Puma skulls and tabby cats

By Nicholas Vogelpoel, on 19 November 2012

Blog Entry by Touching Heritage Volunteer – Emma Richards

Just after I signed up in the summer, I told a friend about the project and how I was looking forward to it. With a strained face, he bluntly asked ‘What on Earth could someone gain from touching a random box of old stuff? Isn’t that what attics are for?’. At the time, I didn’t feel like I could give him a proper answer and so remained quiet…

My love of volunteering definitely gave me the initial gumption to want to sign up, although to be honest the more I found out about it, the more it piqued my interest. It’s definitely a different concept, one I haven’t seen before. The two disciplines that are intermixed – heritage/history and well-being/medicine – don’t often mix in such a way unless we’re talking about alchemy and past ailments. Confession time; I have a big interest in well-being and always have done, although history, not so much. It’s not that I’ve disliked it, it’s more that I’ve sometimes found it hard to engage with it. It can feel a bit remote sometimes and as a kinaesthetic learner I sometimes need to have a prod of something before it starts to make sense. Does that make sense?

That’s one of the first things that piqued my interest – other than the wellbeing – the ability to be able to touch the objects. In most of the museums I’ve visited, most things are behind glass, locked away only for the benefit of our eyes. Then my thoughts turned to the fact that I could be a facilitator in that for other, various people (surely I couldn’t be the only one who would find that aspect fascinating); we could have conversations about the object, conversations not about the object, conversations about how the object made them feel and why; it could go on.

At present I’ve only conducted a few sessions, although they’ve all been different, but equally as satisfying. Everything above, and more has been experienced, and with each session I can (and feel!) see the difference. One of the most interesting things I’m finding is how one object, even if someone hasn’t seen it or something similar, can conjure up many memories, thoughts and feelings. There’s one object, the puma skull, which appears to have a hit/miss rating. Personally I’m a miss so tend to empathise a bit too much with those that look at it disdainfully, and will move on to the next object. During one chat with an elderly gentleman, we started talking about the puma skull, but because he was having difficulties picturing it, I gestured that he could think of it as a big cat. It was strange at first because his thumbs were stroking the puma skull near its eyes yet he looked a bit forlorn. Resisting the urge to move on to the next object, we continued to chat about the skull. After a while, he let on that as a boy his family ‘adopted’ a one-eyed-tabby cat, which he in particular grew very close to. We then went on to chat about him as a boy and the sorts of things he got up to. That chat was particularly interesting to me in regards to comparing how a (very pretty) mineral rock did nothing for him, but the skull of a puma cat brought back good memories. For the next person, of course, it all changes…

In the sessions, there are more things than mineral rocks and puma skulls, mind. Contrary to how stumped I was with my friend when he asked me the obvious, I now understand exactly why a programme like this can be so beneficial. On the one hand, as the volunteer you’re facilitating the outreach aspects of the museum, in trying to get these objects out to people who might otherwise never have come across them. We can provide links to new resources and museums (which at the moment are often free so help the enthusiasm!) and that’s great to see. On the other hand, we’re facilitating a programme which is helping people in places like hospitals and care-homes in an inner-wellbeing way. Every experience is different, but the general over-arching theory that having an experience with something completely different to the normal has got to be part of the benefits. It’s a great programme to be part of, as every experience is different and satisfying for both volunteer and participant. If you have the time and an interest, it’s definitely a project I’d recommend getting involved in!