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Silence, Memory and Empathy in Museums and at Historic Sites

Grant Holder: Dr Joanne Sayner, Department of Modern Languages, University of Birmingham

Co-applicant: Dr Jenny Kidd

Funder: AHRC

Period: September 2012 to December 2013

Silences are significant elements of the ways our pasts are represented. While it is often taken for granted that there are silences at museums and historic sites, the processes by which they operate have been less explicitly conceptualised. This network will make a distinction between 'being silenced' and 'being silent' in order to look at the ways in which histories perceived as challenging or 'difficult' are conveyed and taught by education officers in museums and at historic sites. As part of such teaching, museums and historic sites now frequently employ strategies of empathy to confront difficult pasts. The network will draw on the body of work about empathy and issues of accessibility in order to interrogate the ways in which empathy is being identified in the generic learning outcomes.

The network will bring together academics, early career researchers, doctoral students, curators, and educators to work in a genuinely interdisciplinary way. The diversity of expertise within the network will facilitate a focus on different cultural conceptions of silence and empathy and the way that such understandings are (or are not) part of dominant understandings of memory. The collaboration of academics and practitioners will promote an understanding of how silence, empathy and memory interact in museums and at historic sites. The findings will be of significance for museum and heritage site professionals, policy makers and educators across the sectors.

Research Outputs

The Silence, Memory and Empathy network will run three workshops and one conference at the University of Birmingham, Cardiff University, the Historic Royal Palaces Tower of London and Buckfast Abbey respectively. These meetings will be structured to promote dialogue, collaboration and progression of the fields. The network will maintain a website and blog throughout its duration to strengthen the exchange of ideas, report back on the workshops, maintain the impetus beyond the life of the initial project, and attract interest more widely from the constituencies of the members. The steering group will also disseminate the results via a website, blog, training day for educators, conference papers, co-authored articles, and special issue of a journal.

Research Impact

The focus of this project is, by its very nature, wide in its temporal scope: it casts its gaze on events from long ago but at the same time there are immediate and continuing opportunities to see the impact of the project on current centenial activity and on work for the immediate and more distant future. The project thus seeks to inform the work of:

1. Museum and Heritage Site Professionals 
2. Policy Makers 
3. Educational programmers
4. Academic researchers/students

Related Links:

Project Website

Project Partners:

Buckfast Abbey

Historic Royal Palaces, Tower of London

National Maritime Museum

Imperial War Museum

Oriel High School

Hitchin Museum

National Museums Northern Ireland

Royal Armouries Museum

National Trust Scotland