Although Sensory Stories is now finished, many of its guiding principles–such as bringing together the university and the community, and finding innovative ways to present research–are being taken forward by exciting new projects. The York Festival of Ideas has a packed programme of events running between 14-30 June, and as part of this the postgraduate project Off the Page will be hosting a Dickens recording booth on 23 June in the Ron Cooke hub. To find out more, check out their blog.
Tags: collaboration, legacies, public engagement, University of York
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
We’re keen for the project to continue by offering a new generation of postgraduates the chance to become involved in Sensory Opportunities. If you are interested in learning about how to communicate with audiences using the senses–taste, touch, smell, sound, sight–object-interaction and performance techniques, please join us in the Treehouse on Week 9 Thursday 11am, 8 December.
Alongside the opportunity to indulge in a personal sensory story with delicious cakes and freshly-brewed coffee, the team will give a short presentation about what the different Sensory Opportunities involved, and be there to chat with students about how they can develop their own activities with our existing community and heritage partners. We’re hoping to help form a new committee to take sensory public engagement forward. All are welcome, and just for once we promise there won’t be any gruel!
Tags: AHRC, Beacons, NCCPE, student-led projects
An astounding range of public engagement projects were showcased last month at the landmark event, ‘Public Engagement in the Arts and Humanities: an AHRC conference’. Claire finds out more.
Held at Avonmouth House, London, the first day of the event brought together those that have spent the past year working on different AHRC-funded Collaborative Research Training (CRT) Schemes. There were representatives from projects in the specialist category (broader two-year projects, organised by academics) and other student-led ventures like Sensory Stories. One of the most exciting parts was meeting the co-ordinators of different student projects, and having the opportunity to share our successes and challenges. The schemes were remarkable in their diversity. Write Around the Toon supported students in short creative writing residencies at sixteen cultural institutions within the Newcastle-Gateshead area, whereas PEACE combined a training workshop with the chance to trial engagement activities at the Green Man Festival. New Media and Academia offered vital training in how to create podcasts, videos and a YouTube channel, culminating in participants filming two minute videos about their research. PEGS (Public Engagement in Gender and Sexuality Studies) ran an event ‘demystifying’ public engagement. Each project was unique, yet at the same time I was struck by the similarities between our approaches. Many of us had collaborated with creative practitioners, sought out heritage and community partners, and drawn upon Web 2.0 resources to reach wider audiences. In a discussion session we compared our experiences, pinpointing the crucial role of mentoring, the need to share best practice, and the difficulties of building in sustainability.
The second day was a larger event, which explored the strategic and practical challenges of public engagement for academics, researchers and professionals working in the arts and humanities. Professor Sarah Churchwell gave a rousing keynote, in which she stressed the need for academics to become ‘advocates’ or ‘ambassadors’ for research, starting conversations that bridge the gap between the ‘ivory tower’ and the ‘real world’. Professor Churchwell used the analogy of research being a foreign language that needs to be translated back into English: this makes the work accessible without compromising its rigour. Dr Sarah Spooner and Michael Loveday used their experience of working on the HistOracle project to lead into a discussion of the challenges and opportunities of community engagement, while Sophie Duncan spoke about how the Beacons had worked to create a culture the recognises and supports public engagement. The findings of the AHRC’s 2011 public engagement survey offered a broader picture of outreach activities across the humanities: the most popular engagement method remained the public lecture, but over 50 per cent of respondents recorded working with schools and museums. The conference also included an announcement of the AHRC’s call on Skills Development and Research for Community Heritage.
It was wonderful to be able to present the Sensory Stories project to new audiences on both days. Their questions and feedback confirmed my sense of the immense value of all our hard work over the past year, while the cutting-edge projects that I learnt about suggest a bright future for public engagement.
Tags: conference, impact, public engagement
Matt took Sensory Stories international in September, visiting the United States to attend the Imagining America 2011 national conference.
Imagining America is the leading organisation for public engagement in North America and it was therefore very exciting to be given the opportunity to attend their national conference in Minneapolis. The main aim of attending was to present the work of Sensory Stories and to share both our approaches and the details of the Sensory Opportunities that we had developed. The work of the project was very well received, both in the formal poster presentation session and in informal chats during practically every coffee and lunch break. Other delegates were very interested in our work, primarily I think for two reasons. Firstly for the range of techniques we were using within one project (storytelling/narratives, oral history, object interaction, dance, to name but a few) and also how we were using these methods to illuminate research from traditional academic disciplines. In the United States there is an emphasis on public engagement as a tool for social justice and also to engage with more modern work (such as contemporary literature, contemporary history and social policy). Our project was therefore something that was new and different.
The conference also allowed me to discover the exciting developments in public engagement within the United States and to discover a host of fascinating projects. Several themes emerged, in particular the rising use of technology as an aid to sharing our research stories with the public. This included oral histories shared via YouTube and also the recurrent use of maps to inform people, recreate the past and to connect communities together. One project in this regard stood out and this was an app for iPhone and iPad based around Iowa City as a UNESCO city of literature. It offers maps of the city embedded with information about the featured literary figures, allowing the user to be their own guide but also locating the user in physical space as they move around the city. The conference also highlighted that American academics were struggling with many of the same concerns as we are, particularly wrestling with the idea of rigour and how public engagement work could be rigorous. Many recognized that rigour was an important part of university research but believed that it could be articulated more broadly to allow for public engagement projects to be recognized. All in all, the trip was a tremendous experience that allowed me to share the work of Sensory Stories with an international audience and to learn much about how others have been telling their research stories.
Tags: collaboration, public engagement, University of York, Yorkshire Museum
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.
Tags: Community, Contemporary dance, public engagement
Music, dance and memories came together at York’s The Oaks care home this summer as Sensory Stories demonstrated the power of performance in the community.
The final performance of the Sensory Opportunity took place in June at the Oaks, in New Earswick, to a rapturous reception from an audience of residents, carers, relatives and project participants. The event involved three dances choreographed around residents’ life stories, specially composed music and talks, and brought together people of all ages, including professional carers, local schools and University of York students. The project was months in the planning, as Opportunity directors, Kate Compton and Ben Elliott, explain.
‘The process began when we met with Karen Davidson and Carol Raper from The Oaks to discuss the possibility of working with some of the residents living with dementia, way back in January. From this meeting, the seed of a project was designed, which would look to conduct oral history interviews with a small group of residents to document and record some of their favourite stories and anecdotes. These recordings would then be used as a stimulus for a range of different performance groups, based at the University of York. The final products of this process would then be rehearsed and performed back to an audience of residents at The Oaks itself, which would include the original storytellers, their carers, families and friends.
‘Once the project design had been approved by the University Ethics Committee, we organised an oral history interview techniques training session with the help of Dr Geoff Wall, a specialist in oral history from the Department of English and Related Literature. This was delivered to a group of postgraduate students, and three interviewers were subsequently selected for the task of documenting the Oaks residents’ stories. Meanwhile, at the home, Carol and Karen were busy recruiting three volunteers for the project: Harold Otter, a retired academic; Muriel Kelly, a former nurse and Chris Watson, an ex-policeman and York tour guide. The interviews themselves were then conducted by the York students, in the presence of the carers and project directors. These were a tremendous success, with the residents feeling comfortable enough to tell us a range of fascinating tales which left most of our jaws on the floor!
‘Following the interviews, the directors then set a date for a “Reflection” seminar – a chance for various creative performers to come together and brainstorm ideas for the different ways in which these stories could provide inspiration for performance. Representatives from the Dance Society, Music Department, Community Music MA and local freelance dance artist Holly Clarkson participated in discussions alongside the project directors, Professor Jane Moody, the original interviewers and oral history training seminar attendees. This again was an immensely enjoyable and stimulating afternoon, with many new connections forged between creative performers from all corners of the university community. As ideas began to take shape, groups of interested performers emerged together to take responsibility for the mini-projects, each under the supervision and management of the original oral history trained postgraduates. This collaboration helped create interesting work in itself, but also gave the participants a new level of experience and enrichment.
‘After weeks of rehearsal and development, the music had been composed and recorded, dancers recruited, sequences choreographed, costumes designed and props arranged for the big day. One group had utilised their own personal connections to enlist the help of three pupils at the York Steiner School: Mary-Jane Hopkins, Katie Murphy and Mia Shepherd. All the performances were enthusiastically received by the residents, and many lingered long after the final curtain had fallen to talk to the performers and directors and to express their thanks. This led to some touching scenes as people from a variety of different backgrounds bridged the generation gap to share in their enthusiasm for the project.
‘The daughter of one of the storytellers, Elaine Otter, told us she felt that the day had helped to raise other residents interest in her father’s life, and that Harold had really appreciated the time spent meeting new people during the oral history interview. She also noted that the project was a great way of providing stimulation for the entire residential community, and that the format could be used elsewhere in other care homes. Other audience members expressed a real interest in the creative process behind the performances, and were keen to suggest a follow-up session for the various performers to return to the home and discuss the thinking behind the pieces. This was a particularly rewarding aspect of the project, as it hinted at the germination of a new relationship between the University of York and partners within the local community.’
‘Afterwards for me was when the whole project came to completion, particularly when Elaine showed the children Harold’s photo album and they spoke together about other parts of his life as they looked at the photos. In doing this project people from totally opposite ends of the life line were brought together seamlessly. The girls were fascinated by Harold’s life and were eager to meet him with genuine curiosity.’
Holly Clarkson (freelance dance artist)
‘As a musician, I think Sensory Stories has helped develop my confidence with multimedia projects. Seeing Holly break down and lead creative dance elements was really interesting to watch, and Jon’s soundscape idea was so simple but effective. With a bit of practice with the technology I would definitely use this idea in future projects.’
Dyzelle Sutherland (Community Music MA)