Once Upon Us

This summer I was lucky enough to be asked to speak as part of a panel for the Once Upon Us project by @immuto_c. The project was inspired by the latest medical research on how our environment influences our genetic expression and how memories could move across generations through DNA coding. It explored how we blur boundaries of our individuality across space and time and how ancestral memory can take many different forms. A video of my talk and images and outcomes of the project installation and workshops is now available online here


Developing Emotions in the Classroom: Teacher Workshops

This summer the Living with Feeling project launched ‘Developing Emotions’, a new schools engagement programme. Over the next year and beyond, we’ll be working with primary and secondary school teachers to develop educational and pastoral resources about emotions, with the aim of improving children’s emotional literacy and wellbeing. To launch this programme, we held three workshops with teachers, to share our research and explore how we can support those working at the coalface. This blog post summarises some of the main things we learned from the teachers, headteachers and other educators who attended.
These workshops were a timely intervention, tapping into an increased appetite for discussions about emotional health in UK schools. The Ofsted Inspection Framework 2019 includes a new judgement category of ‘personal development’, which refers to the importance of character and resilience, while emotional wellbeing remains a central topic in relationships and sex education and health education. New statutory guidance mandates teaching the links between physical and mental health; exploring what constitutes a ‘normal’ emotional range; and developing children’s emotional literacy and vocabulary.

While recognising these important changes to the educational landscape, we’re also keenly aware of their possible limitations. Does a focus on building resilience ignore the systemic injustices children and their families might be facing? Do we risk introducing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ template that pathologises certain behaviours or feelings – such as loneliness – as ‘unhealthy’ or ‘abnormal’? We want to reflect that pupil wellbeing and the emotional culture of schools are much more complex than new mandates might suggest. Further to this, we want to avoid being prescriptive about emotions, and champion a child-led approach, that prioritises students’ own experiences, ideas, and feelings. What is a “normal” and “healthy” emotional range for one child in one school will not necessarily feel healthy or normal for another child or in a different school.

In July and August 2019, our workshops – held at the QMUL campus at Mile End – brought together 23 teachers from different schools, including primary and secondary, state and independent. The events attracted heads, teachers in subjects ranging from languages to art to geography, and many with direct responsibility for pastoral care and wellbeing. We were also joined by a sexual health facilitator from a counselling centre for young people, and a teacher from Turkey who was staying in the UK.

The workshops were shaped by Thomas Dixon’s research into various aspects of the history of emotions and were facilitated by Jenny Pistella, a museum and heritage learning consultant currently completing a PhD at the Centre for the History of the Emotions. The workshops were also supported by Engagement and Impact Manager Alison Moulds, Project Manager Agnes Arnold-Forster, Research Fellow Emma Sutton, and PhD candidates Evelien Lemmens and Dave Saunders. Together, we sought to gauge appetite among the teachers, build partnerships, and measure the impact of these initial scoping events.

Each of the workshops ran along the same lines and comprised research-led presentations, group activities and discussion. We began each day by asking attendees ‘what is emotional health?’. We discussed how it might encompass recognising and managing one’s own emotions and those of others, and how it might be a broader category than mental health (and thus a less scary and less medicalised way for children to talk about their feelings). Balance, self-awareness, and emotional literacy were recurring themes. We considered how emotions are a spectrum, and that one person’s version of emotional health might not be the same as another’s. We also asked attendees what they wanted to get out of the day – they were typically looking for new resources, strategies and approaches to teaching emotional wellbeing.

We then invited attendees to participate in a ‘three corners’ debate. They were presented with provocative statements such as ‘crying in public is a bad thing’ or ‘people are less content or happy than they were in the past’. Attendees had to decide whether they agreed, disagreed or were unsure, and then defend their stance and attempt to persuade others of their perspective. The exercise stimulated debates about gender stereotypes, displaying emotions in public and private spaces, nostalgia, and nature vs nurture.

Thomas then gave a series of presentations derived from his research on anger, tears, and friendship – all themes which resonated with teachers’ experiences in the classroom. Thomas described the etymology of and history behind various terms for anger and anger-like emotions, showing how a richer vocabulary could reveal more nuanced or even different feelings. He also explored how the history of friendship – which was originally seen (in a European context) as the preserve of the male elite – might encourage children to re-evaluate their own preconceptions about making, maintaining, and expressing friendships. The purpose of the historical talks was to push beyond the idea of a universal set of basic human emotions and to present a historically and culturally informed view.

The presentations sparked some in-depth discussions about the challenges teachers faced and where they had opportunities to make a difference. They spoke about how they managed and displayed their own emotions in the classroom. Is it okay for teachers to cry in front of children? Can they model healthy emotional behaviours for their pupils? Participants explored the shifting landscape of childhood friendships, including how they are influenced by age and gender, and how they are enacted both in the classroom and in less supervised spaces like the playground. We also discussed the difficulties of problematizing basic emotions when children and teenagers might be struggling to identify their feelings or lack confidence in expressing themselves. At the same time, identifying the complex interplay of emotions that might sit behind common behaviours like bullying, aggression, sadness or withdrawal was seen as a key priority.

In groups, teachers discussed how our key themes – anger, tears, and friendship – manifested among school pupils, and how they could be taught in the classroom, using some of the insights derived from Thomas’s presentations.

After lunch, we came back together to explore the difficulty of defining emotions through a series of activities. We used Tiffany Watt Smith’s The Book of Human Emotionsinviting attendees to guess what less familiar emotions words might mean. Teachers felt such word games would translate well to the classroom, with children able to enhance their vocabularies and learn synonyms, etymologies, and root words. Participants were then asked to pick from Jenny’s wonderfully rich collection of artistic postcards to find an image that reflected how they were feeling. In pairs, we then decoded our partner’s mood, based on the image they were displaying.

After this, we road-tested our new ‘What Are They Feeling?’ game with the workshop participants. Available through our public-facing website, The Emotions Lab, this game asks players to look at historical images of emotional expressions and designate what they think the subject might be feeling. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers – although we reveal the original historical designations, the purpose is to show how difficult it can be to ‘read’ emotions, particularly outside of any context. The game also reveals how other players have interpreted the emotions, to convey how varied such responses might be. If you haven’t played already, you can have a go here.

We closed the workshops by discussing ‘next steps’, asking participants to draw up a wishlist of what resources, materials, and support they would like from the Living with Feeling team. There was a huge appetite for further involvement, from us producing tailored lessons plans to deliver whole school assemblies, and even the idea of us running an ‘emotionally healthy school’ accreditation scheme, to recognise best practice. Some teachers reflected on the challenges of ensuring buy-in and engagement across the school, particularly in the face of other pressures such as exams and Ofsted. Some schools offered to test-run or trial our resources, gauging their suitability for use in the classroom setting and with different age groups. We also explored how we might evaluate the success of the Developing Emotions programme, whether that be through measuring children’s emotional intelligence or tracking their behaviour and attendance over the course of their involvement.

At the end of the day, we asked all participants for their feedback on the workshops. We received an overwhelmingly positive response. Many teachers indicated that they felt a historical approach to the subject was particularly powerful because it presented a ‘safe’ and ‘non-threatening’ way for pupils to discuss emotions at one remove from their own feelings. Another teacher added that history ‘helps pupils to identify that they are not alone’. Asked what they would take away, one headteacher remarked, ‘I now feel that with the correct staff training it can be taught successfully throughout the school. It will make a HUGE difference to the children’. A secondary school teacher said the workshop had ‘motivated and inspired’ her, while an assistant head suggested it had provided ‘creative and practical ideas’ for teaching, as well as ‘more confidence in delivering sessions’ that will gain staff ‘buy-in’.

This is just the beginning. We’re now setting up a network of interested teachers (and related professionals), who would like to work with us to take forward the ‘Developing Emotions’ programme. If you’d be interested in finding out more, please get in touch with us Thomas Dixon at t.m.dixon@qmul.ac.uk or follow us on Twitter @DevelopingEmo.

Resort(ing) to a seaside retreat

I have come away to be beside the sea. This weekend I am staying in a family home Airbnb in a room with a desk and WiFi in St Leonard’s on Sea with the express purpose of getting some serious writing done on my PhD research. I’m having a lovely time so far. It’s a beautiful room with lots of light and a lovely view of the garden. I’ve written all morning and I’ve just walked down to the beach for a fish lunch. Hastings and St Leonard’s is a fascinating place. I’ve strolled around the old town and loved seeing the medieval and Tudor houses and small alleyways as well as the 18th-century customs house, pubs and assembly rooms and the 21st-century fishing boats. A really interesting mix of an ancient town still functioning as a place for people to work, shop, eat, drink and catch fish.

I’m trying to pin down my PhD research topic this weekend, which might sound crazy as I’m coming up to a year in on my doctorate. However, things are starting to clarify the more and more reading I do and I now think I’m interested less in sites of ‘lost heritage’ but rather about how we, in the heritage sector, narrate the emotional history of places and spaces. I mean, how we nudge, indicate and manipulate visitors to sense a connection with the emotional history of a space. Whether that’s through directly recounting the story of ghosts from the past or over-exaggerated tales of pain, suffering, love, lust, passion – we facilitate access to the secondary narratives we do have about emotional experience happening in a place. I want to explore further how this is done in sites such as battlefields, historic houses, sites of exception, haunted houses and museums explore what we really mean by a place ‘holding’ or ‘retaining’ the emotions of the people who have inhabited it.

My next step, therefore, is to look in the archives of heritage organisations such as the National Trust and English Heritage and track the different interpretation strategies used over time in guidebooks and text panels to explain to visitors the emotional history of their sites. Wish me luck!

Sensory social club

Last week I went to visit one of our Culture& trainees, Chloe, at London South East College Bexley to observe her delivering workshop for the college’s transition day. Chloe is completing her traineeship at the Prince Philip Maritime Collections Centre, Royal Museums Greenwich in the collections care and conservation team.

Chloe and her colleague Helen were at the college to deliver a pop up sensory learning stall and workshop to advertise their soon to be launch sensory social club for young people 16+ to come to at the Collections Centre, starting in September. Chloe prepared information about all the pests and bugs that can eat away at items in a museum collection and also ran a gold leaf gilding activity. She’s doing a fantastic job.

Magical Margate

Yesterday we had our Culture& team away day in Margate. It was a wonderful and magical day. It was great to spend time with my Culture& colleagues and share updates, ideas and ambitions for how we can help make the museum and cultural sector more diverse. The sun was shining and sea breeze cool and we enjoyed paddling in the sea, eating fish and chips, visiting the Turner Contemporary Gallery and Dreamland.

Podcast launch

Our New Museum School trainees have all written, recorded and produced their own podcasts about issues, objects, collections and narratives inspired by their placements at their host museums. I’m so proud of them! You can listen to them here: https://www.cultureand.org/podcasts/


The Isolated Baronet

How can we plan and design ethical interpretations of difficult histories and personal experiences?

Today I went to Calke Abbey for a conference run by the National Trust and Leicester University Museum Studies on their new collaboration and exhibition ‘HumanKind‘. To mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Henry Harpur, ‘The Isolated Baronet’, this year at Calke Abbey they’re exploring stories of loneliness and isolation, kindness and compassion, past and present.

Henry Harpur (1763-1819) was gossiped about by his contemporaries for his shyness and was described as suffering from a disease of the mind by diarist Joseph Farrington. The traditional narrative presented in the interpretation at Calke is that Henry shunned social contact and treated his family and others with a lack of care.

It was fascinating to hear about the methodology about how the creative team, researchers, curators and volunteers from the house had gone through primary sources relating to Henry and five other former residents and woven a new tale of loneliness through time. Can a house itself inspire feelings of loneliness through its architecture and spirit of place? Or was this idea of loneliness something that was handed down in the family through generations?

The research that the team did on the stories of Henry Harpur and his ancestors uncovered a more nuances interpretation of their characters and experiences. For example, the real stories of Henry’s life have been overshadowed by the myth and stigma built up around him. This happens frequently when we, in trying to convey a compelling narrative to our audiences about someone’s character, end up caricaturing them into fairy tale stereotypes; the recluse, the villain, the victim, the innocent.

At the same time as raising contemporary issues around loneliness in our society today, this exhibition asks us to think about how we might challenge the emotional history of the individuals we encounter in historic houses.

The exhibition itself is located in the family apartments at Calke, a set of ground floor rooms last lived in by the final member of the family to own the house, and occupied well into the 1960’s. The creative team from the HumanKind project have created a set of six installations in six different spaces in these rooms representing the emotional stories of the former residents. There are also external sculptures placed in the gardens of metal work structures which echo the exact dimensions of the rooms themselves and offer glimpses of the lives of the six residents through symbolism, quotes and imagery, combined with a more social role as somewhere for visitors to sit, meet and talk to one another.

The house itself it quite extraordinary. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The interior of the house, originally built in 1704, is in a state of disrepair and dilapidation and has not been repaired or restored since the 1920’s. The National Trust describes is as an ‘Un-stately’ home.

The Harpur family were a family of incorrigible hoarders and the house is filled with objects; taxidermy, trays of shells, old furniture, books, a crocodile skull, ceramics, swords and bric-a-brac.

The Tyburn Tree

‘The fact is that the past is everywhere; when we are in public, our senses are constantly responding to stimuli that are gorged with history, whether we are aware of it or not’.[1]

In the Heritage sector, we often talk about places[2] as being receptacles for past emotions, where previous actions and experiences are described as having seeped into their very stonework and woodwork. We describe heritage sites as ‘holding’ or ‘containing’ a ‘spirit of place’ and how these places hold echoes of emotions such as fear, love, power, greed, pain and other emotions. Is this just a narrative hook we use to engage and draw in audiences to connect with the narratives of our sites or is there something more in terms of seeing emotional heritage as akin to other types of intangible heritage? In UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage, intangible heritage is defined as the ‘…means, practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated in addition to that – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage’.[3] Taking this definition as a starting point, I would like to propose that along with other forms of intangible heritage such as music, food and performance culture we can also describe emotional heritage as being a type of ‘expression’ or ‘practice’ and therefore a form of intangible heritage. And if this is true, how does the emotional heritage in our contemporary landscape affect us today, consciously or subconsciously as we journey through the streets, buildings, pathways where we live? How do we learn from the places around us in a world that’s ever-changing and connect with their emotional history? And how do we employ this knowledge and experience to find our place in society, build empathy, create a connection between the past and present and make heritage relevant to us today?

The thrill of the past

In this article, I will use as a case study, a site that has a strong emotional history connected to it, the former site of public execution at Tyburn. The site is located in modern-day Marble Arch, in central London on the corner of Oxford Street and Edgeware Road. I will explore Tyburn as a site of emotional heritage and, through its position as an ancient spring, crossroads and later a place where criminals were hanged on the infamous ‘Tyburn Tree’. I am interested in Tyburn as it is a site where people felt and experienced intense and extreme emotions. Does anything of the pain, suffering, torment and fear of the history of the site remain today?  I will go on to discuss this idea and also present my new research findings on how the nuns of the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre at the nearby Tyburn convent continue to pray for the souls of the martyrs executed for their faith on the gallows. I will discuss how how, although no physical evidence of the gallows remain, the emotional heritage of the site is still encountered and experienced daily by the nuns and the religious community at the convent and what this can tell us about how examples of historic emotional experience live on and are re-enacted and re-encountered in the present.

I am approaching this subject matter through my research as a PhD Candidate in the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University London. The title of my thesis is ‘The thrill of the past: encounters with historical narratives of emotional experience at heritage sites from 1895 to the present’?’ The etymology of the word ‘thrill’ comes from Middle English meaning to ‘pierce or penetrate’ and is later used as a metaphor to describe someone as being ‘pierced with emotion’.[4] It is this idea that I’m interested in, the affective nature of places and how their historical narratives can shape our emotions and penetrate or pierce our consciousness.

My background is as a museum and heritage educator, and I have over 15 years’ experience of working in museums and heritage sites. I am fascinated by the idea of how we access, present, interpret and elicit responses to emotional history in the museums and heritage sector. My thesis critically explores how throughout the 20th-century people have visited heritage sites such as stately homes, castles, battlefields, memorials and recounted having emotional experiences there. There are many reports of people seeing and sensing ghostly apparitions, getting shivers down the back of their neck, experiencing a feeling of sadness or despair when in a particular place, in essence, experiencing a long-lost emotional expression or echo from the past, now in the present. I will uncover, pick apart and put in a broader context how people have expressed and represented this idea of having a ‘thrilling’ encounter at a heritage site throughout the 20th century. For now, I will use the former site of the gallows and place of execution at Tyburn as a case study to illustrate some of the themes and theories around experiencing emotional heritage.

A Spirit of Place

In classical Roman religion, a ‘genius locus’ was the protective spirit of a place. It was often depicted in religious iconography as a figure holding attributes such as a cornucopia, patera bowl or a snake. These protective spirits would inhabit certain natural places such as streams, mounds, woods, mountains and natural crossroads. This idea of a mystical ‘spirit’ residing in a site can be seen to be translated in contemporary heritage practice in the way the United Kingdom’s heritage organisation; the National Trust communicates the stories and narratives of its heritage sites. For example, the National Trust has recently published internal documents which detail a ‘spirit of place’ descriptor for each of their sites, describing the unique, special aura of each house, garden, stately home and park they manage.[5] This contemporary way of describing a place having an ‘aura’ or ‘feeling’ attached to it, draws on this historical idea of places being haunted or possessed by a spirit or emotional energy. To take this idea further, we can see how in the 20th century, the psychogeographic paradigm (how different places and spaces make us feel and behave) explains and propagates the idea of how we, as individuals can tap into the ‘spirit of a place’ and a sites ‘emotional history’. In Michel De Certeau’s ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’ and his chapter ‘Walking the City’ he moves the idea of a ‘genius locus’ inhabiting a place to the urban environment, saying, ‘there is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can “invoke” or not. Haunted places are the only onespeople can live in’.[6] De Certeau is drawing on the theories and ideas of the psychogeographic movement here and the work of Guy Debord, the person credited with founding the movement in Paris in the 1950s. In his 1955 essay ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ Debord describes psychogeography as ‘the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’[7] Psychogeography builds on the idea that some places have a particular ‘spirit’ or ‘effect’ on us as we journey about our everyday lives and that we can experience this if we walk, observe and connect with our environment on a deeper level. Because one of the geographical focus’ for my thesis in London, I have been looking at some of the progenitors of psychogeographic writing centred on London such as the ‘London Luminaries and Cockney Visionaries’, Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan and William Blake amongst others who advocated this deep dive into the spiritual heart of the city.[8] Later in the 1980s and ’90s, psychogeography experienced a renaissance, and contemporary writers such as Ian Sinclair, Will Self, Rachel Lichtenstein and Janet Cardiff echoed the writings of these ‘cockney visionaries’ in their work through their interest in the liminal parts of the city and their own visceral and sentimental connections with particular places.

Real or imagined emotions

Humans have a flair for attributing intentions, traits, agency, emotions and mental states to beings or things, either real or imagined. As a result, in my research, I am also looking at the history of the worship and mystical status of emotionally infused objects such as relics. I will discuss this later on in the article with particular reference to the relics on display at the Tyburn Convent. In his work on the history of the emotions, Rob Boddice poses the question, ‘can an object, in and of itself, carry an emotional weight? Or does the apparent emotion emanating from an object have to have been put there by the viewer who then receives the reflection of that emotion, as if it had come from the object itself?’.[9] I want to explore this question by asking how we can learn about the emotional heritage of a place like Tyburn, where very little physical evidence remains, and what reflections of the emotions experienced at this site can we discover or sense?

A concrete crossroads

Image: the traffic island on the corner of Oxford Street and Edgware Road in London where the plaque to mark the spot of the place and execution and gallows of the Tyburn Tree once stood. Photo by Jenny Pistella

Imagine, as an experiment, I took you to a specific traffic island in central London and asked you to stand in the middle to try and see if you could decipher any resonance of past events, feelings and emotions left there. I am not going to give you any secondary information about the place, no text, maps, images. I am asking you to experience it in its singular reality. I am asking you to unleash your subconscious mind to tap into the psychogeography of the site. You can hear the noise of the traffic, the beep of the pedestrian crossing, an aeroplane passing overhead. But what can you pick up from this as a site of lost or emotional heritage?

Would you be able to pick up by subconscious osmosis that this was the spot where, between 1196 and 1783, criminals were executed on the famous gallows, known colloquially as the ‘Tyburn Tree’? What other information would I need to give you to help you connect more with the site? Psychogeographers such as Ian Sinclair and Will Self might advocate that you would be able to pick up some of the residues of the emotional life of this site, encased in concrete but very much alive and tingling with echoes of its dark emotional history.[10] Sara Ahmed, however, might challenge this idea as she does in her work on ‘The Cultural Politics of Emotions’, where she argues that emotions are sensed in a world of interactions with other beings and objects. [11] She argues that it is all about encountering people and objects in context; without the background, emotions do not exist or remain on their own.

To find out more about the site, I recently went to visit the nuns at the Tyburn Convent, the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre at Hyde Park Place, about 50 meters down the road from the site of the gallows. I spent an afternoon with them on one of their monthly open days and was fascinated to find out more about the history of the monastery and the site as well as hear their responses and reflections on praying for and keeping the memory of the Catholic Martyrs who died on the gallows at Tyburn alive. I met with them, drank tea, ate biscuits and now follow them on Twitter.

An endless labyrinth of woe

Image: The execution of the idle apprentice at Tyburn. Engraving by T. Cook, 1795, after W. Hogarth, 1747

For now, let’s start at the beginning:

He [Albion] sat by Tyburn’s brook, and underneath his heel shot up 
A deadly Tree: he nam’d its Moral Virtue, and the Law
Of God, who dwells in Chaos, hidden from the human sight.
The Tree spread over him its cold shadows (Albion groan’d),
They bent down, they felt the earth and again enrooting
Shot into many a Tree, an endless labyrinth of woe

William Blake alludes to the sacred nature of Tyburn in this poem ‘The Human Abstract, Songs of Experience’ from 1794. Can we describe Tyburn as a site of ‘genius loci’, an inherently sacred place with its own organic and natural energy attached to it? Blake certainly referenced this in the occult lyrics in the poem. Tyburn, originally meaning ‘place of the elms’, was a village close to the current location of Marble Arch and so-called for its position adjacent to the Tyburn Brook, a tributary of the lost Westbourne River which flows into the River Thames. The site of the brook and village of Tyburn was forever transformed when it was chosen, because of its liminal position outside of London proper, in the 12th century as one of the city’s main sites for execution. The eight Tyburn execution days a year were a fixture in the calendar, and Tyburn Fair, the day of execution and the customs surrounding it, was a popular spectacle and gruesome wake. William Hogarth depicted the carnival nature of the experience at Tyburn in his print ‘The idle apprentice at Tyburn’ in1747. His image shows a crowd of people waiting for an execution to take place with the condemned in a cart on his way to the gallows, which loom in the distance. The sacred procession of condemned prisoners on a pilgrimage to their deaths along a route from Newgate Prison to Holborn and St Giles and then up what is now Oxford Street was a popular public spectacle. According to contemporary accounts, one of the largest crowds ever gathered at Tyburn was estimated at around 200,000 to see the infamous jailbird and highway robber Jack Sheppard hanged in 1724. Michel Foucault, in his work ‘Discipline and Punish’ explores the idea of punishment as a spectacle and a ceremony of punishment. Tyburn, as a site, represents this: a shared emotional experience with the express purpose of educating and shaping the moral lives of the populace, transforming them.[13]

An emotional pilgrimage

Psychogeographers use walking as the method to observe and consume the world around them, and the act of pilgrimage is another way to access the emotional history and heritage of places. In her work ‘Wunderlust’ Rebecca Solnit talks about pilgrimage as a historic act of intentional walking. She explains how ‘pilgrimage is one of the fundamental structures a journey can take, the quest in search of something if only one’s transformation. Just as people had lined the route to Tyburn to watch Jack Shepherd on his way to execution in 1724, in the 1900’s Catholic worshipers connected with the emotional history of the Catholic Martyrs at Tyburn through creating their own pilgrimage.

Apr. 04, 1950 - Commemorating The Tyburn Martyrs: Many hundreds of Roman Catholics took part in the commemorative service for the Tyburn Martyrs, Roman Catholics who died for their Faith at the Tyburn Gallows in the 16th and 17th centuries. There was a pi
Image: Apr. 04, 1950 – Commemorating The Tyburn Martyrs: Many hundreds of Roman Catholics took part in the commemorative service for the Tyburn Martyrs, Roman Catholics who died for their Faith at the Tyburn Gallows in the 16th and 17th centuries. There was a pilgrimage from Old Bailey, site of Newgate Prison, to Marble Arch, where the Tyburn Gallows stood. Photo Shows: A scene during the service outside Tyburn Convent, close to the spot where once stood the Tyburn Gallows. Getty Images.

Father Fletcher started the first ‘Walk’ to glorify the Martyrs by following the ‘via sacra’ from Newgate to the execution ground at Tyburn in the early 1900s. Once the pilgrims had reached Tyburn, a priest would then conduct singing from the balcony of the Convent. ‘The bell rings out. The blessing is given in silence; the procession re-forms and withdraws; the tinkle of the bell recedes in the distance and “Blessed be God” comes the roar from the thousands of Catholics in the street beneath.’[14]

Praying for the souls of the martyrs

Image: The shrine of the Martyrs of Tyburn, on the ground floor in the monastery of the Tyburn Nuns – the Benedictine Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre, London. Photo by Jenny Pistella

In total, 105 Catholic martyrs, including Saints Oliver Plunkett and Edmund Campion, were executed at Tyburn during and following the English Reformation from 1535 to 1681. For example, in 1581, Confessor of the Faith, Gregory Gunne made a prophecy after witnessing the hanging, drawing and quartering of Edmond Campion, an English Catholic Jesuit Priest and prophesied that ‘the day would come, and he hoped to see it, when a religious house would be built for an offering on the place where Campion suffered.’[15] It seems like there was a project to construct a national shrine at Tyburn from around 1901. The foundress of the present convent, Mother Mary of St Peter’s expressed this desire to establish a shrine on the site saying that ‘the Martyrs are urging us forward, they are calling us’.[16]  The nuns moved into 6 Hyde Park Place in March 1903 and have kept vigil there ever since.

 The oratory on the ground floor of the convent contains numerous relics of Catholic Martyrs from the site of the gallows but also other sites of execution in London. Displayed on the walls, in glass cases are, the forearm of the Blessed Thomas Maxfield, secular priest, martyred on 1 July 1616, a piece of wood said to come from the authentic gallows and the bloodstained shirt of Viscount Stafford, martyred on Tower Hill, 29 December 1680 amongst others. In his work the ‘Metamorphoses of the Body,’ Jose Gil writes that relics ‘hold tamed energies inside them.’ These ‘little things’, literally storages of energy, are in themselves insignificant. Their potency is directly related to and expressed through, the contrast between their absence of signification and the presence of a power hidden within’.[17] If we can talk about objects exhibiting these qualities, can places too, can they also be vessels and containers of emotion and meaning?

To conclude, as a site, Tyburn provides an interesting case study to think about how places can be described as having an emotional history attached to them. From the pain, sorrow, fear and desperation of those who died there to the crowds gathering at execution days and later pilgrims venerating the martyrs and the nuns praying for their souls, it’s a place where the emotional history of the site is kept alive, the emotion of the site is kept current, present and continually re-inscribed.


[1] Jordanova, L. J., History in Practice, 2nd ed (London: Hodder Arnold, 2006)

[2] for the purposes of this article I will define place, as a space that has meaning attached to it either within the parameters of architecture, shared public spaces which has a historical narrative attached to it.

[3] UNESCO Convention 2003, ‘Text of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage’ Article 2, https://ich.unesco.org/en/convention#art2 [accessed on 22 August 2019]

[4] Oxford English Dictionary 2013 edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013)

[5] The Museums Association, journal article on ‘The National Trust’s guiding spirit’ https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/comment/01052016-national-trusts-guiding-spirit [accessed on 18 August 2018]

[6] Certeau, Michel de, The Practice of Everyday Life. Chapter 7 Walking the City, print (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 2013)

[7] Reprinted with permission from Ken Knabb. Translation available in Situationist International Anthology (revised and expanded edition), Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006, and http://www.- bopsecrets.org/SI/urbgeog.htm [accessed 18 August 2019]

[8] The LWT London lecture, ‘London luminaries and Cockney visionaries’, 1993 [accessed 20 August 2019]

[9] Boddice, Rob, The History of Emotions, Historical Approaches (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018), p.182

[10] Sinclair, Iain, Lud Heat: A Book of Dead Hamlets (Cheltenham: Skylight, 2012)

[11] Ahmed, Sara, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004)

[12] Blake, William, Songs of Innocence and of Experience., (London: Penguin 2017)

[13] Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 2nd Vintage Books ed (New York: Vintage Books, 1995)

[14] The Nuns of Tyburn Convent, Tyburn Hill of Glory by The Nuns of Tyburn Convent (Burns Oates, 1952)

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Gil, José, Metamorphoses of the Body, Theory out of Bounds, v. 12 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998)

Works cited

  • Ahmed, Sara, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004)
  • Blake, William, Songs of Innocence and of Experience., (London: Penguin 2017)
  • Boddice, Rob, The History of Emotions, Historical Approaches (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018), p.182
  • Certeau, Michel de, The Practice of Everyday Life. Chapter 7 Walking the City, print (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 2013)
  • Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 2nd Vintage Books ed (New York: Vintage Books, 1995)
  • Gil, José, Metamorphoses of the Body, Theory out of Bounds, v. 12 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998)
  • Jordanova, L. J., History in Practice, 2nd ed (London: Hodder Arnold, 2006)
  • Sinclair, Iain, Lud Heat: A Book of Dead Hamlets (Cheltenham: Skylight, 2012)
  • UNESCO Convention 2003, ‘Text of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage’ Article 2, https://ich.unesco.org/en/convention#art2 [accessed on 22 August 2019]
  • Oxford English Dictionary 2013 edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013)
  • The Museums Association, journal article on ‘The National Trust’s guiding spirit’ https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/comment/01052016-national-trusts-guiding-spirit [accessed on 18 August 2018]
  • Reprinted with permission from Ken Knabb. Translation available in Situationist International Anthology (Revised and expanded edition), Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006, and http://www.- bopsecrets.org/SI/urbgeog.htm [accessed 18 August 2019]
  • The LWT London lecture, ‘London luminaries and Cockney visionaries’, 1993 [accessed 20 August 2019]
  • The Nuns of Tyburn Convent, Tyburn Hill of Glory by The Nuns of Tyburn Convent (Burns Oates, 1952)


New Museum School 2018-19

We need to be building in access from day one. Be creative with this. Access is not an afterthought. By reflecting the diversity of our society in our working practices, by being inclusive, everyone benefits and so does the art. If there is a will for change, there is – I promise you – a way.”

Jodi-Alissa Bickerton, creative learning director, Graeae Theatre Company from Valuing Diversity MA report

One of my freelance roles is as the Course Tutor and Lead Assessor for the New Museum School, run by Culture& and Create Jobs and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. I’ve been working in the role since October 2018 and I love my job. You can see a photo above of our cohort of trainees on the New Museum School programme this year. They’ve a fantastic group of young people with amazing energy, creativity and ideas.

The New Museum School aims to make heritage more relevant, accessible and meaningful to more people and a greater range of people whilst ensuring that heritage continues to be a driving force for good that celebrates the distinctiveness and connectivity of culture. It aims to create a vibrant and passionate workforce with the skills and attributes that are relevant for the curation of heritage itself, as well as the people enjoying and shaping it.

The programme is a year long and this year we have 16 trainees from diverse backgrounds, on work placements in 16 different museums, galleries, heritage sites and in cultural organisations across London. Our partners include the Museum of London, Royal Academy of Arts, National Trust properties such as Sutton House and Rainham Hall as well as other organisations such as Shape Arts and Magnum Photos.

All of the trainees are employed on a year long traineeship within their organisation and alongside gaining practical work experience in diverse areas such as conservation, curatorial practice and learning and engagement, they also complete a Level 3 Diploma in Cultural Heritage, which I manage and assess.

This year we’ve had some wonderful training days all together in various museums and heritage sites and have worked on a podcast series, where each trainee has produced their own podcast about an issue, narrative of their choosing, relating to their work place.

Here are some images from the programme so far.

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You can find out more about the New Museum School and the work of Culture& here.


Cyborgs: Friday Late at the Wellcome Collection

The organisation I work for, Culture&, is curating a really exciting night of music, film and performances at the Wellcome Collection on Friday 15th March on the theme of Cyborgs.

Culture& is excited to announce ‘Cyborgs’, our Friday Late Spectacular curated in collaboration with the Wellcome Collection.

Join us for an evening of irreverent performance, conversation and cocktails where we’ll rethink the boundaries we perceive between human and non-human, or between races, genders or classes.

Hear from artists, designers and engineers who are challenging assumptions about how we classify things as animal, human or machine, and asking whose voices we listen to when designing the future.

Talks will be British Sign Language-interpreted.

Date: Friday 15th March 2019

Time: 7-11pm

Venue: Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, Nw1 2BE.

Tickets available here: https://wellcomecollection.org/events/XGFi9BAAAAWsm24n




Discussion: ‘Return of the Cyborg’

Join us to hear from Joanna Zylinska about why the cyborg has returned at a time when there’s a boom in AI, research into immortality and an unfolding ecological crisis. The talk will include a screening of Zylinska’s short photo-film ‘Exit Man’, which explores the problem of human extinction and proposes ‘a feminist counter-apocalypse’ as an alternative cyborg scenario.


Performance: ‘A Shoal of Lovers Leads Me Home’

Listen to, breathe, taste and incite alternative Black queer liberations with speculative writer, artist and pleasure activist Ama Josephine Budge. You will explore possible climate-changed futures via her speculative fabulation ‘A Shoal of Lovers Leads Me Home’.


Screening: ‘The Last Angel of History’

Watch a screening of ‘The Last Angel of History’, a film by Black Audio Film Collective. This film follows the journey of a data thief and uses Afrofuturism as a metaphor for cultural displacement, presenting a new way to understand the relationship between Black identity and the body. The film will be introduced by Errol Francis.

From 19:00

Refreshments: ‘Cyborgian Cocktails’

Enjoy a range of cocktails specially created by mixologist Mairi Nolan. The drinks, named ‘Stars at Night’, ‘Human and Machine’ and ‘Asclepius’ will reference Cyborgian themes of space travel, the body and machine and the Greek god of medicine.



Performance: ‘Long Straight Pubic Hair’

Watch a newly commissioned and irreverent performance by artist Mamoru Iriguchi about a humble enhancement to his body that would change his life forever.



Performance: ‘Are You There?’

Join artist Rebekah Ubuntu to experience an Afrofuturist sound, video and performance work exploring unbelonging, questing and intersectional utopianism through the speculative gaze of an artificially intelligent cyborg.


Workshop: ‘Flesh and Machine’

Meet designers and engineers from UCL who are creating devices to extend our bodies’ capabilities. Come along to try out a third thumb designed by Dani Clode, learn about how new limbs could affect our brains and see prototypes of future technologies in surgery


Workshop: ‘In the Kingdom of Impossible Life’

Join a participatory workshop run by Zia Álmos Joshua X and explore classification and how it relates to the cyborg. Your activities will focus on the legacy of Carl Linnaeus (who created the system of naming organisms that we still use today), modern ideas about symbiosis and interspecies relationships, and on the political and ethical power of technology.


Discussion: ‘Cyborg Reading Groups’

Join a reading group to discover and discuss writing by Octavia Butler, Donna Haraway and Samuel R Delany and others.