Below are examples of how aspects of research can be brought to life using the Sensory Stories model.
Sensory spectacle in medieval Europe: a feast fit for a king
A study of display and spectacle in the Middle Ages reveals a genuine insight into the sensory experiences of Europe’s elite. Laura Chesworth, PhD History
For princes and dukes in the Middle Ages the issues of power and authority were paramount, and conveying their status to their peers was no less important. Extravagant displays of grandeur were not uncommon as they enabled noblemen to demonstrate the extent of their wealth and power in a visual and immediate way. Little physical evidence of these spectacular events remains, however I recently read an account of a great feast which was so vivid that the event seemed to jump off the page and I could imagine the smells, tastes, sights and sounds of the spectacle.
This account described the wedding feast of the illustrious Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, and it was a perfect example of how medieval noblemen could use spectacle to display their magnificence. This was a wedding celebration without equal; it included not one but six banquets, several plays, ten days of jousting and is estimated to have cost in excess of £60,000. No opportunity was missed to showcase Charles’ power; even the food was shaped like ducal castles, towns and lordships. His insignia was emblazoned onto the food and decorations and various ducal symbols were on display at every turn. Within the noble audience there can have been no doubt as to the power and wealth of their ducal host.
By recreating certain aspects of this event, such as the food or some of the entertainment, it would be possible to gain, through a sensory experience, a real appreciation of the world of the very rich in medieval Europe. It would not only demonstrate what they ate and how they would have been entertained, but it would bring to life the symbols of authority and give us an insight into the dynamics of these powerful networks.
People and animals in the Mesolithic: transformed through dance
A collaborative project between archaeolgists, contemporary dancers and Enkyad Heritage Media has been presenting complex theoretical interpretations of Mesolithic artefacts through alternative mediums. Ben Elliott, PhD Archaeology
I specialise in the treatment of prehistoric antler artefacts, and the way in which the perception of specific animals may affect the significance that these finished objects held. In order to get a feel for the individual peculiarities and character of the species I study, I have found it useful to observe them at Fountains Abbey, Ripon, to appreciate the ways in which people may have experienced and encountered these animals in the past.
Some of the most interesting artefacts I deal with come from the site of Star Carr, where a series of 21 red deer headdresses have been found. Interpretations of these objects have varied, the most recent of which involve the use of headdresses as tools for the corporeal transformation of the body, blurring the lines between people and animals.
I have been working with Holly Clarkson and Heather Tosh from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, who have been involved in a project looking to tell archaeological narratives through alternative mediums. Due to the physical, bodily nature of recent scholarship, it seems prudent to examine the character of red deer movement, to convey ideas of human/animal transformation through dance.
Holly and Heather noticed the links between the walking patterns of red deer and their skeletal structure, and considered the ways in which deer movements could be replicated within the limitations of the human form. The “homolateral” walk (where hind limbs move in tandem with forelimbs) contrasts with the “cross-lateral” walk of humans (where the hind limbs move in opposition to the forelimbs). This difference was used to create the effect of transformation within the dance.
Heather and Holly identified the weight of a red deer stag’s antlers as a key part of imitating their movement. As well as the affect that antlers have on peripheral vision, the dance had to factor for huge weight of the antlers, and reflect this through shoulder and neck posture. The positioning of the eyes on the side of the deer’s skull also inspired the dancers to replicate the characteristic head movements which allow deer to observe their surroundings. This was also combined with the knowledge of the red deer’s keen sense of hearing, which Heather and Holly used to create much more considered and direct head movements, initiated by sounds.
The results of this project are yet to be fully realised, however the collaborative work that has been undertaken so far has been successful in telling one particular story of the Star Carr frontlets, through an unorthodox and sensory medium.
Researching the city’s buildings means the streets themselves can become case studies. Matt Jenkins, PhD Archaeology
My research looks at housing in York during the eighteenth century and aims to engage people with the buildings and streets that they walk past all the time. These everyday objects are often disregarded, either ignored in the rush to get from A to B or seen as simply the location of a coffee shop, mobile phone shop or a pizza joint. Visitors often picture York in terms of its Viking, Roman or medieval past, yet these Georgian buildings also have stories to tell. They can have a powerful resonance with contemporary people’s own lives. It can sometimes be difficult to relate to aspects of the past such as high politics and broad historical processes, but these intimate connections can be more tangible, particularly in the town or city that one lives in. This is where the biographical approach can be particularly effective as it links buildings with known individuals, allowing the exploration of how both house and owner influenced each other. Houses stop being just impassive frontages but acquire names and faces, with the changes and adaptations able to be traced in the standing fabric. This can lead people to having a different attitude to their own homes or those they visit – to see it as not just something to be admired or in need of redecoration but as a record of how individuals lived in the past, even if it is the very recent past.
Several of York’s streets also benefit from the hand-drawn maps of Dr William White that were made in the 1780s. These show the names of individuals and their shops or businesses, and a number of these can be linked to buildings that are still standing. This can be seen by taking a walk down Castlegate towards Clifford’s Tower. On the left you can still see the house of William Tuke, Quaker and philanthropist, whose shop was called the Tea Tub. Further down is an apothecary’s shop and the large house of its owner George Ewbank. Yet these lesser gentry residences were also across the street from the three Water Lanes, which were mainly comprised of timber-framed buildings and housed some of the poorest inhabitants in the city. This gave the street a very mixed character of both architectural styles and social makeup, allowing the street to be seen as a vibrant neighbourhood and engaging us with the fascination of who was living next to whom.
Experience beyond the image
Art is in the image and its surroundings, making an exhibition a sensory experience in every era. Jasmine Allen, PhD Art History
Art historians sometimes forget that encountering an art object, a building or a landscaped garden is always going to be a sensory experience. Whether we circumnavigate a sculptural bust on a plinth in a whitewashed art gallery, stand under the lofty lantern tower in the transept crossing of York Minster, or amble through the gardens of Castle Howard on a Sunday afternoon, besides interpreting what we see, what we hear, smell, what we want to touch/can’t touch/are prevented from touching all contributes to our overall experience of the art object and its environment.
I want to make sure that my research into the displays of stained glass at the nineteenth-century international exhibitions includes an interpretation of the sensory experiences a visitor might have encountered while wandering through a gallery of contemporary stained glass panels in a range of shapes, sizes, of different subjects and painting styles from all over the world. Although I spend time interpreting these panels as individual works of art, it is important to think about them in their exhibition context, i.e. in the temporary constructions they were housed in on the exhibition site, and in relation to one another and other displays. Would the admirer of the gallery of stained glass on the first floor of the Crystal Palace in 1851 be flooded in too much light from all sides of the glass building? How did the general noise, hustle and bustle of the Great Exhibition, and the smells from the dining room below affect their viewing experience? One of the risks of historical interpretation is that the original sensory experience of the materiality of the artwork and its surrounding space can get lost. It is our job to ensure that sensory encounters are not forgotten, but considered alongside the visual and historical.
Bringing to life medieval images long since destroyed can be the essence of sharing research and developing a new understanding of communal spaces. Philippa Turner, PhD Art History
My research examines images of saints in four English cathedrals during the late medieval period. Most of the images were destroyed during the Reformation, and there is now little trace of them in the cathedrals – so how can you tell a sensory story about objects that no longer exist, and which few people realise were there in the first place?
My answer is to try to recreate one, even if it is out of paper mâché, using all those skills I learnt watching Blue Peter as a child. Following a description of an image given in a textual source, or using a photograph of a surviving image, making a replica, painting and decorating it would bring the past back to life. It could be used in a museum setting, where surviving images are often damaged and have lost their paint, in conjunction with textual descriptions and photographs to tell the story of images: how they were made, what they looked like and how they were used. This would demonstrate the impact a three dimensional painted image would have in a medieval cathedral and, by describing what images were in a particular cathedral, encourage reflection on how different a building it would be with so many images like the replica forming major parts of its decoration.
A gruelling restoration of context for Dickens’s Oliver Twist
When people think of Dickens, if they think of Dickens at all, the images they conjure are often of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist ‘asking for more’. This image, originally created by George Cruikshank and endlessly replicated in the adaptations that followed, has lost the powerful, emotive charge that it once had.
By making a batch of authentic workhouse gruel and asking people to taste it, it is possible to create a moment of historical connection over 170 years later.
What is the flavour and texture like?
Is it satisfying?
How does it compare with what you eat day-to-day?
Then, thinking more empathetically:
What if this was all you had to eat, everyday, in a portion smaller than this one?
Think about the monotony, the hunger from lack of solids, the lack of vitamins…
This was the diet of thousands of paupers after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act made workhouse conditions punitive: it’s one of the main abuses that Dickens targets in the opening chapters of his novel.
This exercise demonstrates how different life was for the Victorian poor. Simultaneously, by using empathetic thinking and the direct interface of the body, we gain a better appreciation of the context from which Dickens writes. The familiarity of Cruikshank’s iconic, now almost comic scene is given renewed pathos when we think about the tragedy of Oliver asking for more of this disgusting stuff.