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Voicing Objects: Interdisciplinary Encounters in the Shefton Collection

Sally Waite writes about a recent Public Engagement project supported by the ICS

The ICS funded the development and delivery of an inclusive two-hour workshop which was held in the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle upon Tyne. The workshop was co-led by Pippa Anderson (vocal rehabilitation expert), Olivia Turner (post-doctoral researcher and artist), Sally Waite (lecturer in Greek Art and Archaeology at Newcastle University) and Leah Wild (doctoral candidate in Classics at Cambridge University). It accompanied a temporary exhibition ‘Voicing Objects’ (January-April 2024) which featured a new moving image artwork by Olivia Turner created in response to selected clay artefacts from the Shefton Collection of Greek Archaeology. The participants for the workshop were recruited through an open call on the Great North Museum’s website and all self-identified as women or non-binary.  

Artefacts and replicas used for the workshop. Photography by Sally Waite.

The workshop considered the lives of ancient women and their voice (and lack of voice) in myth, ritual, and everyday life. Objects included in the exhibition were introduced through 3D replicas alongside additional artefacts from the Shefton Collection. Breathwork and vocal exercises were explicitly linked to the ancient objects considered and aimed to promote calmness and clarity alongside strengthening the voice.

Inspired by Gorgons, participants considered the crucial role the tongue plays in survival. Protecting against infection, it is a sensory organ which helps us to chew and to swallow and furthermore, good tongue function can support airway efficiency. The act of stretching the tongue can help improve tongue mobility and it might positively impact breathing patterns. The group replicated the facial posture of the Gorgons, and tongue protruding, they produced primal sounds, transcending time.

Terracotta Gorgon attachment (late 6th/early fifth century) Shefton Collection 424, Great North Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Engaging with the Siren artefact, and coincidently, a vocal technique called ‘the siren,’ participants explored pitch and airflow. The siren involves gliding up and down through the range. It is a gentle exercise which helps to regulate exhalation speed and it is used as a vocal health tool to warm up and cool down the voice. Employing this technique as an initial vocalisation, and subsequently gently transitioning to hypnotic rhythmic patterns, the group meandered through the workshop space synchronising bodily responses to the sounds that they created. This type of emotional group expression can promote feelings of happiness, connection and spiritual fulfilment.

Workshop participant holding maenad fragment. Photography by Olivia Turner.

Through object handling, breathwork and voicing the participants were encouraged to consider both the freedoms and restrictions placed on women’s voices in the past and in the present. This embodied approach used artefacts to think, feel, imagine, and voice with and promoted an understanding of voice as a method of care, expression, and healing. The workshop provided insights into the ways that participants respond to ancient objects, and how they can use their own voices to recover those preserved in the objects handled.