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The Carnival of Lost Emotions

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Carnival of Lost Emotions image

Image: Katie Garner/Wellcome Trust

Queen Mary, University of London

The Carnival of Lost Emotions explores the history of feelings – how people thought about passions and emotions in the past. At the centre of the project is the Lost Emotions Machine. This large, curious contraption generates (descriptions of) emotional states from the past, emotions that we do not recognise today. For example, Accedia, a form of lethargy and spiritual crisis experienced by medieval monks, or Hypochondriasis, a late-19th-century digestive disorder that affects mind and body. People are invited to operate the machine by selecting a year, and then read about the strange states, symptoms and cures that emerge. The discussions are conducted with academics in the history of emotions who are in costume – First World War Army Officers, Medieval Monks, Victorian Physicians and the like. This lends a bit of colour and humour to what might otherwise look like a rather austere set-up. The academics are able to pitch the discussions at a variety of levels – groups of students, small children, adult scientists, and so on. The discussions are tremendously varied, but usually end up with the following sorts of questions: are emotional states from the past really different? Is there only one set of emotions across human history? How far are emotions biological things, and how far are they influenced by culture?

  • Project aims
    • The project aims to provoke people to think about whether the emotions we have today are timeless. It seems like common sense to many that there are unchanging ‘basic emotions’ such as fear, joy, sadness and disgust. The Carnival of Lost Emotions invites people to think about how emotions are always experienced in historical context, with concepts and language that changes all the time. The Lost Emotions Machine seeks to challenge the simple idea that there have always been the same set of emotions, in a humorous but serious way. This is not a ‘hard sell’, but merely an opportunity to question whether the things we take to be self-evident today might seem ludicrous and misguided tomorrow. The history of emotions is a growing field, and it is vital to engage people with the kinds of questions that academics are asking.
  • Audience
    • Because the Carnival of Lost Emotions is based around discussion – with the Lost Emotions Machine providing the stimulus – the engagement, and the level of the information can be adapted to meet people where they are, and to adjust to individuals’ (varying) expectations. It relies upon people being interested rather than educated, as discussions with 5-10-year-olds at the Barbican Centre were some of the most rewarding. The audiences thus far have been predominantly educated adults (at the Natural History Museum Lates, and the Edinburgh Fringe, for example), but the Barbican Wonder Street Fair provided a real mix, and showed the team how flexible it is possible to be: talking to Professors of Physics one minute and children the next.

      Carnival of Lost Emotions
  • How it started
    • The Wellcome Trust approached the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary (directed by Thomas Dixon) with an opportunity to apply for funding, collaborate with the NCCPE, and obtain public engagement training. Thus the project began under the banner of ‘Public Engagement with Neuroscience’, with an event planned for Brain Awareness Week, April 2013. The point of departure was that neuroscience is central to current understandings of the emotions. The Lost Emotions Machine shows how these understandings are very different to those of the past. The Emotions Centre Steering Committee planted the seed of the idea around a ‘machine’ and ‘historical emotions’, and Chris Millard, Rebecca O’Neal and Jennifer Wallis attended the public engagement training and application guidance at the Wellcome Trust.

    • The first Lost Emotions event was a dramatic (scripted) performance at St. Bart’s Pathology Museum was captured and turned into a short film. This format proved unsustainable in the long run, given the time involved to rehearse and write the script. It also made the pitching of the material inflexible. The discussion / science fair stall format evolved out of feedback meetings and the opportunity to take the Carnival to the Barbican’s Wonder Street Fair.
  • Partnerships
    • The Wellcome Trust (especially Chloe Sheppard) provided much guidance (along with the NCCPE) on how to plan, execute, and obtain feedback for a public engagement project. One team member (Chris Millard) has since gone back to the Trust to share his experiences of public engagement.

    • An enduring partnership was established with Queen Mary’s Centre for Public Engagement (CPE). The CPE put the team in touch with Bart’s Pathology Museum, and helped them with planning efficient feedback mechanisms. The team (principally Rebecca O’Neal) keeps in regular touch with the CPE, exchanging news and mutual feedback. Through this there emerged an opportunity to bring the Carnival to Universities Week at the Natural History Museum in 2014.

    • The Machine was built by professional prop-makers Russell Beck Studio, who gave the team multiple opportunities to feed back on the design and functionality of the Lost Emotions Machine, and Carnival Arch. These physical props took up the largest proportion of the initial budget, but having them made professionally means that the team is able to reuse them at no cost. In addition, the Centre for the History of the Emotions funded the purchase of costumes (previously hired) further reducing recurrent costs.

    • The Carnival film was shot and edited by filmmaker David Anderson, who keeps in touch with the team. One team-member member (Chris Millard) is collaborating with him on a short film about mental healthcare provision.

    • Finally, the team discussed with Queen Mary’s CPE the prospect of using the project as a resource/training aid in public engagement for postgraduate students at the Centre for the History of the Emotions.
  • What did you do?
    • The Carnival of Lost Emotions currently involves between two and five academics (at any one time) discussing the history of emotions with members of the public. The activity is centred upon the Lost Emotions Machine which the public are invited to operate. They select a year (ranging from the 11th to the 21st Century) and the machine produces (through a printer inside it) a sheet of paper with one of six historical feelings or emotional states. Each one has a short description of the main kinds of feeling associated with it (disgust, lethargy, elation etc.). Some detail historical treatments if the particular feeling was considered to be pathological.

    • This historical feeling was used to open up a discussion about emotions and feelings in the past, and how they relate to today’s terms. Is Shell-Shock from the First World War the same thing as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) today? Why are the symptoms so different? How did people categorize feelings a thousand years ago? The techniques were almost entirely based around discussion, but with an interactive stimulus, where the emotions/feelings were selected by those being engaged. The machine looks interesting, the arch with its coloured lights is eye-catching, and the historical costume of the academics forms a good way to begin engaging younger audiences.
  • Evaluation
    • For the initial dramatic performance at Bart’s Pathology Museum, the team set up post-show interviews that form the final section of the film (see above). Also, emails were sent out to all audience members (who registered their place through online ticketing system EventBrite) asking them to complete a short online survey (hosted by SurveyMonkey). Feedback meetings also took place with the Director of the History of the Emotions Centre. Feedback was also provided by Bryony Frost of Queen Mary’s CPE.
    • After the change to discussion / stall format, evaluation became both easier and more difficult. Getting a general picture of people’s reactions to the stall was difficult given the number of people moving through the Barbican, but some feedback of this kind was gathered by the Barbican team running the Wonder Street Fair. Informal feedback – from people’s reactions – was much easier to gauge in discussion format, though of course more difficult to aggregate. One positive from the Barbican experience was that the engagement group Guerrilla Science observed the workings and content of the Carnival. They subsequently invited some team members to make the Carnival part of the Secret Cinema project (Terry Gilliam’s Brazil), and also to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe.
  • Key lessons learnt
    • We have run the project six times since 2013: five times with the discussion format outlined above, and once as a performance (the first time). The Carnival of Lost Emotions film has also been shown at the NCCPE’s Engage festival, and Chris Millard has shown (and discussed) the film and its message at a the Dragon Café in South London – a space for those who have experienced mental distress (and may be mental health service users). The key message that recurs across all these events is: keep the project flexible in order to adjust the level at which the content is pitched.

    • The performance format was not as successful as the team had hoped – the audience expected a more academic talk at Bart’s Pathology Museum; the team failed to manage expectations in that area as clearly as they’d have liked. The discussion-based format allowed the academics to pitch the content and manage expectations in a fluid way – according to the individual or group. It also allowed the project to migrate away from skills that academics do not necessarily have (script-writing, acting, performance) to core skills shared by the team: discussion, passion for ideas and reacting to input in a direct and focused manner.
  • Keys to making it work
    • The key to successful public engagement for this team was finding a way to keep the content flexible, to adapt it to the needs and expectations of the audience. This meant that the discussion format worked well. Having one simple idea at the centre (the Lost Emotions Machine) enabled the project to be easy to understand. It was also visually striking, with the large machine and carnival arch. Along with the simplicity and flexibility of the idea, and the visual hooks of the set-up, the project’s discussion format enabled academics to use skills that they already had. It took them out of their comfort zone – and it was exhausting to discuss ideas for nine hours a day – but it was essentially a form of communication and interaction with which many academics are comfortable. There was a stimulus and a discussion, just like any academic seminar. The costumes, machine and arch continue to be props for discussion rather than substitutes for it.