Material Story of Sir John Soane’s Life

Narrative Potential of Materiality

This piece was acquired by the Sir John Soane’s Museum for its handling collection and was presented at Nodem Conference 2014 . Relevant research paper Material as medium: The narrative potential of haptic manipulation in museums was presented at In Gallery Engagement: Digital vs Analogue conference held by Oxford Aspire in July, 2015.


This project aimed to investigate the semantic qualities of materials – expressing emotion through space and form. Material acts as medium – for example, cold black marble reflects the sorrow of the tragic death of Sir John Soane’s wife. When touching a certain material, a past sensory memory is evoked and an emotional connection is made.

The work is comprised of a wooden box with five different pieces of building materials in it. Visitors can handle the piece when visiting the museum, and when the box is opened, visitors find five pieces of materials lying in a line with the name of rooms in the museum on top, and life periods of Sir John Soane described below. The building materials are placed from left to right in chronological order of his life, and also correspond to the visiting order from the ground floor to the basement of the museum. The design of the piece encourages visitors to lift one material at a time when in a specific room, where the relevant story is revealed in the engraved slot in the box.

The piece uses materials relevant to different periods of Soane’s life, as follows:Presentation-02 Presentation-03

The project reveals a potential to empower visitors to touch, feel and manipulate objects corresponding to museum environments, while seeing them and reading related narratives aims at helping visitors to gain better understanding about the environments. Follow-up research is being conducted to evaluate visitors’ understanding of the relationship between Soane’s life and the museum architecture.

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Solo project. Photo by Xinglin Sun.

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