A good day out? Sensory excitement and storytelling 

A good day out? Sensory excitement and storytelling

By Tot Foster, 1st September 2023

In this blog post, CTC Researcher, Tot Foster, describes two recent co-researcher trips – what worked well and less well – and finds that the visits underlined how experiences may be at their most powerful when they combine something for the senses with relatable storytelling.  

This summer co-researchers have been on two very different trips. Firstly, to the M-Shed and a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of storage areas; a mish-mash of everything from domestic appliances from 70 years ago, ceremonial carriages, train parts and chocolate moulds. Our volunteer guides took round two separate groups and when we compared notes at the end, our tours had totally different feels. One group were all excited by the idea of seeing Bristol heritage that isn’t on show to the public and were full of questions – their tour overran by some time despite sore feet! Some members of the other group were not so engaged – they saw shelves of dusty unrelated objects piled high, with little that made sense to their lives. Some people were perhaps expecting precious items behind glass; the idea of ‘museum’ was hard to relate to this scene that was poorly lit and labelled with paper tags. The ennui continued until one co-researcher spotted an early calculating machine that her mother had used in an office, bringing memories back into vivid focus. When we saw a huge horn-type object the volunteer said that had been used in early talking cinemas – you had to line up the needle on a record with the action on the film. One of the co-researchers said her mother had done that in a Bristol cinema – timed the roar with the image of the MGM lion at the start of movies. At these moments these objects suddenly embodied personal histories, shared experiences of past work, intense nostalgia, family. They told stories beyond their physical presence, beyond the facts relating to origin and function that the guide could provide. Laundry items made me think of the Anyone remember the Washhouse’ prototype project that is currently being co-produced by co-researchers and artists, and how those memories of our mothers’ labour needs celebrating – just as their tools demand to be preserved in M-shed. On the way out, the statue of Colston – still brightly coloured with spray-paint, reclined in front of the double doors we left by. I thought to myself this would open a complex conversation but in fact everyone by this point just really wanted a cup of tea!  

Our second visit, a month later, could not have been more of a contrast – a sensory overload that grabbed everyone….but with little story or moments to relate to. We went together to “Wake the Tiger” – billed as an ‘amazement park’, built inside a warehouse in the light industrial zone of St Philips. As the first visitors of the day we were greeted by two women painting a car to make it appear as if it had sunk into a huge blue puddle in the car park. On the surface a series of quirky spaces inside exuded steampunk hippy vibes – secret doors, dizzying visual effects, tiny details inside books you could take off the shelves, infinite mirrors. The experience was kicked off by a five-minute explanation about how the place was a future housing development that had been abandoned. But there the story ended – it was almost impossible to match up the disorientating walkways and the sci-fi doorways with any narrative at all. Everyone was ready to be taken on a journey, told a story, but instead this assault on the senses was just that – and only that. The experience wowed for a moment but then was gone.  

Two researchers from Connecting through Culture are exploring new ways of evaluating cultural experiences. But in the meantime, and for me personally, these contrasting experiences made me think that for a cultural experience to grab and hold my attention (and from what the co-researchers said about the visits I am not alone in this), experiences need to have some powerful sensory component but also tell a story and be relatable to my life. I felt, in that moment of reflection, that our research approach which began with co-researchers reflecting on their lifecourse, is one which offers learning riches. And taking older co-researchers life experiences as a starting point to co-designing the cultural services and products that are the six prototype projects has got every chance of leading us to a good day out.