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Touching Heritage


A volunteer driven, heritage-in-health initiative


Archive for June, 2013


By Betsy Lewis-Holmes, on 24 June 2013

Entry by Molly Johansson, Touching Heritage volunteer


IMG_6034Every session is so different shaped by the people and the objects.

Every object

One story

Every participant

One story

Every session new stories.


Touching Heritage inspires a short documentary

By Betsy Lewis-Holmes, on 18 June 2013


Blog entry by Sasha Andrews.

Medical illustrator and film-maker, Sasha was inspired to create a short film about Touching Heritage, which you can see here.



Hospitals are stressful places, and though the clinical interventions possible are astonishing, the boredom and pain patients may experience can be debilitating.

I work part-time as a medical photographer and in my own time make short documentaries. In January I enrolled on a film-making module with UCL’s Anthropology department with the intention of finding a story about the effect of art in hospitals.

I shadowed UCLH Arts Curator Guy Noble for a morning, picking his brains about existing and upcoming projects as walked through spaces, looking for ways of animating them, put up photographs and prints and planned other positive interventions. When I heard that museum objects were being brought into the sterile hospital environment and given to patients to handle I got very excited – what an original idea with loads of filmic potential – unusual objects, human interaction, potential for emotion and visually rich.

I remember queuing as a child outside the British Museum for the Tutankhamen exhibition and then inside, pressing nose to glass.  Later I spent two years working on archaeological digs excavating and recording all manner of things from medieval drains to Roman cremation urns.  Handling objects gives a bats-squeak connection to the past never forgotten.  Touching Heritage would have to be the subject for my film.

Thanks to numerous UCLH and UCL staff I was introduction to volunteer co-ordinator Betsy Lewis-Holmes who gave me detailed information about the project and kindly agreed to filming provided the volunteers and patients were willing.

With a tight time-scale there was no time for practice run-throughs, I joined Betsy and student volunteer Chloe as they selected the objects for a visit to a surgical ward.  Once on site, Nursing staff highlighted the patients most able and likely to benefit from the experience.  Several were interested in handling the objects but unwilling to be filmed – “I’ve got no make-up on”, “I don’t want to be on telly” (I wish!), etc.  However this did give me the chance to see how the sessions worked on two patients with very different though equally positive responses. Then a nurse took us to Carol, a lady who’d had an operation the day before and was hoping to go home in a day or so.  Thankfully she was not only interested in seeing the objects but also totally un-phased at the idea of being filmed.  Consent form completed I got out the way and filmed as Chloe set to work.  A marvellous facilitator, Chloe gently encouraged Carol to explore the objects and tell us what she thought of them.  And what objects – geological rocks & fossils, an Egyptian pot and an amulet.  As the session progressed the mood and pace varied with curiosity, surprise, awe and triumph.  The predominant mood however was pleasure – both for patient and volunteer. It was a privilege to be there.

The short documentary Touching Objects is being screened at the Lab Film Festival, London 2013 and London Short Film Festival in 2014.

Reflection on Touching Heritage at UCLH

By Betsy Lewis-Holmes, on 10 June 2013

Entry by Molly Johannson, Touching Heritage volunteer.

Only certain people are supposed to be in hospitals. And then there is the smell.


Tired, everyone seems so tired.

I’m tired. Exhausted.

I’m uncomfortable, but I’m supposed to be, I’m glad I am.

Is it as scary if you are in the bed?

Stones, healing stones.

How long are they here for?

What can I ask?

They can’t see the amazing view from here. Would they care?

Why are they pulling the man in the wheelchair backwards?

The noise of paper robes.

Having the nurse shave you. Calling her a butcher.

Contracted lives.



Molly has been volunteering on the Touching Heritage programme since July 2012. She is conducting her MA in Culture, Material and Design at UCL and recently conducted a placement at Arctic Studies Center in Alaska. Molly is interested in the ways in which museum outreach can connect and enhance  interactions between people and communities.


Shark teeth and Star Fossils: my first few weeks as a volunteer

By Betsy Lewis-Holmes, on 3 June 2013

Blog entry by Maraiachiara Leto – Touching Heritage Volunteer.


At a day centre in Battersea

At a day centre in Battersea

Mariachiara has been volunteering on the Touching Heritage project since May 2013. Originally from Italy, she is about to embark on her Masters degree at UCL in Comparative Literature. She is interested in the cultural meanings of objects and how objects can help us connect to forgotten memories and meanings.



When I first signed up to volunteer as an Object Handling Facilitator, the idea I had about the project was very different from the real thing. I thought we had to work as guides, giving people living in healthcare centres some information about museum objects. During training I soon found out that I was completely wrong: the objects were a chance to start an informal conversation, rather than educational tools. We were made aware of how important is for the participants to touch the objects and to connect their shape with their own memories.

Before I had time to wonder how this kind of activity could be beneficial or even interesting for participants, I found in my hands a marble thumb belonging to a statue of Alexander the Great. As I was supposed to keep my eyes closed and to guess what I was handling, at first I thought it was merely an everyday object used for the training session. Then, as soon as I realised that it belonged to such a remote past, I got a strange feeling, halfway between surprise and delight. Previously, I had always seen museum objects behind glass: this made me think how rare this opportunity was. Moreover, the conversation I had with my fellow volunteer was really amusing: since she was very hungry, every object reminded her of something to eat!

Later on, when I started the actual project, I found it amazing how inspiring and evocative these objects proved to be. Most of the participants have actively taken part in the session, showing interest, asking questions and setting their imagination free. For instance, the kind older man I talked to on my first day started the conversation on the topic of starfishes, as he was handling a star fossil, but ended up talking about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact! I missed some of the logic in his speech, but it was a very pleasant and lively conversation: at the end, just before going out for a cigarette – since, as he said, “smoked meat lasts longer” – he told me he enjoyed talking with me about history.

This was not the only occasion when a participant wanted to share their passion. When handling a shark tooth fossil, one lady declared to be fond of documentaries on dangerous animals (apparently, the most dangerous one in the world is a spider). Another lady sitting with us, claimed she was not at all afraid of sharks. I asked whether this was true and how she would feel if she happened to meet a shark during a swim. She answered: “Well, that’s a different matter…” We thus kept talking about sea animals, wondering why we tend to find them more intriguing than land animals: is it because they are concealed from us and we still wonder at discovering there is a whole colourful world under water?

Conversations like these show that museum objects can really work as sources of pleasant distraction for many people. I was glad to notice that participants generally tend to share nice memories rather than unpleasant ones, as an older lady did when, touching a small Egyptian pot, remembered the little polished marble heart her father gave her as a present when she was a young girl. This kind of mental associations, which I believe to be the true benefit of the project, would not be possible if participants were enforced to listen passively to a large amount of information. Unexpectedly, I am now involved in a cultural activity that I find unconventional and, for this very reason, incredibly interesting.