Heritage as Process: Constructing the Historical Child’s Voice Through Art Practice

My research project focuses on how biographical narratives are employed within the heritage industry. Often they are stereotypes that convey a contemporary social or political viewpoint. This representation is problematic, as it can become a generalisation that is reductive.

Within contemporary heritage practice, there are two separate discourses: Authorised Heritage Discourse (AHD) and Critical Heritage Discourse (ACHS). The current presentation of historical people as stereotypes is an example of AHD, which is an industry-based practice that involves the public being spoken to. In comparison, the ACHS aim to speak for the public. Within my research, I argue that both positions are inadequate and bringing them together through art practice might open up new interpretations within the heritage industry.

For my research, I will analyse how biographical narratives are presented within the museum. I will be focusing on historical biographies at two particular sites: the Foundling Museum and the Ragged School Museum. Within these museums I will use material objects, such as the foundling tokens, as the basis of the artistic practice. These artefacts offer us a physical link to the people from the past. Heritage practitioners use artefacts in the presentation of history, often pairing them with museum captions, and I will be exploring this in my research.

The history of the Foundling Museum and the Ragged School Museum revolves around children; abandoned foundlings left within the Hospital or the ragged children attending one of the first free schools. The contribution to knowledge lies within the representation of children within the museum; they are often mis- or under-represented in history. Many scholars still fail to differentiate histories of ‘children’ from histories of ‘childhood’. Within heritage practice, children are regarded as passive and their role as heritage makers is obscured by contemporary heritage discourse; they do not have a ‘voice’.

My research project is practice-based, therefore I will use my art practice as a method, alongside: art workshops with children, object reading, visitor observation and evaluation. Through the art workshops, I will explore how contemporary children engage with narratives of the historical children linked to the museum’s history. I will make artwork with the children and use this outcome as fuel for my independent art practice. Within this process, I will adopt techniques from performance practice, notably from Constantin Stanislavski and Bertolt Brecht.

The aims of my research are:

  • To understand and analyse the representation of the individual or ‘character’ in contemporary museum practices. 
  • In the museum, to explore how art practice might communicate the historical person’s ‘voice’ and examine the value of multiple ‘voices’.
  • To analyse the under-representation of the historic child in the museum and to explore how art practice might capture the voice of children instead of the institutionalised history of childhood.


Foundling Characters by Rachel Emily Taylor (January 2016)

Foundling Characters by Rachel Emily Taylor (January 2016)


I am an artist and writer working with sound, video and sculptural installation to examine voice and historical biography. Alongside my Ph.D. research at Sheffield Hallam University, I am a Associate Lecturer at University of the Arts London and a Visiting Lecturer at the Royal College of Art.

I have exhibited across the UK: at the Rag Factory in London, the Tetley in Leeds, The Old Joint Stock in Birmingham, the Archipelago Works in Sheffield and the Egg Suite in Manchester, amongst others. I have been awarded funding from Arts Council England and the British Council.

Alongside exhibiting, I have fostered a close relationship with Museums. I have facilitated workshops and performed as a live artist at the Wellcome Collection, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Design Museum.

The project is based at Sheffield Hallam University within the Art and Design Research Centre. My Director of Studies is Dr Becky Shaw and my Supervisors are Dr Deborah Middleton and Dr Sharon Kivland.


Twitter: @Rachel_E_Taylor