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York Historians Use Mobile App to Tell Elizabethan History

University of York

1:02pm 15th July 2013

Scholars at the University of York have tapped into the latest mobile technologies and staged a Renaissance ‘flash mob’ to give visitors to 400-year-old Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire a radically 21st century vision of Elizabethan England.

The 'Virtue and Vice' exhibition, that will run at the National Trust-owned Elizabethan stately home, near Chesterfield, until 3 November, was inspired by two of the Hall’s incredible textile artworks: a painted hanging showing the conversion of St Paul, and a unique embroidery showing 'True faith and Mahomet'.

Dr Helen Smith, of the Department of English and Related Literature at York, explains: “These two startling objects give us a very different picture of the Elizabethan age, reminding us of the importance of European and global developments in shaping our modern world. The Paul cloth has lots to tell us about how and why people used biblical stories for their own ends, as well as the influence of the European Reformation. The "True Faith and Mahomet" hanging is a vivid reminder of the long history of the relationship between Christianity and Islam, and a reminder of how dominant the powerful Ottoman Empire was in the English imagination at this time.”

The research team working on an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, 'Conversion Narratives in Early Modern Europe' used mobile technologies and a range of innovative solutions to meet the challenge of creating a compelling exhibition in the Hall built in the 16th century by the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick. They could not use artificial lighting, they were working with objects both too large and too rare to move, and they were not allowed to place anything on the walls.

So the researchers staged information at key points around the house, and 'borrowed' images from other collections to show how Hardwick fits into a broader picture. They also worked with Nottingham-based web designers, Rusty Monkey, to develop a mobile app for Android and iOS devices.

Hannah Hogan, who worked as an intern on the project, said: “Working on the app has been really exciting. It lets visitors give themselves a themed tour of the house, but has also allowed us to develop our themes in more detail, and to make links to collections and contexts in the UK and overseas. This is really about giving people the tools to interpret and explore a very rich history for themselves.”

The High Great Chamber at Hardwick was also the scene of a ‘flash mob’ with a difference when four talented musicians gave a ‘spontaneous’ rendition of wooden sheet music inlaid on the surface of a unique table. The York based music ensemble 'Les Canards Chantants' - Sarah Holland (Soprano), Robin Bier (Alto), Edward Ingham (Tenor), Graham Bier (Bass) - transcribed and edited the music by Thomas Tallis and surprised unsuspecting visitors with their ‘impromptu’ performance.

Sadie Scott, Interpretation Officer for Hardwick, said: “It was a wonderful event, and a revelatory experience. Hearing the quartet in the vast space of Bess of Hardwick's High Great Chamber gave a really vivid sense of how rich contemporary music would have sounded when it was played or sung to entertain Bess's guests.”

Dr Smith, Reader in Renaissance Literature at York and co-director of 'Conversion Narratives in Early Modern Europe', adds: “We tend to see great Elizabethan houses like Hardwick as exceptional, and find it hard to understand how closely bound up they were with the big social, political, and religious changes which profoundly shaped England. Our exhibition shows how Hardwick was caught up in European, and even global, transformations.”

Visitors to Hardwick will learn about the Reformation, and Bess's family involvement in the dissolution of the monasteries, as well as the relationship between Christianity and Islam, and new opportunities for global trade. Each of these histories, the exhibition shows, is woven into the rare and beautiful objects which decorate the Hall.

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