‘Sensory Suitcase’ – outreach and engagement at Alexandra Palace, Nov 2018

Stunning view on a cold November afternoon.

I think you know me well enough by now to know any excuse to visit somewhere new and I am there. I am enjoying broadening my horizons a little bit more recently, moving out of my museum comfort zone and visiting galleries and theatres, repurposed old fire stations, town halls turned art centres and churches seeking new heritage lives.

Culture, art, inspiration, and history live in many different guises, in different spaces and places. Sometimes the pathways to connections have to be a bit more imaginative but moving away from a traditional heritage museum setting perhaps allows the opportunity for engagement with different groups in new ways.

Alexandra Palace

Last week saw me trekking from South to North London to visit Alexandra Palace. First opened in 1873 to provide those fun-loving Victorians with a beautiful park and recreation centre. 16 days after opening, it was destroyed by fire. It actually opened on Queen Victoria’s 54th birthday and I am resisting the temptation to make a joke about the number of birthday candles starting the fire.

BBC Tower

Rebuilt and reopened in 1875 Ally Pally, as it is affectionately known, has had quite a remarkable history from Belgian refugee camp in WW1 to horse racing and also of course known as the birthplace of television as the first public television transmissions were made from the top of the hill in 1935.

This weekend (1-2 December) Ally Pally is celebrating a new chapter in the story as the East Wing restoration is complete and the theatre and East Court will be open to the public. For 80 years the theatre has been closed, in 2007 it was placed on the Theatre Buildings At Risk Register due to the deteriorating fabric of the building making it unsafe for use.

The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) through money raised by National Lottery Players has invested nearly £19 million in the £27 million pound project. My visit is not to see the theatre but to hear about a very small part of the overall project. For the HLF to invest in a project it has to be about people not just physical heritage and I am going to meet their Outreach Officer Marine Begault to hear about their ‘Sensory Suitcase’.

Capturing the last of the sun.

On a crisp late November afternoon it is a beautifully bracing walk to the top of the hill, the view is breathtaking and it takes all my willpower to drag myself inside. Begault begins by explaining the range of activities and support that HLF funding has enabled for those with dementia and memory loss including a Pop-Up Wellness Cafe and ‘Singing for the Brain’.

wellness‘Singing for the Brain’ is a collaboration where Ally Pally has partnered with the Alzheimer’s Society to promote communication through singing which taps into the rich history of music that the Palace has always had. The specially trained facilitators include exercise and dance in the sessions which provide fantastic wellbeing support. We often hear this word ‘wellbeing’, and sometimes it can be hard to explain what you really mean. I know personally the huge benefits of music and singing, not just for those with memory loss but for their carers too.

Palm Court

Having seen my aunt and her immediate family struggle with the impact of dementia it is on days like this, talking about what it means for individuals and families that makes me miss her even more.  For many years it always amazed me how she could not know me at all, ask me the same questions a hundred times but if we started to sing she could recall all the melodies and words from her days entertaining in her ‘Pearly Queen’ outfit. We would sit and sing ‘My old man’ and ‘Waiting at the Church’, old musical hall numbers that would no doubt be right at home at Ally Pally.

Enjoying the surrounds of the Palm Court.

Begault tells me how these sessions bring down the barriers and definitions between carers and patients or loved ones. Music can be a leveller, even with severe memory loss there is something about music and song that allows the pathways to reconnect.

There are challenges to putting on these sessions, particularly encouraging visitors to a site perhaps not seen traditionally as a community space in this sense. But it is clear that partnership working with the Alzheimer’s Society is the real strength of this work.

DSC_0901 cropped
The Sensory Suitcase

Begault goes on to explain about the outreach aspect to the work, the ‘Sensory Suitcase’. The suitcase was created in conjunction with the artist Abigail Hirsch, who specialises in accessibility and multi-sensory engagement. It tells the remarkable story of Dolly Shepherd. Dolly’s story also ties closely to that of Ally Pally. Born in 1886 Dolly began her career at the age of 16 as a waitress at the Ally Pally cafe. In a bizarre twist of fate she ended up volunteering to become a parachutist, jumping out of hot air balloons above the North London site.

Dolly’s story of pluck, courage and death-defying feats was chosen for the project as it can take the participant on a journey around the Ally Pally site. Each part of Dolly Shepherd’s journey at Alexandra Palace is followed by multi-sensory objects in order to stimulate multiple senses, creative thinking, and actively engage the participants. The ‘Sensory Suitcase’ has been travelling to care homes around the borough of Haringey with a team of well trained and supported volunteers who work with two residents and a carer to explore the suitcase.

Hirsch explained to me why some of the objects were chosen and how they intertwine with Dolly and Ally Pally’s story.

Wooden music box – The music box stimulates the sense of hearing, touch and movement. In order to hear something, participants need to turn the handle of the box. The music box tells the story of why Dolly took the job at Ally Pally, so she could see the famous American conductor and composer John Philip Sousa, she couldn’t afford a ticket so became a waitress.

Loose tea inside a can, coffee beans inside a burlap bag, a menu – These objects stimulate the cafe experience with touch, hearing, sight and smell. Participants are invited to explore the objects first whilst their eyes are closed.

The Grand Willis Organ

Thumb Piano – This small musical instrument stimulates hearing and touch, participants are invited to play to produce sound. The object relates to the Grand Willis Organ in the Ally Pally Great Hall. Dolly could hear the organ being played whilst she worked in the cafe.

Handkerchief – The handkerchief was something that characterised all of Dolly’s performances, she waved to the crowd from high up in the sky, connecting with her audience. The silk stimulates touch and movement, participants are encouraged to feel the smooth surface and wave it imagining they are taking off with the balloon. The handkerchief is a very personal item, it encourages people to share their stories.


Park Items – cinnamon sticks, roses, nutshell shaker – These items tell the story of the park that surrounds Ally Pally, as Dolly sets off from the ground she could see the park from above, the trees and flowers. This allows participants to explore senses of touch smell, sight and sound.

Parachute inside Woven Basket – Stimulates the sense of touch, sight and movement, the basket and the parachute support the story of Dolly Shepherd’s jump from a hot air balloon, high above Ally Pally.

The sensory elements are key to working with those with memory loss. Smell, touch and sound can help participants to remember long forgotten memories and engage with new ones. Some objects are familiar, others are intriguing and more of a surprise. It is not purely about reminiscence but a chance to live in that moment, not worrying about things forgotten.

sensory care home 1
Residents of Priscilla Wakefield House taking part in a session. Copyright Priscilla Wakefield House

A really important element in the activity is to get a carer from the care home to participate too. Allowing the carer relations and roles to be relaxed. A moment to share as two people, not purely a job with responsibilities and pressures attached.

Begault has worked successfully with sessions in 7 out of Haringey’s 11 care homes, a local council activity co-ordinator has been a great support in providing a platform for Ally Pally to advertise their offer to the whole borough.

What is interesting is hearing how the small team of volunteers have risen to the challenge. Each session is very different depending on the residents, sometimes it is not always about Dolly Shepherd and the narrative, sometimes it is purely a sensory exploration of objects. Whilst others revel in Dolly’s extraordinary life. What the narrative can provide is a framework for volunteers to deliver the session.

suitcaseI am hugely impressed in the volunteer roles, Begault tells me from day one their input and continual feedback has allowed session to be refined and tailored. There are regular meet ups to pass on experience and tips as wells as space to reflect on the sessions.

There have been challenges, this project relies on amazing volunteers and sessions can vary massively depending on participants. It can often be difficult to get carer participation in care homes when obviously carers are very busy and have packed schedules.

Whilst saving and opening up the amazing heritage of the grand theatre and East Court is brilliant, for me the heart and power of this project are these small team of volunteers taking Ally Pally out of the park. Dolly Shepherd is flying high again, it may only be fleeting moments and memories may not last but for those precious moments participants are getting a chance to soar up high with her.

This is what living breathing heritage can do, much much more than bricks and mortar, much much more than grand openings, but something that extends way outside physical boundaries and includes everyone in the story.


With thanks to Marine Begault and Abigail Hirsch for contributing to this blog.

Thanks to the residents of Priscilla Wakefield House who gave permission for the use of the photographs.

You can contact Abigail Hirsch via Twitter @abihirsch

For more on the Sensory Suitcase in action please see Priscilla Wakefield House website – http://pwhnursinghome.co.uk/sensory-suitcase-june-2018/

For more on Singing for the Brain please take a look at Alexandra Palace blog – http://blog.alexandrapalace.com/singing-brain-launched-palace/

For more on the Theatre and East Court Restoration –

Evening Standard – Alexandra Palace Theatre Reopening —https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/theatre/alexandra-palace-theatre-reopening-pictures-a4003596.html

BBC New – Will Gompertz review https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-46394219

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