Objects and Emotions: Rituals, Routines, Collections and Communities

By Sasha Handley, The University of Manchester

Welcome to ‘Objects and Emotions: Rituals, Routines, Collections and Communities’ – the exciting new international collaboration between scholars at the universities of Melbourne and Manchester, supported by the Manchester-Melbourne Humanities Consortium Fund. Established in 2016, this group brings together scholars and special collections staff from the two universities and builds upon longstanding research by members of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE, 2011–2018) and the ‘Embodied Emotions’ research cluster at The University of Manchester (est. 2015).

The Garden of Love
Master of the Stories of Helen, Antonio Vivarini (studio of), The Garden of Love (c.1465-1470), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1948, 1827-4.


With the opening of the fabulous ‘Love: Art of Emotion, 1400–1800’ exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) on Thursday 30 March, co-curated by one of our members, Angela Hesson, it seemed like the perfect time to share an overview of our project with the wider history of emotions community. The exhibition is part of a large collaborative project between CHE and the NGV developed by Charles Zika, and includes a catalogue (edited by Angela, Charles and NGV Curator of International Decorative and Arts and Antiquities, Matthew Martin), several symposia (convened by Charles and Angela), a series of public events and educational programs (developed by Penelope Lee, the Faculty of Arts at The University of Melbourne and the NGV) and a program of musical events and an Audience Response Survey (both directed by Jane Davidson).

The beautiful mourning rings that feature in the ‘Love’ exhibition and that were once worn on or close to a human body, go to the heart of our aim to explore how objects were imbued with and gathered emotional power, and how they generated and normalised emotional practices on the part of individual subjects, groups and communities in pre-modern and nineteenth-century Europe. We approach these questions from multiple disciplinary perspectives in the hope of adding an important historical dimension to contemporary theoretical work on the relationships between human emotions and material culture, and offering fresh perspectives on the practices and meanings associated with pre-modern rituals and routines. Our chronology includes the nineteenth century to take account of the importance, provenance and display of our historic collections in developing the civic cultures within Melbourne and Manchester.

Linen bed-sheet c. 1716-30 ID: 34.63, © Museum of London.
Linen bed-sheet c. 1716-30 ID: 34.63, © Museum of London.

We are particularly fortunate to include some of the early pioneers of material culture and emotions scholarship among our team. Stephanie Downes and Sarah Randles will shortly publish their new collection, Feeling Things: Objects and Emotions Through History, co-edited with Sally Holloway (Richmond University), with Oxford University Press. The collection began life as an innovative CHE symposium in 2013, and we have no doubt that this book will be a key point of reference for scholars in this emerging field. These kinds of conversations are key to our project’s success. Further discussions took place in November 2016 when some of our team members gathered for the wonderful ‘Art, Objects and Emotions’ collaboratory at The University of Melbourne, convened by Charles Zika and Angela Hesson. Here we ranged widely from images that harm, emotive relics and reading practices to miniatures, bed-sheets, wax and tobacco boxes to consider the ways in which art and objects depicted, reflected, symbolised, communicated and regulated emotion in Europe, c.1400 to c.1800.


Professor Evelyn Welch leading a masterclass at the Whitworth Art Gallery
Professor Evelyn Welch leading a masterclass at the Whitworth Art Gallery.

Since then a range of technological objects – from laptops to microphones – have facilitated our continued discussions. They share with many of our objects of study the capacity to collapse large physical and temporal distances, which is vital for our shared communications. Whilst the team in Melbourne have been preparing for the launch of the ‘Love’ exhibition for some time, Manchester’s ‘Embodied Emotions’ research group welcomed Professor Evelyn Welch as a visitor on 23 March 2017. A leading expert on material culture in Renaissance Europe, Evelyn introduced us to her fascinating new research project on human and animal skin, funded by the Wellcome Trust, in a paper on ‘Smelling Men in Early Modern Europe’, which was packed full of sensory and prophylactic objects, from scented buttons to perfumed clothing. Earlier that day, Evelyn led a masterclass at the Whitworth Art Gallery that focused on a range of fascinating and undoubtedly ‘emotional’ objects, from a pair of hand-knitted Italian liturgical gloves with mysterious decoration on the left thumb, to an embroidered linen night-cap with an invocation of the Virgin Mary stitched into its lining, to some exquisite examples of Italian linen cutwork.

The masterclass was the perfect example of why we have decided to place the cultural collections of Melbourne and Manchester at the very heart of our project. The rich repositories of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne’s Baillieu Library, Manchester’s John Rylands Library and The Whitworth Art Gallery (to name just a few of our repositories) offer world-leading collections that will be brought into conversation with each other. We feel very fortunate, as a group of (mostly) pre-modern scholars, to have access to these inspiring collections: our respective cities continue to benefit from the Victorian impulse to collect and display material artefacts as part of the development of civic identity that shapes the material, spatial and intellectual dimensions of urban culture.

Our next face-to-face encounter – between our team members and with our objects of interest – will take place on 5–6 July 2017 in Manchester, when we will delve into the collections of The Whitworth Art Gallery and the John Rylands Library with the expert support of curators Uthra Rajgopal and Zoe Lanceley, and our team member Julianne Simpson, who is the Rare Books and Maps Manager at the Rylands. This intensive two-day workshop will allow us to explore some of our objects, share works in progress, refine the project’s core research strands and further develop our plans for grant capture, jointly authored publications and public engagement activities.

Sasha Handley is a Senior Lecturer in History at The University of Manchester. She specialises in early modern social and cultural history in the British Isles, with a particular interest in histories of supernatural belief, daily life, material culture and the history of emotions. She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and, together with Jennifer Spinks, she co-founded the ‘Embodied Emotions’ research group at The University of Manchester in 2015. Sasha’s book, Sleep in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2016) has been shortlisted for the 2017 Wolfson History Prize.

Sasha is a member of the Society for the History of Emotions. Click here for more information about the society.

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