New research and exciting ideas on public engagement came together to bring artefacts to life this summer at the final Sensory Opportunity. Eight volunteers from universities across the north-east took to the Yorkshire Museum‘s galleries on Sunday 26 June as part of the York Festival of Ideas, working closely with York Museums Trust colleagues to develop an innovative and hugely successful day of events.
Training and Preparation
The project began early in February 2011 when the enthusiastic volunteers attended a workshop at the Yorkshire Museum, the object of which was to ‘Find a Sensory Story’ from among their artefacts. Our wider aim in conceiving this project was to break down the barriers between the public and the museum collections, not only by allowing visitors to handle the objects themselves, but also by telling stories through the artefacts to really engage their interest. With the aid of Martin Watts, the Director of Knowledge and Learning at the York Museums Trust, the project really started to come to life and students began to see the potential of using ‘everyday’ objects such as a Roman Hair Ring, spinning tools and even a Viking ice-skate for their Sensory Stories.
Following several months of development, the team came together again at the Castle Museum to pitch their ideas to Martin and to gain further training on handling the objects themselves and on public engagement within the museum. By the end of this session each of the four small groups of volunteers had ambitious plans and clear ideas of what they wanted to achieve.
The grand finale of the project was a full day of engagement in and around the Yorkshire Museum. This formed part of University Sunday, bringing the Festival of Ideas into public spaces in the city centre. Volunteers from the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past (IPUP) used the space in the Museum Gardens to exhibit the colourful history of the gardens themselves as well as the buildings and wildlife within that space, while the Sensory Stories team set up camp within the museum itself. On such a glorious, sunny day the gardens were teeming with visitors, keen to learn more about the space and the museum.
Harnessing their creativity, James Jarvis, Megan Leyland and Emma McGrory produced several performances based on Viking tales and the Dragon Carving Stone from the museum. Throughout the morning their performance took place in the museum’s teaching rooms a steady stream of visitors were enraptured by the stories and keen to examine and touch the stone. After lunch, with beautiful weather outside, the decision was taken to move their tales into the Museum Gardens, just in front of the museum. This proved a great move, as they were soon attracting large groups made up of people from all ages and they had to increase the number of performances. This was a real success, both the visitors and the performers seemed to be having a great time and it helped draw visitors into the museum and to our other activities.
In another teaching room, Rachael Whitbread was using her PhD research on medieval heraldry as part of an arts and crafts activity: ‘Create your own Coat-of-Arms’. This activity was a huge hit with children who visited the museum. Encouraging the children to base their shields on medieval models and include things that were important to them, she witnessed a wide variety of themes emerging. The first participant, a five year-old girl, decorated her shield with things she loved best, with her brother and sister taking precedence. One little boy took a completely different approach and opted for a shield which only featured Scooby Doo. Parents were kept entertained by the various books on the history of crests and one girl, having studied the material herself, surprised her mother by insisting that only the Royal Coat-of-Arms of France would do! The best part for most of the participants was the fact that Rachael then turned their crests into shields, which they could be seen sporting long after they left the museum.
Based in the medieval gallery, Susan Mason used her own research on illuminated manuscripts to draw attention to how these works were produced. She had at her disposal various tools that would have been used in the production of manuscripts as well as some excellent pictures, featuring mythical animals, from some of the works she studies. This activity proved particularly popular with adults visiting the museum, as they tried to work out what the various tools would have been used for and thought about the enormity of the task that would have been involved in manuscript production. Perhaps the most surprising visitors of the day were two insightful young girls who were able to deduce the use of almost every object and seemed hungry for more information about manuscripts. Susan also raised wider questions about manuscript use during the medieval period and why texts contained such vivid pictures, which gave her participants real food for thought.
Our final group of volunteers ran a ‘Mystery Objects’ activity, which placed their artefacts (a Viking ice-skate, a Roman hair ring and some spinning tools) among everyday objects, which they themselves had brought in and which, in some way, resembled their museum objects. Helen Kingstone, Lucy Brown and Jean Price had created an activity which enabled visitors to really get to grips with the objects by handling them and trying to work out what they were, using the modern day objects as their guide. At first visitors seemed excited to handle the objects but tentative in their guessing, when the volunteers got involved and asked some probing questions, they started to make good guesses and really started to think about what materials the objects were made from and what they might have been used for, they were often surprised by the answer.
After months of hard work from the volunteers, the culmination of the York Museums Trust Opportunity was a great success. As researchers, our volunteers were able to get a fresh perspective on their work, through the searching and unexpected questions of participants. Many visitors were surprised that they were able to handle museum artefacts and thrilled that this boundary had been broken down and that they had been able to gain a greater appreciation for even a small range of the museum’s vast collections. Visitors left feeling that they had genuinely been able to interact with the museum and its collections, and a select few even left with their own personal shields.