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Touching Heritage


A volunteer driven, heritage-in-health initiative


Sharing memories through objects

By Betsy Lewis-Holmes, on 22 July 2013

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Blog entry by Stacy Bowe. Stacy is studying for her MA in Managing Archaeological Sites and has been volunteering on the project since May 2013. Here she tells us more about the Community Curation project. 



After I had been conducting Touching Heritage sessions for a couple of weeks, I accompanied two of my other facilitators to a sheltered housing centre for a new type of session, where participants were invited to bring out an object or two of their own to share.

Sitting on the table was a worn leather journal that immediately attracted my attention.  The cheerful owner explained that this tome was actually the diary of her great grandfather, written when he was a sailor in the British navy, stationed in the Pacific during the later years of the nineteenth century. She carefully handed it to me, and as she continued discussing the diary’s attributes, I quietly examined some of the entries.

In striking penmanship, the eagerness of the diary’s author was palpable. All events from the profound to the prosaic were recorded. His descriptions and judgements exuded a youthful and sometimes juvenile sparkle to the diary’s contents, and it suddenly struck me that the author was only eighteen at the time of this incredibly daunting experience. The entries mingled with a bit of horror, amusement, and excitement. Whether he understood or not, the author was discovering first-hand the reasons why Europe was becoming obsessed with all things Asian. Picturing myself back at eighteen, I smiled to think at what I would have potentially written in the same situation. I empathized with his wonder and bewilderment.  Her grandfather may have been long gone from this world, but as I handed the diary back to the participant, I knew we had shared an intimate moment together across history.

Community Curation

By Betsy Lewis-Holmes, on 18 July 2013

Post by Chloe Chandler. Chloe has been volunteering for the project since January 2013 and is interested in the social meanings of objects.

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One of the most striking and interesting aspects of Touching Heritage sessions is how museum objects stimulate personal memories. This personal impact encouraged Betsy and I  put our heads together to think of a way of developing these ideas in order to explore the object/person relationship further. The idea of the ‘Community Curated Project’ was born. The idea was to seek out participants from various healthcare settings and encourage them to select and bring along an object of their own to share with a facilitator.

During our first community curated session, we were blown away by the amazing objects that participants had brought with them. The seven senior men and women who took part in this first session brought objects with them which ranged from family photos, medals from the Second World War, a selection of prints of photos sourced from local council archives, a nineteenth century seaman’s diary, and a painted walking cane a participant fashioned from the wood of a Ghanaian mangrove.

We encouraged participants to share their stories through asking questions, such as:

  • Why have you brought this object in to show?
  • How long have you owned it?
  • Do you often share this object with others?
  • What do you find interesting about this object?
  • What does this object symbolise for you?
  • Does this object bring back memories?
  • Are there relationships associated with the object? (I.e. was the object a gift?)

 Objects that initially seemed to be connected to generic public history were given a personal significance. Participants Paul and Lee both brought in prints of photos from their local archives. When I first saw these late nineteenth century/ early twentieth century photos of South-East London streets, I assumed that our session had been misunderstood. We didn’t want to hear about general London histories, we wanted to hear about personal memories.

 However, as Paul and Lee began to talk about the images it became obvious that I was one who was mistaken. Generic black and white photos of street scenes with unknown individuals were transformed into a complex personal mental geography. Each photo of a ‘generic’ street scene had been specifically selected to remember, sustain, and re-create a sense of familial place in the City. Memories were mapped onto these photos. Once they realised their families had come from a similar area of the East End, Paul and Lee, who had never before met, were almost frantic in their exchange of stories via the matching up of archival photos of roads and local landmarks pictured in the images.

Speaking about these personal memories had transformed these public access archival prints into powerful artefacts of deep personal significance. In short they became the artefacts of a ‘personal museum.’

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.