Working committee

Claire Wood, Project Leader
Department of English and Related Literature

I came to Sensory Stories with a long-standing interest in objects and how they can enliven texts and contexts. My research looks at moments in Victorian fiction where death is commercialised, and particularly at the unusual “things” that materialise decease, from coffin-shaped snuff boxes, to stuffed animals and hair jewellery. I remember being at a conference where someone had brought a beautiful, heavily-beaded mourning cape. When I held it I was struck by its weight and the discomfort it must have caused the wearer. Partly they were choosing to suffer for fashion, but in another way the emotion of being “weighed down” by grief was supported by the garment. I became fascinated by the idea of how recreating a bodily experience could develop understanding of an historical text or situation, and started to use these techniques in my teaching practice. I’m thrilled to be involved in developing this project and excited to see how other students will interpret their research as a sensory story.

Carolyn Donohue, Blog Editor
Department of History

The cinema screen was alight with foam and fury: whizzing arrows, listing warships and the smashing of weapon on flesh, as Russell ‘Robin Hood’ Crowe led his band of not-at-all-merry men into a beach battle against would-be invaders. Wide-eyed at the spectacle, my nine-year-old nephew leant over and whispered: ‘was it really like that?’. As a medievalist, and a useful auntie, I wanted to have a clear answer to this. As a scholar, though, any reply would instinctively begin with ‘well…’ to be followed by a weighing up of opinion. Balancing the two is no easy feat: to give a simple answer goes against everything I have been trained to do, yet any academic response risks the instant loss of a youngster’s interest. For me, communicating research is about enhancing inspiration, on every level. Discussing medieval battle with my nephew makes so much more sense when he can feel the weight of armour, sense the restricted vision of a helmet, and twang a bow and arrow. He loved the film, but told me recently that he fell asleep in a history lesson… you can’t win them all!

Christ the Consoler Church, Skelton-cum-Newby, North Yorkshire (1871-76)

Jasmine Allen
History of Art Department

Stained glass has been used to decorate buildings for hundreds of years. We can learn about the past by looking at the people, stories and symbols represented in a historic stained glass window. Encountering a stained glass window both illuminates the past and becomes a sensory experience. I will never forget the first time I watched the sunlight filter through a stained glass window and projecting kaleidoscopic patterns of light into the surrounding space. My research focuses on the cultural experience of stained glass at international public exhibitions in the nineteenth century. How does stained glass contribute to the beauty and atmosphere of a building? What meditative, sensory and emotional responses does it evoke? And how have these changed over time? The medium of stained glass offers up many opportunities for Sensory Stories as it relies entirely upon the movement of light to reveal its subject, to instruct, inspire and delight the viewer. As well as learning about the past by interpreting images in stained glass we can use it to recreate the atmosphere of a religious or historic space and learn through sensory experiences.

Matt Jenkins
Department of Archaeology

Georgian house, Micklegate, York

When visitors picture York in their heads they often think of Vikings, Romans and medieval timber-framed buildings, their jetties arching out over the street. Yet York in the eighteenth century was also a leading centre for polite society in the north and you only have to look around as you walk through the city streets to see the wide variety of surviving Georgian buildings. My research uses the approach of buildings biographies to help people to connect with this aspect of the city’s past. This links standing buildings with their owners and investigates how they each influenced the other. Along one street you could have bankers, druggists, tea dealers, widows and aristocrats. By focusing on the character of individuals and the types of homes they occupied, buildings stop being blank façades but become imbued with life. This exciting project will help us all to share ideas on how to use the senses to tell different types of tales and show that the things you walk past everyday can have a story to tell.

Tiffany Gast
Department of History

Temple Newsam

When people think of country houses, what is brought to mind is a stately eighteenth-century edifice with large Grecian columns surrounded by rolling Constable acres, priceless furniture and art work collected over the centuries by a long line of refined aristocrats, and maybe just a little bit of Jane Austen and BBC period dramas.  So imagine my surprise when, on an outing for a Masters’ class, we walked into the red-bricked Jacobean mansion that was Temple Newsam, to be greeted by a Victorian fantasy of ye olde England, with mock stone painted on the walls, dark wood panelling and enough heraldry to make any family historian proud.  This was followed by an eclectic tour through a Victorian-built Elizabethan dining room, a Georgian library built in 1912, a real Georgian library containing a Victorian pipe organ and a number of rooms in a state of semi-dereliction.  How did it become such an eccentric house and why has it stayed (or been restored) that way?  It was the physical, emotional and visual impact of this marvellous place that took the path of an eighteenth-century historian into the realms of the early twentieth century and the supposed decline of the old landed elite with their difficult choices in deciding how to rebalance their financial portfolios, family commitments and paternal duties as the previous world of their all-consuming power came down around them.

Philippa Turner
History of Art Department

Virgin and Child, Cloisters Museum, New York

The medieval cathedrals of England attract thousands of visitors a year, many of whom stand in awe at the sight of their towering architecture and intricate stained glass windows. Inside, however, the cathedrals are shadows of their medieval selves. During the late middle ages (c.1350-c.1530) they contained dozens of images of saints sculpted in wood, stone and alabaster, most of which were destroyed during the Reformation. Medieval sources suggest that many were painted brightly and sometimes decorated with jewels.

My research focuses on the images of saints in four of England’s great cathedrals: York Minster, Durham, Salisbury, and Canterbury. Where in the cathedrals were these images located? Which saints were depicted, and how were they decorated? In what ways were the images used, either as an aid to prayer or otherwise? By asking these questions, we can better understand how the spaces inside cathedrals worked, what the interiors looked like, and how important particular saints were in the lives of medieval people. We can also think about how encountering an image would have been a multi-sensory experience. What would be the impact of seeing, and perhaps even touching, a statue of a saint while candlelight flickered, the heady smell of incense lingered, and the sound of chants and prayers drifted though the air? What was the purpose of all these other elements, in any case? Considering images of saints in this sensory context provides a way to learn about the lost world of medieval cathedral life, and the stories of the people who worked and worshipped in these magnificent buildings.

Ben Elliott

Department of Archaeology

The British Mesolithic period spanned between the end of the last ice age (around 10,000 years ago) to the advent of farming (around 6,000 years ago). During this time, people exploited the many natural resources offered by the mixed woodland and coastal landscapes of Britain, adapting to and manipulating their environment in a variety of subtle and sophisticated ways. Archaeologists have long emphasised the importance of deer to people at this time; as a source of food, but also other raw materials such as fat, hide, sinew, bone and antler. This reliance on deer implies the development of a complex and nuanced relationship between humans and cervids.  My research examines the ways in which people experienced and differentiated between the three deer species present in the British Mesolithic: Red deer, roe deer and elk. Differences in the behaviour of the species would have impacted on the way in which people encountered these animals on a daily basis, either through the nature and location of chance, face-to-face encounters, the noted differences in the character of deer tracks and markings, or the identification of individual deer calls and roars. The behaviour of these animals would have also had direct implications for the most effective methods of hunting and tracking – activities which rely heavilly on sensory perception. Differences in the character of the raw materials offered by red deer roe deer and elk would also have affected the way in which people utilised them, and the types of tool they produced. My research focuses specifically on the use of antler as a material in the British Mesolithic, but attempts to place this into the context of a dynamic and nuanced people/deer relationship by exploring the ways in which deer and deer materials were encoutered and experienced by the people of Mesolithic Britain.

Mark Eslick, Treasurer
Department of English and Related Literature

On a recent trip to Dickens World in Kent, a theme-park based on the life and work of Charles Dickens, I was struck by the wonder on the faces of old and young alike who were transported back in time as they were surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian London. Visitors were taken on a fascinating journey through many of the scenes in Dickens’s novels such as the dark, damp cells of the Marshalsea Prison featured in Little Dorrit and the squalid conditions of the workhouse in Oliver Twist. Visiting Dickens World reinforced my long-standing interest in the importance of sensory stimulation as an educational tool. As a member of the Sensory Stories team I am really looking forward to being involved in this innovative and interactive project. My PhD focuses on anti-Catholicism in the Victorian novel. Many Victorians, including Dickens, were extremely hostile to Catholicism as the often theatrical and ritualistic form of Catholic worship made it seem like a profoundly foreign and strange religion. Sensory Stories has already made me think of new ways in which to present my research by using such things as Catholic architecture, vestments, shrines and relics to give a sense of how this religion was viewed as “other” by a vast majority of Victorians. I know that the project will also inspire others to think of inventive methods of presenting their research that will engage with wide and diverse audiences.

Laura Chesworth

Department of History

Tournament Book of René of Anjou

Galloping horses, crashing lances and hoards of excited spectators; it was my first experience of a medieval tournament and the sounds, sights and smells were overwhelming. None of this occurred in the pursuit of research but on a rainy day at a theme park when I was about six and I was well and truly hooked. From this point on my brother and I would spend our holidays dragging our parents to castles, museums and even a strange tournament dinner show. We wanted to find out about warfare, tournaments, armour and anything else that involved knights. Some years later and, while my brother has moved on, I am still fascinated by medieval knightly culture. My interests have developed beyond an unquestioning admiration of knights to a desire to find out what life was really like for them: what were their values and interests? How were they taught? What was expected of them? Who did they answer to? The glamorous world of medieval knights continues to be an area that captures the interest and imagination of children and a project like Sensory Stories gives us the opportunity to develop that interest by further exploring the lived experiences of that sphere.

Kate Compton
Department of English and Related Literature

'The Diamond-Digger of Romance,' 1894

My research is about ‘rush’, a phenomenon that came into focus in the 1870s from the convergence of three elements: the discovery of enormous quantities of diamonds in the South African veldt; a new kind of British Imperialism characterised by hasty annexations and a suddenly booming literary market for texts about South Africa, produced with startling rapidity to meet the demands of impatient British readers. The story of the South African diamond fields has been spun into many a ripping yarn, but the diamond rush is more than just the subject of these texts. My thesis examines these written accounts and charts how ‘rush’ influenced how they were published, how they were read – by whom, when, and where – and even how they were written. What excites me most about Sensory Stories therefore is the emphasis it places on researchers as storytellers; it reminds us that the means we use to express ourselves are as important as what it is we have to say. I want to tell my own version of this sensational story of romance, adventure and imperial intrigue that allows my audience to experience something of ‘the rush’ firsthand.


1 Response to “People”

  1. 1 Jan Wood September 25, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    Interesting and thought provoking ideas ~ will re visit and learn more!

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