Echoes from the past

Am so happy to have been accepted to present a paper on my PhD research at the Personification Across Disciplines conference this September at Durham University​.

I will be presenting a paper on how we describe heritage sites and spaces as retaining the personalities of people connected to them in the past. I was inspired by a conversation I had with Hilary Mantel when I worked at Hampton Court Palace in the learning team. Wolf Hall had just been published as we had asked Hilary to come and give a talk as part of our adult learning series of events. Everyone was at fever pitch to hear from Mantel, meters away from where Wolsey and Henry VIII had sparred, argued, laughed and eventually fatally fallen out.

In her talk, Mantel described how at 13 years old she had come to Hampton Court. She recalled how she remembered the sun on her back and the new sandals she was wearing on her feet. She recalled how she’d found herself in Cardinal Wolsey’s closet, deep inside the palace. She explained how she felt the presence of Wolsey overcome her, how she felt a tangible, spiritual connection with the man in this Tudor linen fold room. She said later in the talk that, ‘I have in fantasy, fulfilled what I imagined that day. I have seen Cardinal Wolsey sitting by the fireplace and I have lain my elbow on the windowsill and I have conversed with him.’ Some 40 years later, she has brought Wolsey and Cromwell to life with startling vivacity in her Booker Prize winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies.

I am fascinated by this experience of Mantel’s. In my professional life as a museum/ heritage educator, I often try and illicit this physical and creative response to the past. I am interested in exploring this in terms of how the emotional remnants of people’s lives from the past can be understood or experienced as being left behind in buildings, only to be re-discovered or unearthed by future generations.

The conference looks at the following themes and questions:

Humans have a flair for attributing intentions, traits, agency, emotions and mental states to beings or things – either real or imagined.

Whether anthropomorphising natural or abstract shapes, playing with imaginary companions, (re) constructing fictional characters and dialoguing with gods or hallucinatory presences, the attribution of an agentive mentality to human and non-human targets appears both natural and meaningful to our everyday life.

The personification of inanimate, non-human, virtual or absent objects or entities seems at the core of human cognition, yet remains in many respects mysterious.

  • To what extent is personification a conscious process whereby we extend intersubjective and narrative relations?
  • When does this capacity emerge?
  • What are its cognitive underpinnings and what are its effects?
  • Is there a continuum to be traced between these different cognitive, narrative, religious and hallucinatory experiences?

The programme looks really good and as I was at university in Newcastle, I can’t wait to visit Durham (and it’s castle!) again.

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