Bryonie’s ideas about our sensory experience of place has resonated with me. Particularly in relation to my recent work with the Corrymeela Community on ‘Contact, Culture and Conflict around the Causeway’.
The project’s residential programme involved visits to archaeological sites relating to the complex history of the Plantation and the social and political legacy it created. These sites create an emotional response in me every time I visit, and I saw similar responses from the project participants. Being in these places enabled more meaningful dialogue about the relationship between history, identity and social division in our society. But I find it difficult to pinpoint why. As a museum professional, I find it similar to the experience of handling objects from the past. We can more easily connect with people from the past through directly interacting with historic objects and places. But I suspect there is more to explaining the experience than simply that.
I recently read ‘Living Mountain’ by Nan Shepherd. She says that through spending time in a landscape ‘place and mind may interpenetrate until the nature of both are altered. I cannot tell what that movement is except by recounting it’.
Robert McFarlane relates her work to that of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who argued for the foundational role that sensory perception plays in our understanding of the world, as well as our reception of it. He argued that knowledge is felt; that our bodies think and know in ways that precede cognition. McFarlane argues that we need to allow ourselves time in a landscape to allow new ways of seeing to emerge and to be shown how to look again from different angles.
I am also attracted to the concept of ‘shadowed ground’ in Kenneth Foote’s writing. His study focuses on sites of memory related to specific events of violence or tragedy but his analysis is as relevant to any place where the ‘shadows’ of the past remain. When archaeological sites are preserved in a ruinous state and opened as a picturesque attraction, their rich complexity can be obscured. They may well be places of conflict and death, but if we focus on one event in time the full scope of their meaning will be impoverished. Taking time to pay closer attention to what remains, and considering how it has been re-interpreted and re-presented over time, can open up challenging questions relating to the meaning of our past in the present.
I am left with the question of how I can apply these thoughts to my own practice. How can I evaluate the full impact of engaging with and learning from historic places? I hope to begin to answer this question through my involvement in the next phase of the programme with Corrymeela and their partners.