Archives, Objects, Methods 2023: A Conference Review

Celebrating creative research and the unexpected links that exist between interdisciplinary projects, Hannah Palmer reflects upon the recent ‘Archives, Objects, Methods’ conference.

In April 2023, Loughborough University’s Health Humanities research group organised the ‘Health & Medical Humanities in the Midlands: Archives, Objects, Methods’ conference, funded by the British Academy. Organisers Claire O’Callaghan and Jade French coordinated a hybrid event which encouraged fresh perspectives on the interdisciplinarity of the health and medical humanities.

Connecting Early Career Researchers from within the Midlands, the day followed an interdisciplinary schedule with papers ranging from history, literary studies, textiles, communications and media, occupational therapy, and sports and exercise science. Several recurrent themes emerged, including the body, memory, and personal history, with many papers returning to the importance of working across disciplines and making unexpected connections between projects. The conference was particularly successful in dissolving the boundaries between fields and encouraging reflective discussion in the Q&A sessions following each panel.

Keynote: Medical and Health Humanities

The day began with Sally Shuttleworth’s keynote lecture which discussed her experiences working in the health and medical humanities. Sally shared details of two research projects, ‘Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries’ and ‘Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives’. The lecture demonstrated what to expect when working in an interdisciplinary field; in particular, Sally noted that the overlapping of work and gathering of materials could be difficult when working on a large project, especially when working with scholars from diverse disciplines. That said, the keynote showcased Sally’s Diseases of Modern Life database as a testament to what can be produced through productive and thoughtful collaboration. Sally emphasised that, though we are often comforted by the boundaries of our individual fields, broadening the scope of research is key to creating strong and successful projects.

Sally Shuttleworth presenting her keynote lecture ‘Medical and Health Humanities’.

Offering advice to ECRs, Sally noted the importance of being responsive and welcoming to the unique opportunities that interdisciplinarity offers, specifically when working in a field that relies on the partnership between the humanities, science, and medicine. The Q&A session continued on this theme: the group discussed how to navigate working on projects which push the limits of our fields and our comfort zones. The response emphasised the value of confidence and networking, along with appreciating that every person, and every field, operates differently. This is not to say that disciplines cannot work together; rather, Sally demonstrated how patience and balance is necessary in the collaboration between fields to produce successful interdisciplinary projects.

Working with Collections

Sophie Clapp began this panel with her paper Uncovering the Boots Archives’, which demonstrated the usefulness of using corporate archives as a research resource. Sophie shared details of a new UKRI-funded project ‘Chemists to the nation, pharmacy to the world’, which illuminates the value of using archival materials to tell the international story of Boots by sharing archived products with individual people across the globe. Through the creation of an interactive website, a public exhibition, and two articles published in popular history magazines, the project reveals the history of British health and beauty industries with a focus on the personal stories attached to Boots. It was clear from Sophie’s paper that the Boots archive has preserved not only a long corporate history, but also a rich network of individual memories and histories with health and beauty.

Loesja Vigour followed with ‘Zines @ Wellcome Collection’, showing how Zines—independent not-for-profit publications—offer unique insights into personal experiences of health and underrepresented topics like mental health, neurodivergency, sex, surgery, and patient experience. Loesja’s paper demonstrated how the Wellcome’s archive prioritises patient voices and perspectives, unlike traditional medical collections which often erase marginalised and overlooked individuals. This research offered a fresh perspective on the experiences of health and medicine through its focus on understudied archives and an overlooked mode of health and medical literature.

Turning to the early modern period, Hannah Brumby also focused on medical literature in her paper ‘Exploring the RSM Collection: The Golden Age of Melancholy’. The paper focused on an exhibition at the Royal Society of Medicine which concentrates on rare medical literature concerning melancholy. Discussing her placement at the RSM and her role in the creation of the exhibition, Hannah’s paper illustrated how the exhibition speaks to her own research on melancholy, masculinity, and Renaissance dramas. The paper analysed the use of archival materials as a valuable research tool in the understanding of masculinity and psychology of the period, and Hannah highlighted the positive impact working on an exhibition had on her own research.

Working with archives and collections was revisited later in the day during Barbara Caddick’s paper ‘Working with archival collections to develop a methodology for facilitating people’s memories of healthcare 1940-1970’. Barbara showcased her project ‘Remembering everyday healthcare’ which tests how to collect memories of healthcare from 1940-1970. The paper focused on the relationship between archives and methodology, and Barbara discussed the project’s engagement with photographs and visual sources to generate personal and individual responses to healthcare. This paper underlined the value of archives in unlocking personal histories of lived experience, and the memories attached to individual histories of healthcare.

Hannah Brumby (left), Loesja Vigour (middle), and Sophie Clapp (right) in the ‘Working with Collections’ Q&A session.

Working Creatively with Publics

Augusta Philippou’s paper ‘Textiles Interventions for Dementia’ discussed the benefits of art-based intervention by analysing her participants’ experiences experimenting with textiles in art-based workshops. Using textiles to prompt learning, new skills, community feeling, reduce loneliness, and improve wellbeing proved significant and necessary to adults living with dementia. Exploring health—specifically dementia and the loss of memory, problem-solving, language, and thinking abilities—through engagement with textiles and design, Augusta’s research offered a unique perspective into individual experiences and indicated the advantage of interdisciplinary research to promote wellbeing.

Next, Daithí McMahon explored creativity and creative media from a different perspective with his paper ‘Who You Gonna Call?: The Use of Creative Media to Promote Behavioural Change for Wellbeing’. The paper focused on audience engagement on a joint project: ‘Poo Busters’ with NHS Derbyshire Community Trust. The project designed a constipation awareness video to educate a learning-disabled audience on personal health and safe independent living. Creative media was implemented through visual cues, catchy music, Makaton signing, and repetition to create an accessible and memorable video. Daithí’s paper demonstrated the benefit of using creative media to spread important messages about health, and I think it is safe to say we all had the catchy tune stuck in our heads for the rest of the day!

Connecting creative media and occupational therapy, Sophie Knight presented ‘Food in Focus: Use of participant-driven photo-elicitation to explore food occupations’. Sophie’s paper explored the creative methodology she employed while working on a project about individual experiences with food. The participants kept a photo diary of their meals and documented everything they consumed. The paper demonstrated that photo-elicitation gave control to the participants which encouraged them to take ownership of their photos and food diaries. Many generated interest and trust in the project which prompted deep reflections on what they had documented. The images encouraged thoughtful connections with identity, belonging, environment, and memories of foods from the past.

Tamarin Norwood’s paper ‘Making a thing of it: Material creative practice in two bereavement resources for reproductive loss’ also concentrated on personal stories and experiences. Focusing on ‘hidden narratives’, the paper challenged taboos around reproductive loss and the unrepresented grief of losing a baby. Using art-based workshops for grieving parents, Tamarin’s project gave overlooked individuals an opportunity to preserve their memories through creating material items which encompass their loss. Like Augusta’s presentation, textiles and art-based workshops proved valuable in promoting wellbeing and taking control of personal experiences and stories.

Future Planning – Programming, Funding, Impact

Sam Winter broadened the scope of the conference with her paper ‘Breathe’, which offered an insight into sport, exercise, and health sciences. Building on her work assessing breathing mechanics in athletes, with an emphasis on health and air following the COVID-19 pandemic, Sam has programmed a series of events at Loughborough University. Sam’s paper noted varying interpretations of what it means to breathe, how to bring different disciplines together around a theme, and like many of the papers, this presentation brought a new perspective to a common theme: the body.

With a comprehensive view of health-related research across disciplines and the Midlands, the day offered fresh perspectives on making unexpected links between projects and demonstrated the importance of interdisciplinary research within the health and medical humanities. Many thanks to the British Academy for funding the event, all the speakers for their brilliant presentations, and to Claire and Jade for coordinating a wonderful conference. The day was also live tweeted on Loughborough’s Health Humanities Twitter page.

About the Author

Hannah Palmer is a doctoral researcher at Loughborough University researching literary representations of abortion and maternal histories in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hannah is an active member of Loughborough’s Health Humanities research group and runs the group’s Twitter page. Her broad research interests include maternity and motherhood, the body, trauma, psychiatry, Neo-Victorianism, and the author Barbara Comyns. Follow Hannah on Twitter.

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