Sally Holloway

The first ETR workshop began as participants were confronted with two tables of objects; the first contained shiny metal instruments such as forceps, and the second natural items such as coral. When considering our emotional responses to these two different collections, the first thing each participant did was to touch, feel, listen to the objects, and gauge their weight (as shown in the video). For me, this raised the issue of how scholars increasingly approach static photographs of items through digital collections, disrupting this physical, sensory and emotional interaction with the objects themselves.

The workshop prompted me to consider how the emotional connotations of objects vary according to an individual’s familiarity with them. Professor Roger Kneebone described the emotional power of medical tools as a surgeon, where using beautiful well-made objects such as stainless steel scissors with gold handles provided him with a sense of safety and control. Such tools mediated communication by providing a site of trust and anticipation between surgeons and nurses in the operating theatre.

Conversely, my own reaction was one of revulsion when invited to use tools to cut a ‘wound’ inside a synthetic section of an arm. The arm featured an inch-long cut in the skin, revealing a spongy red and yellow substance inside. As repeatedly noted by historians of disgust, the chief source of my unease was the wet and sticky texture.[1] I also felt fear at handling sharp tools with which I was completely unfamiliar. The process illuminated how the emotional qualities of objects can be diametrically different depending upon the experience of the user, and how they are employed at a given moment.[2] It made me realise how reliant we are as historians on supporting evidence (such as letters, diaries, prints, paintings and photographs) revealing how, when and why certain objects in history were used, and who by.

Sanderson 2 (SH)

Sanderson 1 (SH)






Matthew Lane Sanderson and Jane Dorner. Commissioned by Birmingham Children’s Hospital for the Bereaved Parents Trust, National Memorial Arboretum.


The workshop also encouraged reflection on how emotional experiences vary according to space, most recently explored in histories and geographies of emotion.[3]Can spaces be designed to elicit given emotions? The emotive power of certain structures was powerfully demonstrated by Matthew Lane Sanderson and Jane Dorner’s collection of five pods at the National Memorial Arboretum, designed in consultation with bereaved parents and their families (above). Matthew described the sculptures as ‘contemplative pods’, play structures, and congregational spaces for families to sit and dwell. As with sites such as places of worship, cemeteries or memorial benches, the pods were designed to anticipate the emotions of their visitors. They are located on a riverside footpath, within a site dedicated to mourning and memorial, inviting mourners to pause and reflect on their own experiences.

Like Roger’s surgical instruments, Matthew and Jane’s pods are made from steel. However where one collection of objects is medical, the other is overtly natural. Due to their scale, design, location, and use, these two sets of objects crafted from the same material inhabit very different emotional worlds.


[1] In particular see Susan B. Miller, Disgust: The Gatekeeper Emotion (New Jersey, 2004).

[2] John Styles similarly notes, ‘Things that exhibit emotional power in one setting can lack it in another’

[3] See Nigel Thrift, ‘Intensities of Feeling: Towards a Spatial Politics of Affect’, Geografiska Annaler, 86 B (2004), Vol. 1, 57-78, Mick Smith, Joyce Davidson, Laura Cameron and Liz Bondi, ‘Geography and Emotion – Emerging Constellations’ in Emotion, Place and Culture (2009), 1-18, Benno Gammerl, ‘Emotional styles – concepts and challenges’, Rethinking History, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2012), 171-75, and Mark Seymour, ‘Emotional arenas: from provincial circus to national courtroom in late nineteenth-century Italy’, Rethinking History, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2012), 177-97.






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