Hospital Senses Collective


The Hospital Sense Collective has its roots in 2018, when the University of Bristol funded a scoping workshop on the sensory history of hospitals. After an exploratory workshop, seven of us decided to go on an experimental writing retreat: what could we do together, if we spent a week in a cottage in Cambridgeshire to let our ideas evolve in a less pressured setting than a workshop?[1] We spent the week thinking together as we talked, walked, and cooked. We brought together our thoughts on hospitals, history, geography, architecture, art, senses, medicine, psychoanalysis, spatial theory and more. In 2019, we were happily awarded a Wellcome Trust small grant for a network on ‘Senses and Modern Health/Care Environments: International and Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ for workshops, conferences, and more retreats to develop a collaborative publication.

Our next retreat, in Yorkshire in January 2020, again proved a success and gave us the space to enter into deep, rich and unstructured conversation about senses, care, healthcare and hospitals. Due to COVID-19, sadly our planned writing retreat in summer 2021 was unable to take place, but we continued work together with online retreats. While the online collaboration has been productive, it has also really highlighted to us the value and effectiveness of the ‘slow working’ and informal conversations of our retreats. The Hospital Senses Collective’s shift from multi-disciplinarity towards inter-disciplinarity is an ongoing process, and one that benefits from time and conversations.

Our retreat in January 2020 took us away from our original plans. At this point, we expected to develop an edited collection and work towards a co-authored monograph. As we started to work together on a book proposal – and again walked, talked, cooked, thought – we started to wonder why we turned by default to an academic book. It felt somewhat limiting to start with a traditional academic publication when working on the topic of senses, which did not necessarily do justice to our increasingly collaborative and interdisciplinary way of working. At the core of this collaboration is not a shared research project, but a conversation about interdisciplinarity and new ways of doing research. A different type of publication felt necessary, as a way of exploring opportunities, asking questions, and promoting dialogue. We developed the idea of a series of booklets, with short co-authored provocations, creative commissions and a playful physical form that would help us to explore research questions in ways not possible in traditional publication forms. 

Our approach to this collection of booklets draws on a range of disciplines and expertise, which moves through the different spaces of the hospital to illuminate the multisensory experience. The hospital spaces which we have identified as Waiting Spaces, Thresholds, Wards, Operating Theatres, The Laundry and Corridors, do not offer a singular set of sensory experiences. Everyone’s experience of each space will vary depending on geography, time, emotions and bodies. Rather than emphasise the importance or pervasiveness of one sense more than another we engage with different ways in which we might experience a different space. 

The material qualities of the booklets, their design and form have been carefully considered to promote specific interactions and engagement. Each booklet embodies themes concerning hospital senses allowing us to move beyond the visual to explore the spatial, temporal, and sensorial through design and form. For example, readers meander down the ‘Routes In’ of Corridors, they reveal missing text through the turning of tracing paper, their gaze is directed through viewfinders, they unfurl maps and are invited to contribute their own hospital smellscapes. These processes and interactions involve spending time with and in each booklet, allowing us to explore and challenge understandings around the hospital environment.

Woven throughout each booklet are creative commissions. Our aim has been to offer a collection of creative and academic responses to the sensory and spatial experiences of the hospital. The voices, skills, and insights from artists, musicians, hospital staff, clinicians, designers, poets, come together to offer some multisensory, multi-spatial insight into the hospital experiences. The commissions create moments of reflection, exploring hospital senses through a rich array of lenses and approaches. Within academia, creative research methods are cited as facilitating a process of defamiliarisation whereby through creative engagement we may rethink and reconsider the familiar. We have similarly adopted this process of defamiliarisation through the ways in which creative commissions and academic contributions sit alongside one another inviting us to rethink and reimagine past, present and future hospital environments through the senses. 

The individual sections of each booklet are formed around a prompt or provocation: a literary quote; a photograph; an object; a feeling. These prompts include historical details, illuminating how parts of hospital were in the nineteenth century, or in the 1940s with the birth of the NHS, as well as insight into how certain spaces have evolved and developed. They also include contemporary details of hospital spaces, such as art installations, co-designed spaces, and textiles. We explore the hospital from different perspectives. How does the waiting space sound to the woman awaiting news of her husband’s procedure? What does the infamous hospital food taste like? How does it feel to walk the hospital corridors all day, transporting patients and resources? What does the bed linen smell of? What does it mean to cross from the hospital foyer into the garden, or car park, or smoking area? What does the hospital corridor ceiling look like for the prone patient moving wards? We do not see this list as exhaustive of how the hospital might be experienced, but instead offer examples and snapshots which will provoke readers to reflect upon their own experiences of that space. 

[1] Our original group also involved Jayne Jeffries, Newcastle University, and Natasha Feiner, University of Exeter. Rebecka Fleetwood-Smith joined in January 2020.