Talking Emotions

Have you ever wandered through a museum gallery and laughed at a detail on a pot, been moved to tears by a sculpture, or felt a serene calm while gazing at a painting? Museum objects can elicit a range of emotions. But is the affective experience of viewing an object in a museum behind glass in the twenty-first century comparable to the emotional experience of viewing an object from when and where it originated? This question was the foundation of Talking Emotions.

We started planning Talking Emotions in the summer of 2019. We wanted to create a public engagement programme which brought together two of Oxford’s strengths, the cutting-edge research of its post-graduate and early career scholars and the collections of the Ashmolean Museum. By focusing on emotions, the project’s goal was two-fold. First, we wanted to create an interdisciplinary network of scholars working on emotions and a space where we could learn from each discipline’s methodological approach. Second, through a series of gallery talks, we wanted to provide a different perspective on the collections to museum visitors and, in turn, encourage greater engagement with the museum. Museum studies have shown that when audiences engage emotionally with an object, they have a more positive experience and are more likely to revisit the museum. We selected nine DPhil students and post-doctoral researchers from a range of faculties, including Archaeology, History, Classics, Anthropology, Oriental Studies, Theology, and History of Art, to become Ashmolean Public Engagement Research Associates.

For the researchers, we organised three workshops with Dr. Jim Harris, Teaching Curator at the Ashmolean. During these workshops, participants learned not only how to handle museum objects but also how to question them. Clare Cory and Jane Cockroft from the Ashmolean Learning Team worked with our researchers on how to structure and develop their talks to make them as engaging as possible. The second part of the workshops were spent discussing assigned readings on methodological approaches to the study of emotions, material culture, and museology. Each workshop was designed around one of the following questions: Are emotions ahistorical, or do they vary across time and place? How can material culture offer insights into the history of emotions? How can we use objects to enable emotional engagements with museum visitors? The interdisciplinary approaches of our researchers led to rich and interesting connections between emotions and objects across cultures.

The workshops took place in the winter of 2020, and we were set to deliver the public gallery talks just as the COVID-19 pandemic began. With the lockdown in place, we put the project on hold, and hoped we would be able to deliver the talks in the next academic year. As the pandemic continued into 2021, we realized we would have to change course, as in-person talks would not be possible with social distancing measures. While we were deeply disappointed, the transformation of the final stage of the project from gallery talks to a podcast series allowed us to engage the public in a different way. Turning our talks into podcasts required some adapting, since we would no longer be standing directly in front of the objects nor would we be able to interact with the audience in the same way. This, however, was a great learning experience and taught us how to adapt our interactive gallery talks into more narrative renditions. The pandemic had another surprise effect because many of our chosen themes and objects ended up being deeply relevant to concerns raised by the COVID-19 crisis. For example, some talks are centred around emotions such as anxiety, grief, and fear, and tied to discussions of disease, social inequalities, and mourning practices, which resonated with current concerns. In a similar vein, those talks that focused on more positive emotions such as compassion, love, and comfort were a means of asking questions about continuities between past and present.

By using objects as a bridge between the emotions of the past and those of today, Talking Emotions provided a unique opportunity to promote meaningful encounters between researchers, objects, and the wider public. We hope the next time you wander through the galleries of the Ashmolean, you will listen to the podcasts and learn not only about the emotional lives of the objects but also about how these objects can help us make better sense of human emotions throughout space and time.

You can follow Talking Emotions on Twitter @TalkingEmosOx and visit the website to find links to the talks and researchers’ bios.

All episodes of the Talking Emotion podcasts are available here.

This project has been generously funded by the AHRC-TORCH Graduate Fund.

Talking Emotions