Week 6: Sensory Objects Heritage Commission

In the University of Reading, as part of Week 6, we do not have lectures, but instead have events that we sign up, and turn up to throughout the week. These events vary from learning new techniques such as casting concrete or using Photoshop, to taking part in events such as London museums trips and commission work.

Today was the first of my events for Week 6 (you shall see the rest appear later on the main page of the blog and also on the ‘Week 6’ page!) and I worked with several other students and Access All Areas to come up with ideas for a Sensory Objects Heritage Commission.

But why did I do this? Well a very close family member of mine is severely autistic, and there have been talks of creating a sensory room for him to spend some ‘me’ time in away from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. There have also been a couple of other close family members who were disabled, and so this project, and the past history of how people like this affected me emotionally quite a bit. I wanted to help spread the awareness of this treatment, how we have changed and how we have not, from 30 years ago.

At the beginning of the session we had a few bits of information as well as watch some videos (links are though out the post). Our brief was;

Sensory Artist Brief

Access All Areas is a theatre company working with people with learning disabilities. Our Performance Company is currently working on Madhouse Re:Exit; an immersive reclaiming of old long stay hospitals. 5 artists will curate one room each, supported by Barbican and Shoreditch Town Hall residencies. The message: we are not going back.

See more about the project here:


Madhouse My House? is the extensive creative learning and engagement component of the larger Madhouse project. It seeks to ask, what was institutionalisation like in 20th century long stay hospitals? It aims to provoke participants to assess what confinement and institutionalisation looks like currently.

We have partnered with RIX Research and Media to receive training in multimedia advocacy and developed our own project wiki website.

We have partnered with the Open University and received training from Social Sophistry of Learning Disability (SHLD) academics in oral history technique and been on site visits to Harperbury Hospital and London Metropolitan Archives.

Performative, digital responses have been created working with different artists. These film and sound pieces will be seen uploaded onto our wiki.

Hackney Museum Exhibition:

From February to April 2017 we will exhibit on a small but prominent space in Hackney Museum. Expected visitor numbers are 8,000.

We will use the stories of former patients Mabel Cooper and Harvey Waterman and capture their experience of inside St Lawrence’s hospital.

We aim to create an accessible exhibition drawing together the digital creative responses, historical information and sensory exploration of items.

Further useful information:

Finding Mabel Cooper’s Voice – film made by Access All Areas

Rix wiki pages

Artist brief:

Sensory artist required to create 4 or 5 sensory objects to enhance the learning of life inside St Lawrence’s hospital from 1950’s. We are very open to objects taking on any form.

Artists may wish to incorporate existing digital footage created throughout the project, use trigger technology, or create sensory boxes. We would require some of the objects to be installed within the exhibition and can live without supervision.

Themes include:

Overcrowding/no privacy
Labelling and language

The above list is a guide and we do not expect all themes to be covered.

Our core group of researchers have been working on the project for a year. We can schedule 2 – 3 consultation meetings with the group to feed into the picking of themes and the generation of ideas.


Source: handout received

Learning about the stories of those such as Mabel and Harvey was quite shocking. What made it even more so was that this wasn’t that far back in history. Mabel did not know her story because she was taken away from her mother at a young age (her mother was a beggar on the streets and it was not acceptable to have a baby this way). She went through several institutions until one day she had a test to determine how bad her disability was. This test changed her life. Mabel was sent to St. Lawrence’s hospital just as a girl. She spent most of her life in this place where you would be sharing clothes, sharing toothbrushes, and gaining no personal or private moments to yourself. Luckily, St. Lawrence’s closed down and Mabel was sent into the ‘Caring in the Community’ program. She had to learn how to live again. There was no knowing how money worked, no clue about how to use a bus or a train. She literally had to start again. Mabel also campaigned for all institutions such as St Lawrence’s to be shut down (as many human rights were (as I very strongly believe) violated). She helped those who came out of the institutions to know their basic rights as a human, and helped people to begin their lives again.

Mabel’s medical record can show you just how ‘stereotypical’ the comments were about the patients. This is also reflected in the Mental Deficiency Act 1913:

MENTAL DEFICIENCY ACT 1913 (Section 1) as amended by Section 1 of the MENTAL DEFICIENCY ACT 1927, and Section 11 of the EDUCATION (Miscellaneous Provisions) ACT, 1948.

1.-(1) The following sections shall be substituted for section one of the Metal Deficiency Act, 1913 (in this Act referred to as “the principle Act”)-

“1-(1) The following classes of persons who are mentally defective shall be
deemed to be defectives within the meaning of this Act:-

“(a) Idiots, that is to say, persons in whose care there exists mental
defectiveness of such a degree that they are unable to guard themselves
against common physical dangers;

“(b) Imbeciles, that is to say, persons in whose case there exists mental
defectiveness which, though not amounting to idiocy, is yet so pronounced
that they are incapable of managing themselves or their affairs or, in the
case of children, of being taught to do so;

“(c) Feeble-minded persons, that is to say, persons in whose case there exists
mental defectiveness which, though not amounting to imbecility, is yet so
pronounced that they require care, supervision and control for their own
protection or for the protection of others or, in the case of children, involves
disability of mind of such a nature and extent as to make them for the
purposes of section fifty-seven of the Education Act, 1944, incapable of
receiving education at school.

“(d) Moral defectives, that is to say, persons in whose case there exists mental
defectiveness coupled with strongly vicious or criminal propensities and
who require care, supervision and control for the protection of others.

“(2) For the purposes of this section, ‘mental defectiveness’ means a condition f arrested or incomplete development of mind existing before the age of eighteen years, whether arising from inherent causes or induced by disease or injury.”


Source: handout received

This rather horrible discovery lead us onto other stories such as that of Henry Waterman’s, and the gentleman who could wheel himself around in a wheelchair, but was not authorised to do so, taking away his freedom.

Silent Minority 1981 is a documentary we partially watched (as the first part is set in St. Lawrence’s hospital). From this documentary, I found out that in the 80’s, the village idiot was part of village life and was very much accepted, but the cities could not cope. This is why places like St. Lawrence’s Hospital were built, and also why they filled up very quickly with the ‘mentally handicapped’. There was also a routine in the hospital but each day is the same as the last and life often just drifts by for the patients. Rob Saunders, for example, was admitted when he was just fie years old, and in 1981, he had spent 36 years in the hospital. The patients just watch each other get old. They are also separated from each other as there was a fear that there would be babies made if males and females were allowed to mix. The beds were also crammed together in order to get as many beds into a small space as possible. From a simple video, I personally felt that their basic human rights were breached.

The people who we were working with were able to meet a group of young disabled people who are part of My House, Mad House. They, themselves, curated a performance showing the conditions of St Lawrence’s hospital. This included picking out the same clothes that someone else previously had worn, sharing toothbrushes, and eventually collapsing (and perhaps even dying) in the confines of the hospital itself. The young people also came up with a list of what they think could be included in the exhibition or the exhibition space;

My House, Mad House – exhibition planning

Personal objects:
Paul’s power ranger light
Lee’s notebook
Zara’s poems
Lee’s bandana
Harvey’s snow globe
Xxx blue badge
Terry’s mum

History and Information
Harvey’s notes about St Lawrences
History, dates and timeline
Harvey’s photos of St Lawrences

Films and audio
Harvey’s interview
Music video
Paul’s film

Sensory objects
Noises: rattling keys, alarm bells, soundscape, footsteps
Smells: clinical, cleaning products, food

Suitcase Stories:
Support groups and networks
Representing wider and shared experiences
Significant people and events
Overcoming barriers
Objects that express a universal truth or experience

Harvey’s Suitcase:
Food – tapioca, cocoa
Clothes (not your own, you wear what you’re given)
Medicine ‘I remember the round, brown tablets’
Ward pass
Mabel’s medical notes

Aim of the exhibition:

  • To challenge people, but to be sensitive
  • To educate young people in mainstream schools about people with disabilities so they learn, know and respect us
  • For carers/teachers/doctors/dentists to see the exhibition and learn about us and improve their practice
  • For mainstream people to learn

What do we want visitors to see/do/learn?

  • History of people with disabilities
  • How people have been treated
  • Knowing your roots
  • Language and labelling
  • Bullying
  • Punishment, torture, medicine and treatment
  • Leisure – then and now
  • Gender separation in hospitals
  • Relationships – staff and patient, personal/loving/family/private
  • Schools


Source: handouts given

All of the information gathered, allowed us to begin planning our ideas for the exhibition in a rather small space.


Source: handout given

This space is admittedly tiny, however after a discussion with the people around me, I quickly began to jot down ideas on a mind-map of all the things I could think that we could do using the space. I do have to say that it is a bit of a jumbled mess, but my main idea was that of a sensory room. This is not only because it is a major part of some lives of those who are disabled, for example my autistic family member, but it will also get general members of the public to be involved in the piece, and to actively learn information about what it has like at institutions such as St Lawrence’s.


I hope to help the organisers of this event to complete the task that has been given to them in the most appropriate way for the members of the public to understand the situation of disabled people now and 30 years ago.


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