiling collection" at Scarborough Art Gallery.

Captain Cook's Polynesian legacy is revealed at the Dorman in Middlesbrough and the Imperial tombs of the Han Dynasty are peered into at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge.

An exhibition from the Chinese National Silk Museum arrives at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, and the Great North Museum allows precocious curators to take over ("what happens when young people create an exhibition about world culture? We don’t know yet!"). In Brighton, the Museum's World Art Collection has been re-imagined by local schoolchildren who have helped to fashion a new permanent art gallery. 

Still confused? How about a region-by-region guide?

Arts Council England has produced a series of handy PDF's detailing English regional Cultural Olympiad events and happenings:

The East of England
The East Midlands
The North East
The North West
The South East
The South West
The West Midlands
Yorkshire and Humber

  • Follow Culture24 for more Cultural Olympiad 2012 coverage throughout the summer and see Culture24 listings for more cultural things to do during the Olympiad Year.
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