Throughout the year Sensory Stories has highlighted high quality research, developed innovation in public engagement and demonstrated the commitment to excellence of its dedicated team. As the project’s formative phase ends, the organisers reflect on their achievements, favourite moments and lessons for the future.
From writing the initial bid for AHRC funding in June 2010, the project evolved rapidly to involve a multidiscipline team organising two key stages in the training of researchers in public engagement. The first of these was the hugely successful Training Day, at which over 60 postgraduates from across the north east attended workshops on handling objects, telling stories and using the media, and heard about current high-profile initiatives. This foundation was then used in the second phase of the project, taking research into the community through the Sensory Opportunities. These involved over 50 researchers and performers in events that have developed lasting connections with community and heritage partners, including York Art Gallery, Shandy Hall, St Oswald’s primary school, The Oaks residential home and York Museums Trust. More than 250 public participants have engaged with Sensory Stories events, encompassing an age range of 5-90 years. Public and academic responses to the achievements of the project have been tremendously positive, with interest ranging from university bodies to local press and international organisations. Throughout the project, the Sensory Stories blog has been the forum for highlighting activities, reflecting on events and providing inspiration. To date, the blog has registered more than 12,800 hits, reaching a daily peak of over 300 hits.
‘One of the highlights of the project for me has to be the Beyond the Frame: Sensory Stories at York Art Gallery day which took place in May 2011. In spite of the changeable weather we did manage to complete most of the day outside and draw in crowds. Jasmine
‘My favourite moment from the project was being able to enjoy Russell’s riveting storytelling at St Oswald’s primary school: it was clear that he had captured the children’s imaginations with vivid tales of the Viking gods and goddesses, and I learnt just as much as they did, having never studied Viking mythology and literature!’ Philippa
‘There have been so many brilliant moments, from witnessing research transformed into dance to seeing the culmination of everyone’s hard work for various Sensory Opportunities. I’ve been amazed by the number and quality of outputs, the variety of activities, and the sheer numbers of people involved over the course of the project. It has been an honour to work with such a talented, enthusiastic team.’ Claire
‘The project has definitely changed me as a researcher and has given me valuable experience of project management that I have not really encountered previously in my research career. In hindsight I would say that the committee was managed really well, which contributed to this. Everybody was given a chance to have a go at the different aspects of the project, from designing a logo, putting together formal correspondence, developing relationships with community partners and fellow academics to planning teaching and sessions and managing budgets of different sizes. As a result, I now feel much more confident in management roles on other research or teaching projects. In terms of my research, sensory aspects of my work have always been a consideration for me, and this project has helped me to find a practical place for this both within my PhD, and potentially in the future. Debates within archaeology still rage over the role of sensory perception in interpreting the past, which has made me shy away from a full on embrace with this aspect of my research and my thesis. However, this project has given me a legitimate way to follow these ideas and concepts in a useful way, and through a methodology that now has been endorsed by a major funding body. I have faced criticism in the past for my use of sensory perception in my research, but I now feel that I would have a much better approach to those questions if they resurface in the future.’ Ben
‘The project has certainly made me realise what can be achieved through successful working relationships with individuals in the Sensory Stories team and Humanities Research Centre at the University of York. I think it has probably increased my confidence, too. It was surprising to realise that people are interested in learning about academic research. During the course of this project I had some really interesting and useful conversations, which wouldn’t have taken place if I hadn’t become involved in Sensory Stories.‘ Jasmine
‘Sensory Stories has helped me to think about how to make my research accessible to a much wider audience. People are naturally fascinated by death, and its commodification has powerful resonances for contemporary society: issues such as rising funeral costs, or the controversial brokering of body parts in the United States, can open a dialogue that relates to versions of this practice in the Victorian era. So many of the researchers that I’ve talked to over the past year have been really passionate about bringing their research to new audiences and there is a strong sense that academics don’t want to be stuck in ivory towers anymore. I’m also planning to use the same techniques of object interaction and sensory appeal to stimulate dialogue in a roundtable discussion at a conference on ‘The Materials of Mourning: Death, Materiality and Memory in Victorian Britain’. On a personal level I feel that Sensory Stories has increased my confidence hugely: it has encouraged me to be more ambitious about project goals and to adopt creative, innovative approaches to get the job done.’ Claire
‘Working on Sensory Stories has made me realise that both public institutions, such as schools and museums, and the general public have a huge appetite for meeting postgraduate students and engaging with their research. Doing this within the framework of telling sensory stories, using (amongst other things) language, music, art, dance, gruel, and bones, has made it an incredibly fruitful experience, helping to convey the richness of our research and make tangible subjects as diverse as the Viking god Odin and Oliver Twist’s pathetic plea for more food in the workhouse.’ Philippa
‘I really enjoyed co-managing the Oaks project. Occasionally, the fact that Kate and myself work on different campuses did make aspects of this collaboration difficult, but I think it forced us both to improve our communication skills and practices and by the end of the project we had it nailed. Working with experienced participants is very different to working with people who are (like you) learning as they go. Initially, as responsibility for the project fell on Kate and myself, it was incredibly stressful for rehearsals and preparation to be taken out of our control. However, we had to learn to trust experienced performers who had put together pieces like this many times before and often with less time on their hands. It was an odd position to be in, holding responsibility but also being inexperienced in organising something like this, but I think it was a definite skill and that I gained. Also, the process of forging new links with community partners has been really interesting for me, and it would seem a shame for future participants or committee members to miss out on this. I feel that this is a real skill in itself, and something that I would definitely refer to in future job applications and interviews. If the project was to concentrate on the existing links forged this year in the future, the university would miss out on the opportunity for the project to continue to expand.’ Ben
‘My tip to future organisers would be to never underestimate the University’s connections with external organisations – they are invaluable.’ Jasmine
‘I think that it would be difficult to replicate the project exactly as so much of its success has been due to the huge creativity, enthusiasm and hundreds of hours of hard work put in by the committee members. We were also lucky to have worked with some amazing community partners and talented students from this institution and elsewhere. I’d advise careful time management and advocate constructing a pedantically detailed ‘master plan’ to help large events run smoothly. That said, another thing that Sensory Stories has taught me is the importance of simplicity and flexibility. Be prepared to adapt to make the most of your resources and if it is ever possible to simplify something do it!’ Claire
‘I would advise anyone who is hoping to work with a school to ensure that they plan their talk or workshop well in advance, including the specific subject matter to be covered, so that the teachers with whom they are liaising have a clear idea of what will be happening and when, and can advise on practicalities, from the suitability of the content of the proposed event to the necessities of parental permission if you wish to take photographs of the children for a blog or newspaper report.’ Philippa