Beyond an ‘Imperial Vision’: A Response to A Sensory History Manifesto 

In the second of our new series, responding to A Sensory History Manifesto, Dr Sara Honarmand Ebrahimi considers how architecture offers a ‘future topic and subject’ for sensory history.


In A Sensory History Manifesto, Mark Smith shows how sensory history is expanding and how it can become a way of doing history in the future. In three packed but readable chapters, Smith talks about the past, present, and future of the field, inviting ‘historians who are unfamiliar with sensory history to adopt some of its insights and practices’ while calling ‘current practitioners to think in new ways about writing histories of the senses’.[1]

In this response to Smith’s invitation and call, I want to focus on the ‘Future’ and add architecture to ‘possible future topics and subjects’ with a specific reference to architectural histories of empire and my work on missionary hospitals. As G. A. Bremner has emphasised, we want ‘many architectural histories of empire’; histories that ‘guarantee a certain dynamism (and debate)’ by being ‘agile enough to move between and take advantage of various methods from cognate disciplines.’[2] Focusing on senses and going beyond visual perception and spatial experience or ‘imperial vision’[3] is another method that architectural historians of empires can take advantage of. 

I have, admittedly, attended to senses through the history of emotions. I have particularly drawn on Monique Scheer’s concept of emotional practices, which necessitates considering people, objects, senses, and the (built) environment side by side.[4] My analysis would have certainly benefited from a more sustained dialogue with sensory history literature. As Rob Boddice and Smith have urged elsewhere, sensory and emotions histories need to be in dialogue.[5] Nevertheless, Scheer’s concept of emotional practices has helped me think about not only the very ‘inhabitation’ of the hospitals[6] but also about how patients made the place through sensing the space.[7]

One of the buildings that I have repeatedly gone back to, and written about, is the Church Missionary Society (CMS) hospital in Kerman, Iran. When I first started writing about this hospital, I paid attention to the layout, the appearance of the buildings, and building construction. I examined how the hospital was designed similar to hospitals in Britain, speculated about the role of missionaries and the involvement of local builders and craftsmen, and considered how the missionaries adapted the buildings to the climatic condition of Kerman. As my research progressed and I started to engage with the history of emotions, my attention gradually shifted. Among other things, I noticed that the hospital consisted of a mechanism called gavgard (گاوگَرد). I was aware of this mechanism all along, but it had not appeared a feature worthy of consideration. Gav means cow in Farsi, and gard means rotating. A gavgard consists of a cow that turns around a wooden wheel and draws water from a well (Figure 1). Indeed, there was a cow in the hospital! And the gavgard building was not somewhere in the corner; it was in the middle of the site (Figure 2). Could patients hear the cow? And if they could, what did it mean for the hospital’s environment? 

Figure 1. Varzaneh gavgard, Isfahan, Iran. Picture by Hassan-Ali Gotbi-e Varzaneh: link to image on esfahanshargh.ie

Figure 2
Figure 2. The round building of the Kerman hospital’s gavgard. Picture by author.

My attention also shifted to the topic of hospital visiting. The missionaries allowed patients to stay in the hospitals with their families and friends regardless of their class status. According to missionary publications, some patients could bring their bedding and cooking utensils, transferring a private or family ward to a ‘cosy living room’. Missionaries also permitted patients to drink tea and smoke water pipe in the hospital. While I discussed how, with family members present, some patients could be in the comfort of a familiar voice, smell and touch, I underestimated the importance of beddings or cooking utensils until I noticed a termeh cloth in a photograph published in 1910 (Figure 3).[8] The photograph shows a Shahzade lying in a bed on a veranda in the Yazd hospital surrounded by his family members and friends. He is using a termeh cloth as the duvet cover. Why did he bring it to the hospital? And how would it make him feel? 

Figure 3
Figure 3. A Shahzade in Yazd hospital, Iran. Source: CMS/M/EL, 2/14, p. 267, Church Missionary Society Archive, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham. Reproduced with the permission of the Church Mission Society.

As Smith states, discussing ‘what’ of sensory history’s future is not enough; we also need to contemplate the ‘how’. Indeed, considering how we can address the above questions is essential. The missionaries’ letters and reports are entirely silent about gavgard and termeh, and patients’ narratives are scarce to non-existent. We might (and only might) gain some ideas by examining the cultural histories and memories of the gavgard and termeh. For example, some patients might have remembered their farms because water drawn from a gavgard was sometimes used for farming purposes. Moreover, the Shahzadeh might have remembered his mother, sister, or aunt because termeh clothes were sometimes made and gifted to young adults by a female family member. Following Sara Ahmed, we might think that the memory was the ‘object’ of the patient’s feeling.[9] This might have been the case, but emotional practices are not constant across space and time, and we need to be cautious. Meanwhile, I realised that patient visitors did not need to enter the hospitals physically to be present. 

Some might be hesitant, thinking that a focus on senses in this way (instead of talking about the process of civilising senses) might detach us from the ‘spatio-political context’ that brought these buildings into being. But, as Smith emphasises, a focus on ‘sensory experience tends to muddle periodization and conventional historical eras.’[10] The above observations, at the very least, question the ‘irresistible’ power of globalisation in the transformation of ideas regarding healthy spaces.[11] Moreover, historians of Christian missions have often emphasised the importance of seeking indigenous perspectives, especially in recent years. In many instances, they have had to read between the lines of a variety of missionary sources.[12] Sensory history can help us speculate about indigenous perspectives or rather feelings.

Smith shows that sensory is not as new as some might think and that the exclusion of senses ‘leaves us impoverished’. Yet, he emphasises that sensory history will not become a ‘part and parcel of historical sensibility’ unless we think about previously unexamined themes and topics while debating our methodology, sources, and terminology to avoid ‘interpretive pitfalls and slippery false starts’.[13] Architectural histories of empire is an unexplored topic in sensory history. But we do not need just to facilitate interdisciplinary work between architectural historians and practitioners of sensory history. We also need to discuss how looking at architectural histories of empire from the standpoint of senses produces new narratives that differ in focus and emphasis from more conventional histories.


[1] Mark Smith, A Sensory History Manifesto (Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021), 1.

[2] G. A. Bremner, ‘Architecture, Urbanims, and British Imperial Studies,’ in Architecture and Urbanism in the British Empire, ed., G. A. Bremner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 15. 

[3] Thoma R. Metcalf, An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain’s Raj (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). 

[4] Monique Scheer, ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (And is that What Makes them Have a History)? A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion,’ History and Theory 51, no. 2 (2012), 193-220. 

[5] Rob Boddice and Mark Smith, Emotion, Sense, Experince (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021). 

[6] G. A. Bremner mentions this point in a forthcoming publication. 

[7] Victoria Bates, ‘Sensing space and making place: the hospital and therapeutic landscapes in two cancer narratives,’ Medical Humanity 45 (2019): 10-20.

[8] It might be another type of handwoven cloth.

[9] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotions (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 7. 

[10] Smith, A Sensory History Manifesto, 66.

[11] See the ERC project, A Global History of Technology, 1850-200, The Project Global-HOT – Global-HoT – TU Darmstadt (tu-darmstadt.de)

[12] For example, see Emma Wild-Wood, ‘The Interpretations, Problems and Possibilities of Missionary Sources in the History of Christianity in Africa,’ in World Christianity: Methodological Considerations, eds, Martha Frederiks and Dorottya Nagy (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 92-112.

[13] Smith, A Sensory History Manifesto, 78.

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