Romans at Home: a collaborative outreach project with people living with dementia

Eleanor Drew, Digital Heritage MSc student, Department of Archaeology 

Romans at Home website /  @eleanormdrew



Romans at Home is a collaborative outreach project with Dr Colleen Morgan and York Archaeological Trust (YAT) which uses a multi-sensory approach to explore aspects of Roman life in York with people living with dementia. This stems from research conducted as part of OTHER EYES, an UKRI-AHRC funded project that explores multisensorial archaeological interpretation and outreach, with this particular outlet funded by the York Impact Accelerator Fund. Open research has been at the core of this project as we have involved members of the local community, their carers, and charity groups as active participants. Through this collaborative approach we have created opportunities to engage with people who may not usually benefit from archaeological research and dissemination, in a relaxed and informal setting. The project has also produced a range of openly accessible outputs and resources whilst helping to form the foundations for future research and outreach in this area. 

Case Study

Romans at Home builds on previous archaeological research into the phenomenology of archaeological sites and museum experiences. For example, olfactory input (sense of smell) is known to be a powerful contributor to immersion; this has been well-explored through YAT’s famous Jorvik Viking Centre attraction, featuring the smells of Viking York within an immersive built environment. For our project, scents inspired by archaeological data collected from sites around York were combined with tactile artefacts from YAT’s archive and related replicas into a handling collection, designed to provoke sensory experiences. Following successful pilot sessions with a York-based care home, the aim is for this collection to be loaned to people living with dementia and their carers to be used alongside a synchronous virtual interpretation by YAT staff. The handling collection will be made available on request from the Jorvik Group and promoted through community groups and partners such as York Dementia Action Alliance and Alzheimer’s UK. 

Close up photos of pottery artefacts being handled
Residents taking part in handling session

The primary audience for the handling collection is people living with dementia, to provide opportunities to engage directly with artefacts and past lives within a familiar location under the guidance of trained interpreters delivering sessions via video conferencing. Although the sessions are facilitated by staff, they are principally participant-led, focusing on the sensations evoked by the objects and using those as prompts for discussion of broader topics. Through this open conversation with stakeholders (both the people living with dementia and their carers), we will improve our understanding of how these communities engage with heritage, which aspects and narratives are of most interest, and potential barriers to their involvement.

Artefact handling cases ready to go
Artefact handling cases ready to go (photo copyright Dr Colleen Morgan)

The handling collection will be closely documented and available for other researchers to engage with, perhaps with a wider audience in mind. A webpage will be created with downloadable materials related to the sensory experience and suggestions on how to recreate the experience with related, easily accessible materials (sage, olive oil, etc). These resources will be licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence and circulated via local charity networks including York and Selby Dementia Information Service, to ensure awareness and accessibility not only within residential care facilities but also for individuals and their carers living at home.

Elements of the experience which were prompted by COVID-19 restrictions (particularly the use of synchronous video rather than live in-person interpretation) have potential to increase accessibility and openness of future projects, by enabling communities who have not traditionally been able to participate in this kind of research: for example, people with physical or mobility impairments, or living in remote locations. By enabling remote engagement with research, it may be possible to attract a wider and more diverse group of participants. 

While ideally more aspects of this research would be “open” there are sensitive ethical issues involved when engaging with people living with dementia. This research has passed an ethics review conducted by the Department of Archaeology ethics committee, which specifies that identities of people involved be anonymised as much as possible. The Romans at Home experience is intended to be intimate and palliative, rather than, for example, a Twitch stream or a Tik Tok video. Romans at Home demonstrates the balance between open research and consent-based, sensitive research in the Arts and Humanities. 

Research into immersive experiences in heritage has largely focused on location-based engagement, particularly in reconstructed sites, with pre-determined narratives. By taking a more personal and participatory approach, allowing people to engage with the past within their own environment and direct the sessions based on their own interests, the narrative may be democratised. The open research practices incorporated into this project may form the basis for future work on self-led immersive experiences and engagement within the research community at York.

Licensing information

Except where otherwise noted copyright in this work belongs to the author(s), licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Licence