Featured Historian: Victoria Bates

Dr. Victoria Bates is Senior Lecturer in Modern History, with research interests in the modern social history of medicine and the medical humanities.

A picture of Dr. Victoria BatesHi Victoria, could you start by telling us about  your new research project?

I have just started a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship called ‘Sensing Spaces of Healthcare: Rethinking the NHS Hospital’. The project rethinks healthcare environments through the body and the senses, focusing on how places have felt rather than how they have looked. The historical part of the project will consider how NHS hospital sensory environments (or ‘sensescapes’) and the perception thereof changed as a result of new design trends, architecture, materials, technologies, nature and human behaviours. This history is just one part of the research, though, which is a complex 4-7 year project with many components. As well as the historical and archival research, there is a strand of the project (led by the project RA – Rebecka Fleetwood-Smith) working on site in hospitals (Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and Southmead Hospital in Bristol). This part of the project will use participatory arts to understand and improve people’s sensory experience of hospital spaces.

How did you become interested in this area of research?

I actually get this question quite a lot because my PhD was on a quite different area of medical history (sexual forensics in Victorian Britain). The project has long roots, so I will try to keep the answer short but with apologies it is difficult to do so!

During my PhD I was co-lead on two projects together broadly called ‘Medicine, Health and the Arts in Post-War Britain’ that included a conference, exhibition, workshop series and edited collection. My interest in this area of research at first related to the roots of the ‘medical humanities’, as a named field of academic enquiry, and its relationship to the history of arts and health. I also became interested in the development of different professional areas (art therapy, hospital arts and the arts in medical education) and their use of similar language (the idea of ‘rehumanising’ medicine through the arts).

I was inspired to conduct further research: why was there a perceived need to ‘rehumanise’ medicine in the post-war period, and why was there a turn to the arts, as a tool to do so? In 2013 I received a small grant from the Wellcome Trust to conduct a small study of late twentieth-century multidisciplinary medical education in the UK. In 2014 I was awarded scoping funding from the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute to look at archives in the UK and USA relating to all three areas (art therapy; arts in medical education; art in hospitals). Of these topics, I found myself most drawn to the history of hospital arts; this subject opened up interesting questions about the relationship between arts, design, space and architecture.

I soon became immersed in spatial theory, new materialism, and sensory studies as well as in histories of art, architecture, and design. I found myself moving away from a human-centred approach to design and perception, and thinking more about space as dynamic and as co-produced between the different objects and people in it. Art is just one of these objects, so I moved my focus to the sensory as a better way to think about space and the ways in which it is made through interactions between people and environments. I was fortunate to receive University of Bristol Strategic Research Funding to develop this work (2017) and to spend a month as a visiting scholar at the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University in Montreal (2019).

Alongside this research I engaged in a couple of projects working with artists, designers, smell technicians and others. One of the projects involved designing a sensory prototype called InTouch and the other was about the non-visual aspects of nature and wellbeing, for which we created an ‘immersive experience’. These projects also got me thinking a lot more about the impact of my work and collaboration with non-academic partners, and is why my new project has a large design and prototyping element. Overall, I am always trying to push myself out of my comfort zone!

What is the importance of this research today?

Design is a pressing issue in healthcare. Poor hospital design impacts staff, patients and visitors, and critiques of hospitals are increasingly widespread. The project’s findings will feed into a rethinking of current and future hospital design, including the development of design interventions for healthcare environments.

The historical research can help us to rethink the root causes of perceived sensory problems. For example, my work so far on the history of hospital ‘noise’ has shown that it has long been defined in social terms rather than in terms of volume. Perceptions of noise have changed over time in line with societal change, ranging from attitudes to race or gender to ideas about privacy. Understanding the societal aspects of such change can help us to think more creatively about solutions to noise as more than an engineering problem.

The part of the project working with GOSH Arts and Fresh Arts at Southmead will pinpoint sensory challenges for specific types of hospital user/worker or hospital spaces, which might range from sensory under-stimulation to sensory overload. In turn, these challenges will form the basis for sensory design solutions through a prototyping and development process in collaboration with artists, designers, charities and NHS Trusts. These outputs will be produced with and of value to all those who use hospitals, from patients to professionals. We are also working with Architects for Health to develop a hospital building note around sensory design. Overall, the project offers a novel approach to the history of healthcare spaces that helps us to rethink hospital histories and their relevance to current-day design.

What advice would you give to a student interested in this area of research?

Talk to me! I would love to work with more PhD students or postdoctoral researchers interested in this area of research. I would be particularly keen to see some comparative or international work in this area.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

I took Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations away for a weekend to read for leisure, but it turned out to be extremely relevant to my research. It has a section that captures her sensory experience of hospitals, and which addresses this subject explicitly in a way that I have never seen before. For example, she describes noticing the sound of air conditioning after weeks in hospital; the sound becomes extremely aggravating to her, but nobody else can hear it. I found it not only a really engaging book, but also a useful reminder that we need to think about the sensory environment of hospital as dynamic, and as different for every person in them (or even for the same person, on a different day).

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

I have never come up with a good answer to this question – how could you possibly choose from all of time and place? My possible answers have ranged from an iconic music concert to solving some great historical mystery or crime or visiting an extinct species. I know that I should pick something related to my research, but I do not think it would be a historic hospital if I wanted to return with my health intact… 

What’s your must-do Bristol restaurant?

I love Korean food, so Sky Kong Kong is my classic Bristol ‘go to’ when people come to visit – it is small and serves really interesting food, with a personal touch, as well as being very good value.

What are you working on next?

This UKRI project is going to take up most of my time for the next few years, so first job is to organise a launch event for it. I’m also co-leading a couple of really interesting, interdisciplinary networks funded by the Wellcome Trust: one on the senses and health/care environments and one on the intersections between medical and environmental humanities. We have lots of workshops, writing retreats and conferences coming up for those over the next two years and I will be really excited to see what comes out of our collaborations. Watch this space on both!

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