26 Oct 2015

Conversations with the dead are at centre of OU research project

Image of a 'Palm Reading' neon sign

Image of a 'Palm Reading' neon sign

Ghosts of the past are raising new interest in an ordinary midlands city this Halloween, as OU research reveals the truth about Spiritualism in Stoke on Trent.

Talking with the Dead is the aptly-named exhibition which forms part of a two-year research project looking at the origins of Spirituality in the city of Stoke on Trent.

Spiritualism is a philosophy and religion based on the belief that the soul continues to live following the death of the physical body and that communication with the dead is possible through the channel of trained mediums. Spiritualism has been part of Stoke-on-Trent’s history since at least the 1870s and one church was home to the “Derren Brown” of his day Gordon Higginson, the longest-serving President of the spiritualist National Union. The project has shone a light on this hidden legacy as well as delving further into the religion itself, which is also concerned with healing, caring for others and striving to be a better person.

This exhibition is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and produced by the Open University in collaboration with Gladstone Pottery Museum and the Spiritualist Churches of Burslem, Fenton and Longton. Spirited Stoke is led by Dr Sara MacKian, from the Faculty of Health & Social Care, Professor Steve Pile, from the Faculty of Social Sciences and Dr Nadia Bartolini, Research Associate.

“It has often been assumed that spiritualism is a religion of the past, however, from the latest Census numbers and the on-going presence of spiritualist churches in Britain, there is no doubt that spiritualism is still being practised today, said Dr MacKian.

“As a city that has been attempting to renew its identity following industrial decline, Stoke has mainly focused on plans to regenerate its built environment and heighten its pottery heritage. However, the city has struggled to change the perception of its ultimate ordinariness. This project looks to uncover the hidden, and suggests that Stoke has more to offer than its industrial past,” said Dr MacKian.

There are still three very active spiritualist churches within a seven mile radius in Stoke. One of them was the home to Gordon Higginson, the longest serving President of the spiritualist National Union (from 1970 until his passing in 1993). Even while the city’s industries were declining, Stoke was the national hub of a thriving spiritualist movement. This hidden legacy reveals a mysterious and enchanted side to Stoke that has been overshadowed by its industrial heritage.
An exhibition at Gladstone Pottery Museum continues until Saturday 31 whilst ‘spirit trails’ will run at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery’s permanent collection as well as through the city, highlighting places that feature spirit in their histories. Members of the public will also have the opportunity to attend events and mediumship demonstrations, and share their own spiritual experiences of the present-day city.

The overall aim of the SpELS research project is to acknowledge the place of spirit in everyday life by bringing insights from the practices of Spiritualist churches and their congregations. We hope that this will contribute to the debates about the rise and decline of religion and the role of a broader notion of spirituality in contemporary society.
The project runs from 1 October 2014 - 31 March 2016.

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