Jenny Pistella (Museum and Heritage Learning Consultant; PhD Candidate at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Queen Mary University, London)
How historical places remember people's emotions
Jenny Pistella, Alina Boyko, Ekaterina Provornaya
transcript s.1 ep.5
Hello, you are listening to For Arts’ Sake, a podcast where we discover about what museums are really for and what people who work there really do. Today we are meeting with Jenny Pistella. Jenny has been a museum educator for the past 15 years. She works with some of the largest cultural places in the UK, including the Victoria and Albert Museum and Historic Royal Palaces.
Currently, Jenny's working on something that's really unique. She is telling histories of places which no longer exist. So let's hear more about what Jenny does and what kind of difference it makes in our everyday lives.
It's a pleasure to have you here with us today.
Thank you very much for having me.
Thank you so much for joining For Arts’ Sake.
You've had an impressive career in museum learning, you've released successful projects with some of the top cultural institutions in the UK. So tell us, what do you actually do at work?
So I've worked in museum education and learning for the last 15 years. It's a job I love doing. I'm very passionate about museum education in general, and I feel really lucky to have worked in lots of different museums and heritage sites, because I not only combine my work, but I also combine it with what I'm interested in. I love history, I love people, I love hearing other people's narratives and stories, and it keeps me sort of constantly kind of interested and intrigued by what I find out.
Interesting. Thank you so much. Museum education is a very specific field. Tell us what made you choose this pathway? Why not work at a school or university?
So when I was young, I always knew that I loved history, I loved the stories of people and events from the past, but mostly finding out about people and their experiences. So there's actually an apocryphal tale that when I was young, from when we were going from infant school, we were asked to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. And I said, I wanted to work in a castle. And I drew a picture of myself and a castle. So that has always been a sort of ambition. But not just working in a castle. It was more around public engagement and talking to people and learning about the history and our shared national, local and kind of regional histories. So I studied combined arts at the Newcastle University, and I really enjoyed that kind of mixture of looking at different cultural practices. So I studied archaeology, film studies, art history. I took that on with me, and I started working in London at the Institute of Education actually, but I knew that I wanted to work in museums and heritage places. So the first kind of job I got after I finished my master's in museums and galleries education at the Institute of Education UCL, was I started working at Open House, which was an architectural education charity. I was the Education Officer there. So through that I managed to combine my love of London which I've always had as well at the city, which is kind of layered with so many different types of histories, like kind of the if you cut through London, you can see the structure of different times, different experiences, and different kind of narratives that are coming out. So I love that about the city. So that was a great place for me to start because it really kind of allowed me to indulge my passion of architecture and history and telling the Tales of the City and the places and spaces around us. After that, I went to work at, as you said, Historic Royal Palaces, which was a fantastic experience. I worked in the learning and engagement teams there, drawing out the stories of these amazing palaces and places. And then I had a short time at the V&A, which was fantastic. And after that, at UCL Museums, where I worked in the UCL Art Museum, and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian archaeology. So I've had a bit of a smorgasbord of experience in terms of my career, working in lots of different places, from big nationals to small charities, to heritage sites. So a real kind of passion just in general for the cultural life of, in this case, most of my experience has been in London.
You mentioned the Open House at the very beginning. Did you apply there? Did you know someone there? How did you come across this organisation?
So I was just committed to trying to find a job working in a museum, learning and education, and previously doing the master's in museum and gallery education, I guess I hadn't really considered a museum education route as an option. I had assumed that if you wanted to work in museums, you might train to be a curator, or you might work in conservation. But for me, when I was actually working at the Institute of Education, and I saw this course was running, for me that kind of connected all the dots because it combined my love of interacting and spending time with people and having the people as my focus as much as the stories and the history and the narrative. So I gain a lot of energy, I think from other people, and that was really important for me in my work, because I love meeting people, talking with them. And for me, that really sustains me and has been a joy throughout my career.
Definitely, you have such a diverse portfolio of different places where you’ve worked so far. Why did you choose to go freelance?
That's a very good question. So after finishing working at UCL Museums, I decided to go freelance because I wanted to pursue a PhD, a doctorate, in some of the ideas that had come to me as I was working in museums and heritage sites. And I had enjoyed the research aspect of my Master's Course, and I really wanted to explore further some of those ideas that I had around how we learn from places and spaces and really investigate that a bit further. So I went freelance to enable myself to do a part time PhD so that I could work part time and study part time.
Tell us about one of the brightest and most memorable projects from your career.
So the most memorable project probably more recently was when I worked on the Museums on Prescription Project at UCL museums. So that was run as a research project with academics from UCL and other institutions. It looked at the issue of social prescribing, and how museums could potentially take on the same kind of role as other arts organisations had previously, in terms of healthcare professionals prescribing interaction with museums and their collections and their staff through a series of guided and facilitated workshops, as a form of social prescription, which has been replicated with things like gardening, access to arts. So it was to sort of test out this idea, and lots and lots of work had been done previously throughout the sector around this theme. But we were involved in this research project, which was trying to kind of analyse and look at the impact that interaction and engagement with a museum collection would have on, in this case, it was a group of socially isolated adults from Camden and Islington, in London. So we hosted, myself and one of my other colleagues from the museums at UCL, and we hosted a set of 10 week workshops for a group of people at risk of social isolation, who were older adults who came in every week for 10 weeks. We did various different activities with them, we built up a community and a sort of safe space. And it was wonderful getting to know them. It was really interesting to hear all about their experiences and their ways of reacting to the museums. I remember there was a beautiful poem one of the participants wrote about her experience of holding objects from the Petri Museum collection, which were over sort of 2000 years old. She had created this poem in response to some artwork as well that she'd created. So it was really lovely, there were a lot of surprising and unusual ways in which this group, specifically who were not necessarily traditional museum goers, reacted and what they gained from interaction with the museums.
So interesting. So what were their responses?
It was interesting to try and form a community out of disparate people, so they were not part of an existing group. So there were challenges there in terms of making sure that everybody felt like it was a safe social space and that they felt like they were a coherent group and that they could share and talk openly, if they wanted to, they didn't have to. I think that was one of the things, even though we were working on a social prescription model, we were trying not to prescribe the outcomes too much, because essentially, it was…I think this is really important for museums, that museums are a service to their audience, to their users. We shouldn't at least be kind of prescribing what we want people to get out of something, a workshop, an experience, a visit to an exhibition. We should be facilitating the opportunity for people to take whatever they want away. And if that's nothing, that's fine as well, but the idea of being a sociable, friendly, welcoming space, and the results of the museums on prescription were that we had participants who didn't really speak very much in the first few sessions and were quite nervous and really making friends within the group, which was really important. So that they would go to coffee or tea together, they would share Information about themselves and build their confidence as well as part of a social group. So that was really important.
This is really interesting. So you can actually prescribe a museum to go to if you have some issue to sort out in your own life. Do you think this potentially can happen, and people can go to a doctor, to their GP and get a museum prescribed in accordance with their problems?
Well, as I said, the research itself is much more in depth that I can possibly summarise in this podcast. But I think that there's a lot of potential and there's also a lot of emphasis at the moment on museums, health, and wellbeing in the sector, and the role that museum educators and facilitators can play. So I would advise everybody to find out more about the research, you can see it on the Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing.
Now we see that a lot of different experiences can happen inside museum walls, but your current project is about expanding museums beyond their walls. This is a new field, something that is called the history of emotions. Explain to us what it means.
I'm currently studying my PhD part time in the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University in East London. My thesis is called Heart of Stone, How Do We Learn From Sites of Emotional History. So I am fascinated by this idea of how we sort of access present, interpret and elicit responses to emotional history in the museum and heritage sector. So really what I am interested in is researching whether places and spaces retain the emotions that have happened in them. And if that is true or not, how do then we learn about the emotional history of a place or space. So I'm thinking largely around intangible histories. So can we describe for example, emotional history, the experiences of emotion happening in a space, love, pain, fear, desperation, passion, in the same way we describe other types of intangible heritage where we look at things like the wider cultural intangible heritage realm of food, of music, of poetry, of performance. So I wanted to interrogate this idea of how in museums and heritage sites, more specifically I think in heritage sites, what does it mean when as educators, for example, we step into a room in a castle, in a stately home, in a historic space or a site and we say to the group of students in front of us, can you imagine the fear, the pain coming out of the walls, can you feel the stones, can you feel the woodwork speaking to you? And we use a lot of this kind of language where we try to encourage them to use imagination and elicit an emotional response. But we're insinuating that the emotions that took place in that space are still there, and that they are to be excavated, to be uncovered, to be discovered, as if they were just lying dormant, and we could access them in a very physical way, even though we're talking very metaphorically.
Let's take a look at a specific example. We know that your research revolves around the case of a place called Tyburn Tree, a very central place in London, which thousands of people pass every day. Can you tell us why this place is so special?
So for my research, I'm looking at various different sites of emotional history around London. I would say London is essentially an emotional city. As I was saying earlier, I really love London because it is a multi-layered city in so many different ways. But I love the way that you can be walking down the street in London, and you're kind of assaulted subconsciously or not by so many different references to the past and symbolism and the idea of history being all around you, even as you go about your everyday life. And a lot of my research is based around the kind of genealogies of psychogeography, as a theory and practice, can be used to explain and kind of share and exemplify the way in which we as individuals tap into the emotional history of a place or space. So in the 1950s, there was a group called the Leftist Situationist, and in a 1955 essay, one of the four founders of this movement explained that psychogeography could be defined as the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviours of individuals. These early psycho geographers, such as Guy DeBord and his kind of peers, they would roam the streets of Paris, picking up on the subconscious messages they received as they wandered around the streets and the squares. But what I'm really interested in is making that applicable to the heritage world, and how we as museum and heritage educators and facilitators, encourage people to look at the built environment, and places and spaces around them, and encourage them to pick up on the emotional history of place. So, one of my case studies, it's not the main focus of my research, but it was one that I was really interested in as a site anyway, was the site of the Tyburn Tree. And in my thesis I sort of, or in this case study, I start off with this idea that I imagine, as an experiment, I took you to a specific traffic island in central London. This is one that is on the corner of Marbella Edgware Road and Lancaster Gate. And I asked you to stand there in the middle and try and see if he could decipher any resonance of past events, feelings, emotions left there. I wouldn't give you any kind of secondary information about the place, no text, no maps, no images, but I would ask you to experience it in its kind of reality, in the here and now, in that moment. And you're standing in the middle of this traffic island, you can hear traffic passing you by, you can hear the beep of the pedestrian crossing, you can hear planes overhead. But could you also sort of tap into your subconscious? And could you tap into the psychogeography of the site perhaps? Would there be anything that you could pick up from this very mundane, very everyday type of place, to tell you the history of the importance of this site specifically? For example, this site that I'm talking about is the site off where between 1196 and 1783 criminals were executed on the famous portable gallows, known colloquially as the Tyburn Tree. So it was the site of execution in London, one of many, but one of the principle sites of execution. And at the moment, the only thing that remains of the Tyburn Tree is a stone plaque embedded into the traffic islands, which is probably about, I don't know, 40 centimeters by 40. And it just says the Tyburn Tree around it, and it's actually managed and maintained by English Heritage. But you also wouldn't know that down the road, just slightly towards Lancaster Gate, there's actually a convent where the nuns, the Tyburn convent, where the nuns there pray for the souls of the Catholic martyrs who died at Tyburn. So, it's really interesting from this very mundane and incongruous site, you actually have a little community of nuns nearby that are keeping the memory and the emotional history of the site alive in the present day. So that was something I was really interested in. If nothing exists on the ground, if you can't see anything, this is the same for battlefields for sites of protest. There's lots and lots of research and lots and lots of academic literature on the way in which battlefields are interpreted, for example, but I wanted to look at this in the urban realm. So the idea of the tree at Tyburn, this idea of a site of execution really fascinated me because for six centuries almost in London, the word Tyburn was associated with death, and it was associated with execution. But then the place itself has lost its significance, it's lost its importance. It's still a crossroad, it still performs that function, but it's no longer connected with this kind of macabre gruesome history. So what I'm interested in is whether if you stand in that traffic island, can you actually pick up any of that emotional history? Is there anything left? And if we do not have any information about it, that we are given, there's nothing to support our learning. How then do places retain, have a place memory that they keep with them?
So you mentioned that you would ask people to tell you how they feel and what their emotions are. In the future, would you do the same, for example, to evoke the history of this place? How do you want to make it physically possible, evoking the history of the place that no longer exists?
So at the moment, I don't know, because I am just starting out. What I'm really interested in at the moment is not to propose ways of interpretation. What I'm interested in is in tracking the theory, and the philosophies around whether places and spaces retain emotion. And as my research progresses, I'm going to have a practice element of my research and what I'm going to do is choose a few sites in London and experiment with different ways, and kind of explore and analyse the different ways in which people do access emotional history. So for example, I've been looking at maybe working with a theatre company, working with poets, with artists, with audio and maybe thinking also about analysing some digital kind of projects that have been used. But at the moment, one thing that really excites me is that often I think with museum education and museum learning, there can be a real gap between the enjoyment of theory and the philosophies, behind a kind of wider interdisciplinary way in which we engage with culture, and then the very practical kind of delivery, so the very vocational. So what are you going to do? How are you going to do it? How many people are you going to get? Who's your audience? What artists are you going to commission? And actually, I think there is a gap almost in museum education and learning at the moment where, as museum educators, I'd like us to think about being a bit more creative and in depth around how we think about the academic theories about what we do, as much as the practical. But just for me personally, I am interested in kind of focusing on that at the moment.
In telling different histories, which sometimes are really dark, do you think there should be some limits as to what can be told or cannot be told?
Ok, so recently I went to a really interesting conference in Birmingham, run by Birmingham University and the Ironbridge Heritage Centre, and it was called Dark Heritage. The title of it was The Thrill of the Dark. It was fascinating because it was a collective of people from lots of different disciplines, not just museums, but historians, psychologists, so people who are writing about literature, architects talking about what is it that draws us as humans to dark subject matter. So there were people presenting on interpretation projects in stories from cemeteries. There was somebody else presenting about the ways in which there is a trend in architecture at the moment, or has been previously, of turning old slaughterhouses into gallery spaces and public spaces. There is a huge range of different interpretations of this theme of dark heritage essentially. But the thing that I found really interesting was yes, there are issues and challenges around what you tell and what you don't and how you do that with respect to individuals, to groups and to different cultures. But there is definitely something there around, as humans, why we are drawn to the dark. And that is a whole another kind of discussion to have around the psychology of what makes us almost comforted by death and dark subject matter.
This is really interesting. So we'd like to turn to a final question now, and let’s imagine that we can build a museum and you have unlimited funding, you have a space, and what kind of cultural space or museum would you build? What would you say to people on the opening day?
Hmm, that's a really difficult question. I probably have had a conversation like this with museum colleagues around a pint or two in the pub. But I don’t know what, at the moment I'm really into this idea of interdisciplinary learning and culture being wider than just a collection itself, and just sort of situated in a traditional museum. So what I really like is some of those kinds of pop up museums, like the Museum of Empathy, I love what the Museum of Migration or the Migration Museum, sorry, is doing at the moment. I think if I was to do something now, it might have to be to pick up on some of those ideas. I would maybe create some kind of pop up travelling museum, perhaps looking at something like what brings us together? What's our shared heritage? What makes us similar? I really love the way that the Joe Cox Foundation is working to kind of address that in our country where there's a lot of division around people expressing their views and not actually having public forums to do that. So I guess it would be something like that. I'm not quite sure what it would look like at the moment, but I would also see museums not just being within their own walls. I really like the idea of the museum as something that inspires, and that's its central role, working collaboratively with other cultural disciplines, to champion and celebrate culture and the benefit of culture as a general theme, rather than museums kind of digging in and trying to kind of defend their own kind of dominance of the sector.
It's such an interesting conversation and we learned so much about different fields of your studies, about your projects, and I'm sure that the listeners will find loads of inspirational and useful things. This was For Arts’ Sake, and we'll see you next week.