Outside and beyond: 'Deconstructing a Medieval manuscript'

As the plethora of books, films, television series and digital games which draw on our medieval past demonstrates, the medieval world continues to hold an enormous popular fascination. Outside and Beyond is a PhD research project that sets out to explore if and how visitors make meaning from sensory and physical encounters with manuscript materials. The project, undertaken by Armand De Filippo, investigates whether these encounters prompt strong reactions (arousal), and if they provoke a sense of curiosity and exploration, and if digital theatre inspires imaginings and understandings.

The absence of opportunities for physical and sensory contact with manuscripts within traditional settings necessitated the need to set up a bespoke display to enable tactile, olfactory, auditory, gustatory, as well as visual encounters. The display ‘experiment’ sought to let people be with material objects and enable spontaneity and unpredictability to play out and open up new and creative approaches to experiences with manuscripts.

Taking a manuscript held by the University of Leicester Library’s Special Collections as the focus, a digital object was produced and made available via a touch screen alongside the ‘real thing’ housed in a conventional glass case. Immediately below the glass case a cabinet housed four drawers containing substances chosen and, or, made in response to the manuscript.

A digital audio-visual installation within the display space was designed, not only to create a sense of scale and immersion, but also to conjure memories, cultural references and influences, and to provide creative inspiration and evoke a sense of the past intended to ignite participants’ imaginations.

Each material and virtual substance featured in the display represented a physical feature of the manuscript. None of the objects or materials were accompanied by text labels and participants were asked to focus on the objects and materials and let their senses do the rest. With the help of these stimuli participants were given opportunities to discover their own interpretations of the manuscript.

Full analysis of the data is about to begin but initial findings suggest that participants felt an overwhelming sense of unease and uncertainty when confronted by the freedom to explore without direction. Even equipped with the knowledge that touch was allowed, participants frequently sought reassurance from the researcher. However, once early hesitancies were overcome, the inceptive data seems to suggest that, in some instances, the liberty to physically explore provoked heighted sensory engagements and awareness and generated some powerful imaginative responses, empathy with past lives, and deepened individual understandings.

Armand De Filippo
PhD student