Listening to the Commons: The Sounds of Debate and the Experience of Women in Parliament c. 1800

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: History

Abstract

Did women have a presence in the House of Commons before they were granted the right to vote and stand as MPs in the early twentieth century? 'Listening to the Commons' brings political history into dialogue with creative digital acoustic technology, virtual reality and buildings archaeology to explain how women participated in Commons debates long before they were formally enfranchised in 1918. Through 'Vote 100', Parliament is spearheading this 100th anniversary with a major series of events and exhibitions. Listening to the Commons will contribute to Vote 100 by adapting a 3D visual model of the historic Commons chamber constructed by the AHRC 'St Stephen's Chapel' project, to recover the soundscape of debate as experienced by women listening through a ventilator in the old House of Commons ceiling around 1800.

Between 1548 and 1834 the House of Commons met in the converted royal chapel of St Stephen in the Palace of Westminster. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Commons witnessed intense debates which came to define modern Britain: the abolition of the slave trade, the ethics of capital punishment, the Reform Bill extending the franchise to working-class men. Women had often watched Commons debates from the public galleries, but in 1778 they were ejected following complaints from some MPs. Women responded by occupying the space above the Commons ceiling, accessed by a ladder, where the architecture of the medieval St Stephen's chapel was still visible. Surviving drawings show women watching and listening through the ventilator. Our follow-on activity focuses on this little-known but highly significant space.

Acoustic and virtual reality technologies create an exciting new opportunity to develop the 3D model of the historic Commons chamber, created as part of the St Stephen's Chapel project, to model the soundscape of the Commons. Listening to the Commons will scale up this existing 3D model for the incorporation of historic sound. Building on a successful University of York Research Priming Fund pilot project to test out this idea, we will model the ventilator space and produce auralisations (the audio equivalent of visualisation) to enable us to recover the experience of women listening to Commons debates. We will explore the important narrative of women's engagement with Parliament at this time through this hidden space. Translating our results for a virtual reality experience will deliver a novel, historically and politically important, high profile example of how arts and humanities research can communicate with new cultural and heritage partner audiences via technology founded in the creative economy.

The 3D visual and acoustic model, auralisations, and VR representation will be incorporated in the 'Vote 100' exhibition in Westminster Hall (July-Oct 2018). Exhibition visitors will experience debate from the perspective of women commenting on the all-male world of the House of Commons, dispelling the myth that women were absent from parliamentary politics before the twentieth century. The digital audio and VR content produced will be made accessible and shareable to provide further outreach for this exhibition and dissemination of this work.

Listening to the Commons brings together three centres of expertise at York - the Dept of History, Dept. of Electronics Audio Lab, and the Digital Creativity Labs - into collaboration with the 'Vote 100' team, and this follow-on initiative develops the already strong relationship between the University of York and Parliament established by the St Stephen's project. Combining innovative digital technologies to highlight the deep history of women's participation in politics, our follow-on collaboration with Parliament's 'Vote 100' project will make a compelling demonstration of the impact of AHRC-funded research in the creative economy to engage new audiences and enable modern people to hear new histories told in new ways.

Planned Impact

Listening to the Commons builds on the University of York and UK Parliament collaboration established in the AHRC St Stephen's Chapel project. This follow-on activity is based on leading arts and humanities research, for the first time collaborating with innovative creative sector work in virtual reality, audio technology, acoustics and heritage. Through Parliament's Vote 100 Project and York's Digital Creativity Labs, Listening to the Commons will deliver impact in the Creative Economy to engage new audiences in culture and heritage and enable modern people to hear new histories in new ways. Beneficiaries include Vote 100 and UK Parliament, the public via the Vote 100 exhibition, and those working with creative economy focused audio and VR technology in the cultural and heritage sectors.

The Vote 100 exhibition will benefit from the digital 3D visual, acoustic, audio and VR assets produced. Making these resources available online ensures they have a role beyond the visitor experience at the exhibition itself and we will use low-cost VR headsets to maximise dissemination and engagement opportunities for this novel creative content. We are working to engage MPs as part of the creative process, using them as our actors for the recording of historic debates. Positively received, discussions are underway with Parliamentary authorities on how the practicalities can be accommodated. Listening to the Commons therefore supports Parliament's own public engagement aims (Business plan 16/17: Enhancing public engagement and participation especially through digital means) and the assets created will be used beyond the 2018 exhibition as an education and outreach resource.
More than 100,000 people are expected to visit the Vote 100 exhibition. Audiences, both present and online, will benefit from opportunities to digitally engage with the exhibition content. We will contribute to Vote 100's media and engagement strategy, and BBC Parliament are keen to follow up their recently broadcast St Stephen's project TV documentary. Listening to the Commons will therefore play a significant role in the culture (through the digital narratives developed) and economy (through audience attendance) of the UK.

Listening to the Commons will benefit partners in the creative economy with an interest in VR technology, a significant business opportunity, particularly in its potential for developing novel, engaging narratives for audiences within cultural and heritage sectors. This will be facilitated through Project Steering Group members from cultural (York Museums Trust) and business (Knowledge Transfer Network) sectors, together with the DC-Labs remit to deliver research focused impact in the creative digital economy via their 80+ partners, including companies already developing VR for gaming (Sony), broadcast (BBC, BT) and engineering (Arup, AECOM). We will disseminate outcomes through three impact workshops as well as existing DC-Labs channels and author a paper on the project process and outcomes for audiences from both academia and industry. Acoustic data will be published via OpenAIR, an online resource already creating impact in sound design, digital heritage and gaming, and so therefore also benefitting these creative communities.

Impact with Vote 100 will be realised as the exhibition opens in July 2018. Audience numbers will be monitored, and we will commit at least one University of York Institute of Public Understanding of the Past internship to the capture and evaluation of ongoing impact related to audience engagement with our work. Impact in the creative economy will be developed during the lifetime of the project through three key workshops with ongoing impact captured through existing DC-Labs activities (2020 end date).

The Named PDRA will develop new skills in VR development and their placement within the DC-Labs multi-disciplinary, impact-focused research environment will further opportunities for them across employment sectors.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Through digital modelling and the creation of historically researched auralisations, the project is exploring the experience of women in the pre-1834 Palace of Westminster, focusing specifically on their access to the ventilator space above the House of Commons chamber.
Exploitation Route Our methods of digital modelling and auralisation will contribute to the creative economy, most obviously the gaming industry. Our key findings are being used by the UK Parliament to re-tell the story of women's access to politics in a major 2018 exhibition at Parliament.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

 
Description The findings of the project are currently (March 2018) being incorporated in a major exhibition in Westminster Hall planned for summer 2018, celebrating the centenary of votes for women. The project is contributing to the creative economy by producing pioneering and historically authentic auralisations of the pre-1834 House of Commons chamber and the political experience of women, with value for the digital economy and heritage industry as well as education.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description Invited seminar at the Digital Creativity Labs - Listening to the Commons: Using digital techniques to explore women's experience of parliament c.1800 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A seminar given to the Digital Creativity Labs staff.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description National Trust interpretation team visit to York 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact The Interpretation Team from the National Trust East-Midlands came to visit York and engage with projects generated from the Digital Creativity Labs. They visited the Viking VR at the York Museums Trust and engage in a long discussion about the Listening to the Commons Project focusing on using new digital techniques to interpret heritage sites. The team were very enthusiastic and hope to collaborate on similar projects in the future.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Presentation and panel discussion at Women's Negotiations of Space 1500-1800 conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation as part of a panel discussion at Women's Negotiations of Space 1500-1800 conference. The audience was largely gender historians and historical and cultural georaphers. Demonstrated how digital acoustic techniques could be used to generate new interpretations and engagements with Women's past Political Spaces specifically The Ventilator. Demonstrations were well received and generated a number of questions and responses.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://genderplaceandmemory.wordpress.com/womens-negotiations-of-space/
 
Description Presentation at CAA Internation, Atlanta: Listening to the Commons: Acoustically Modelling the Pre­1834 House 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Pre-recorded presentation give at at the annual Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology conference. Purpose was to inform those of the CAA community (archaeologists, mathematicians and computer scientists) about Listening to the Commons and the innovative methodologies we are developing.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://2017.caaconference.org/
 
Description Presentation at CAA-UK 2017 "Listening to the Commons: Acoustic Modelling of the pre-1834 Houses of Commons." 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited presentation at the national chapter Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology. Purpose was to inform those of the CAA community within the UK (archaeologists, mathematicians and computer scientists) about Listening to the Commons and the innovative methodologies we are developing. We had a number of questions and discussion concerning the wider implications of the technology and its applicability to heritage sites, archaeological interpretation, and research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://uk.caa-international.org/caa-uk-2017/abstracts/
 
Description Presentation at Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology Congress 2017 - Hearing the Commons: Acoustically modelling the pre-1834 House of Commons 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation at the Society for Post Medieval Archaeology's annual congress. The purpose was inform other archaeologists working in the field about new methodologies that can be employed to further interpret post medieval sites. The paper was very well received, and there was a lot of enthusiasm about the approach we are taking.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.spma.org.uk/
 
Description Public soundscapes workshop - contributer 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Workshop bringing together staff from a range of disciplines (History, English, Music, Theatre Studies) together to discuss past soundscapes of public life. The workshop provoked genuine discussion across the disciplines and suggested a number of potential future collaborations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Seminar Archaeology MA module Visualisation and Analysis - Sound and Vision 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Seminar to the Archaeology Masters students studying Visualisations and Analysis. Seminar explored various approaches to multi-sensory engagements with the past including research, interpretation and presentation. Students came away thinking more about multi-sensory study of the past with some students returning to discuss how they could incorporate the subject into their dissertations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Seminar MA Public History - Acoustic Heritage The Past was not a Silent Place 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Seminar to the MA Public History students discussing Acoustic Heritage The Past was not a Silent Place. Students came away thinking more about multi-sensory interpretation of heritage sites. Course convener reported students wishing to prepare papers on the subject as part of their course.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Workshop exploring The Ventilator, Wesminster 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A small workshop bringing together experts from around the country to discuss the use of the Ventilator at the Historic House of Commons by women in the 18th and 19th century. The purpose was to make a number of key decisions about the structure of the space, who it was used by, how it was used, and when we can securely date its occupation. The discussion was very informative and helped guide the project and we made a number of key interpretations about the space including 1818 as the first known date of the spaces use. These decisions have been fed into the construction of the acoustic model of the Ventilator and will help inform decisions about the material generated for the Voice and Vote Exhibitions this summer.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017