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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.’

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.

Centennial celebrations and Hitchcock references

By Nicholas Vogelpoel, on 14 January 2013

Blog entry by Touching Heritage volunteer – Molly Johansson

Doing something for the first time is always a little bit special. The first time I volunteered in the Touching Heritage project, I was a little nervous but at the same time happy and excited. It turned out that it was not only my first time, but also the first time for participants. To make matters even more special we had walked straight into a centennial birthday party. Snacks, cake and midday sherry amidst music blasting. And there we were, standing in the doorway with our museum objects, like some strange form of party entertainment.

Object Handling

I can’t remember what we showed, but I do remember it being hard work and long stretches of awkward. We were all trying to figure each other out, to understand what the other person wanted.

But, how do you compete with a birthday party?  You have to embrace the awkwardness that follows. It is you versus the cake, and the cake will win. People will get up and dance, and you just have to enjoy the moment. I cherish that visit because it was nothing like I imagined it to be. It also shows that our visits are not about us or the objects we bring, but about the people we meet. It is about their day. Sometimes the meeting will be awkward and you will feel out of place, but you will eventually enjoy it. I mean, how many centennial birthday parties do you think I will go to in my lifetime? (more…)

Healthy Museums

By Nicholas Vogelpoel, on 26 November 2012

 Blog entry by Touching Heritage volunteer – Marianne Phillips

It was the title that drew me to the ‘Touching Heritage’ volunteering project. As I looked into it, I found out that the idea was to take interesting artefacts, from UCL’s museums and public engagement collections, to patients in hospitals as well as to people in day care centres in the community. In these places we are able to show participants a range of interesting artefacts – from a 3,500 year old Egyptian Vase to an Elephant’s Molar or even a Puma Skull! We are then able to explain a little about the history of these, as well as what they might have been used for (some rocks and amulets we have were believed to have healing powers, for example).

Up close and personal with a two-finger Egyptian amulet

I enjoy volunteering and, being a Medic, I am passionate about Health too, so this scheme naturally caught my eye – little did I know how much I would truly love doing it each week though. The two hours I spend talking with the object-handlers (and learning, myself) about the artefacts goes by faster than I would ever have imagined!

The idea may sound a little ‘random’ and many ask what good this project could do, but the positive comments I have received so far have been amazing. Some of the feedback from participants include:

“I’ve never touched or seen anything like this!”
“It has been a nice break to my afternoon”.
“I never get to go to museums, so this was very nice for me”.

People enjoy having a distraction whilst in day centres or as inpatients and the idea of bringing the museum to them really does seem to work. It allows them to speak about new things and some of the objects bring back memories, as well as get their imaginations going. For example, when given a ‘thumb’ from a 3,000 year old Greek statue, many people think it is a boot, before turning it over in their hands and seeing the carved nail and lines of the thumb. One gentleman even suggested it was a pipe to begin with! Another interesting comment I received was from a lady who thought that one of the blue rocks, called Amazonite, was a bar of soap (even once she was holding it)!

Painted pottery

One of the most memorable conversations I had was with a lady who had actually done an Archaeology Degree. The objects got her talking about what she had been able to excavate and find whilst on a trip near Stonehenge, with her University. Her discoveries ranged from the remains of a sacrificed deer to an ancient child’s toy!

This project has met my expectations and, in fact, far exceeded them. It is a means of putting a great use to usually hidden national gems – making artefacts more accessible and meaningful. It is also very interesting for the volunteers, like me, who facilitate these sessions. Most importantly though, it benefits the participants – providing them with a “break” from any worries they may have, as well as allowing them to find out and experience new things.