Sensing heritage

I don’t know about you, but to me the change from year to year and season to season is a very sensory experience: the smell of damp earth and the colour of daffodils in the sunshine; the prickle of warm grass on the skin as I lie in a park, sunbathing; the sound of a pile of crisp autumn leaves underfoot; the scents of mulled wine and cinnamon on sharp, cold air at this time of year.

When I lived in an equatorial country which marked the change of the year with a move from dry heat to warm heat – where Christmas was celebrated in air-conditioned churches and with picnics where the guests fanned themselves and sought shade – I felt dislocated from the passage of time, unable to place myself within the cycle of traditions which mark new periods of the year.

This sensory embodiment is a key part of experiences of heritage, but one which is often overlooked. John Urry, who wrote an influential book called ‘The Tourist Gaze’, argues that our experiences of places we visit are primarily experienced through sight, and remembered in photographs and postcards. Yet, in fact, what makes up the real experience is the temperatures, the smells, the echoes and the sense of space that come from placing ourselves physically in the situation – which any blind or visually-impaired person could tell you – and which mean that a viewing of a holiday photo album are never really as interesting as the visit itself.

Just as the smells of cinnamon and mulled wine can transport my mind to a Christmas market, and wood polish and incense put me in the dark coolness of a quiet church somewhere in England, so can Imperial Leather soap take me to my grandparents’ house and warm cut grass to long summer school holidays. And this is what photographs and even 3D reconstructions, however good, cannot quite capture; that to visit somewhere is to place your body in a space others have experienced in the same physical way.

Although guided tours and tourist sites like to emphasise that figures from history stood in this exact spot, they rarely take the opportunity to really get visitors to share in what that meant for a sensory experience – how the sounds, smells and sensations of the place would have been, feeding imaginations so visitors don’t only view a place, but can understand how historical figures would have inhabited it.

Some heritage projects are tackling this over-focus on the visual experience. The Digital Creativity Labs recently used acoustic technology to reconstruct the audio properties of St Stephen’s Chapel in Westminster before it was destroyed by fire – allowing them to find out how much women clustered around the air vents in the ceiling could actually hear about events. And famously, the JORVIK Viking Centre in York uses chemicals to recreate the smells of a Viking town for visitors, as well as using recorded clips in historically accurate Norse to invoke a sensory experience of time travel. But these are exceptions, not the rule.

Heritage is not an academic, easily quantifiable or reproducible part of life. It is emotional, personal, and cannot be simplified into aesthetic or disembodied experiences. And this is, I believe, partly why we have an instinctive desire to protect and maintain our heritage; because it cannot be easily distilled into facts, figures, and reproductions. The ability to be present and experience the sensory immersion of a place is precious in itself.

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