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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

TH_Ruscoe Road Community Curated Project_270613 (4)


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.’


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.

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…)