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Sensing the past: from smell to sound

We asked Paula Lock, PhD student at the University of Kent, to reflect on the success of her Being Human activity 'Sensing the past: from smell to sound’. The event took place in Canterbury on Thursday 24 November 2016, and was produced in partnership with the Canterbury Museums and Galleries.

Tell us a bit about your event. What subject areas did you cover and what did you want to achieve?

As part of the Being Human 2016 event All roads lead to poems/All odes lead to Rome, organised by Professor Ray Laurence, I arranged a walking tour around Canterbury in Kent. But this wasn’t just any walking tour. Although it did take in the main Roman sights of the city, the aim of the trip was to travel back in time to experience Canterbury as the Romans did.

Mixing the modern with the ancient, the walk centred on the sensory experience: what sights, sounds, smells and tastes the Romans might have experienced 2,000 years ago. To get more of an idea of what ancient city life was like, an actor was on hand to recite some of the ancient authors’ lively descriptions of street life. To enhance the experience further — using original Roman recipes — I made various concoctions for people to taste and smell as they strolled around the streets and so gave them a real flavour of the past.

The walk offered a more hands-on way to gain an insight into Roman social history. By digging up (often humorous and quirky) quotes from the Roman’s themselves about what they thought about everyday life, it was possible to get a connection with the past and draw parallels between then and how we live now.


What worked particularly well in the planning, design and delivery of your events?

As well as hearing about Roman everyday life, participants got to give their opinions (good or bad) on what they thought about the ancients’ favourite perfume, tipple or toothpaste. So the walk was very interactive with everyone joining in. As the walk covered stops at a variety of locations — such as a bar, baker’s, theatre, Roman baths — there was something for everyone.


What were the main challenges you encountered or what, if anything did not work well as you hoped?

Publicity for my particular event could have been stronger. In hindsight, I would have taken to the streets of Canterbury to talk to people about the event and hand out leaflets to try and get more of a buzz going.


What, if any, other audience outcomes did you identify? What were the main outcomes for you and /or your organisation?

Feedback from the event was very positive, with participants taking well to the various ways the information was presented. For example, I made sure to deliver information based on the three main learning styles that people have — visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.

Above all, I was impressed with the willingness to engage and taste the various (sometimes unpleasant) concoctions on offer. This type of format works well for a wide range of participants — it essentially covers all ages and all levels of knowledge of Roman history.

The approach can easily be replicated and could be done at many different sites across the UK and indeed Europe. It could also be adapted to cater for schoolchildren and perhaps help inspire them to study history.


What top tips would you give to anyone contemplating or running a similar event or events in the future?

  1. Be creative! Find different ways to present information that is informative but also fun.
  2. Check out the tips provided on the Being Human website, these can give you an insight into what audiences like and dislike about the way an event is run.
  3. Good planning, walk the route, make sure it’s accessible for all, be prepared for bad weather — note covered spots to get away from the rain.