Interview with Dr. Christina Welch (1/3)

In this interview feature we will be looking at Dr. Christina Welch’s research and academic interests. Dr. Welch is a Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Winchester. It will chart a variety of questions detailing Welch’s background, what she does at the University and other external projects. Both Sam and I thought this was an amazing opportunity to undertake on behalf of the blog as we are both interested in religion and minority studies. Considering History is an inter-disciplinary subject, they certainly crop up as themes in many of our modules. This was what really inspired us to take part in this interview as we really liked the idea of these themes crossing over from one discipline and being applied to another. History is certainly not a cut and dry subject and the importance of promoting other disciplines to the study of history helps us, as historians, to develop and improve our craft as a way of understanding the past and how contemporary society is affected from it. This interview is split into three parts, with the two following sections being posted Saturday 21st and Monday 23rd May. The first will look at Dr. Welch’s research and teaching, while the second looks more in depth at her work on Cultural Appropriation and gender. The third, and final part, discusses her own personal experiences with studying at Higher Level education and working as an academic.

Dr. Welch’s latest publications, from this year, include:

‘From Villainous Letch and Sinful Outcast to “especially beloved of God”; Complicating the Medieval Leper through Gender and Social Status’, with Brown, R. Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historique (Spring 2016).

Welch, C. (2016) ‘Marketing Death through Erotic Art’. In, Dobscha, S, (ed.). Death in a Consumer Culture. London: Routledge: 43-56.

She also has an upcoming conference, Death, Art and Anatomy, at the University of Winchester between the 3rd and 6th of June.
Interview by Emily Saunders and Samantha Holderness

Sam: Can you give us a bit of background about what you teach at the University of Winchester?

My teaching’s different from my research. I teach in religious studies so the modules I teach on at undergraduate level include Islam, Judaism, Indigenous religions, New and Alternative religions and then basic Introduction to Religion, really. But, that would cover things like history, politics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy.

Sam: So very interdisciplinary?

Religious studies is a hugely interdisciplinary subject, and then I lead the Death MA, so I teach a lot about death

Sam: Interesting! So you say what you teach is different from your projects and your research. Could you give us a bit of a rundown of what your research is currently?

I started off doing my PHD looking at the role of appropriation narratives of people who dress up and dance, in this country, as Native American Indians, so that’s where indigenous religions and appropriation comes from. But, that developed out of my third year dissertation project. My masters degree, which is the Archaeology of Art and Representation, and then [I] did this PHD on visual imagery and spirituality, so I’ve always had an interest in the visual. And then, when I started teaching the Death MA and leading the Death MA, I needed to start thinking about how I’d apply this to death studies. So, I started researching on visual imagery and death. I just finished a project on erotic death art, so I’ve got a couple of publications out on that, and that includes reformation imagery, including people like Hans Baldung Grien, and Manuel Deutsch, and erotic coffin calendars produced out of Italy and Poland.


Emily: That is not something I would have expected to come out of this interview!

No, so I do that and then and so I’ve just finished that and, for a long time, literally probably about the last five years, I’ve been working on late Medieval carved cadaver sculptures. There are two in the cathedral. There are only forty-one in the country, forty-one extant, and so probably pretty much the only ones we’ve ever had. They’re very different from the ones in Europe, but it’s taken me off into a number of fields. I’ve been looking at them theologically, and relating them to a concept of post-mortem sentience in purgatory, because they’re catholic images. And, I’ve now started developing a thread in pre-versalian anatomy. So, I’ve got a conference coming up between the 3rd and 6th of June, on Death, Art and Anatomy, and I think I’ve probably got a large number of anatomical artists coming to the conference. And it’s part funded by the Wellcome Trust, Henry Moore, and the society for social history and Medicine. But that’s where my research seems to be leading, so I’m turning into a bit of a… yeah a bit of a historian. It’s moving away a little bit from religion on this one, looking at early anatomy.

Sam: But they do interlink a lot. I feel that a lot with my dissertation, actually, with how religion comes into it. I write a lot about minority cultures and religion titles as well.

This is a Catholic period and everything was religious anyway so there’s always religion in there, and it’s quite interesting how the history of the church and dissection. And eventually, I probably will start looking a little bit more at Islamic medicine, because that’s where the Greco-Roman came through to us. The Wellcome [Trust] had an exhibition on Tibetan Medicine and Tibetan Buddhist Medicine, and there’s some really interesting links there with that and medieval humorism, so I can definitely see that sort of links developing in my head.

Sam: Sounds very, very interesting

I’m actually having a carved… I crowdfunded a couple of years ago, just over £2000, and to have a carved cadaver carved for me, and he will be exhibited at the conference. So the sculptor very nicely is doing it in her own time, and we crowdfunded for the wood so we will have a 6ft carved cadaver and I’m doing an exhibition and we’re going to tour him and the exhibition in various places. [We’ve] had interest from the Thackray Museum in Leeds and Edinburgh Anatomy Museum and some churches and various other places.

Sam: So when was that conference again, June?

The 3rd to the 6th of June. Death, Art and Anatomy. I’ve got a performance poet, performing with a scythe, he’s doing a poem and using a scythe and… I’ve got all sorts! There’s performance and all sorts. Death is definitely the way to go at the moment I think.

Emily: We saw as well you worked on the Medieval Jewish Winchester Project. What sort of research did that involve and who did you work with?

Okay, well that came out of a WRAP project, so very long strange story. We, in our department, have an Erasmus partnership with the University of Potsdam in Germany just outside Berlin. The guy who comes over every year works in Jewish studies, he’s a very eminent Jewish scholar and, just one year, he happened to send an article which had been printed in a student journal, [a] post-graduate student journal that they run, and it was about the fact that York commemorates its Jewish medieval community and Winchester does nothing. But Winchester had quite a prominent Jewish community. So, obviously I teach Judaism, I know quite a lot of the local Jewish communities, and I took it to Danny Habel, who runs Habels Sleep Shop in the city and said to him, look, you know this is just ridiculous, we’ve got this thing here, why aren’t we doing something about commemorating the Jewish heritage.

It’s not as if people don’t know, there’s a book in the library here about Licoricia, so it’s not as if people don’t know about this, but nothing’s in the public domain. So, we sort of got chatting and decided it would be a really good project. He approached some people at the local council and they said if we did something they would fund it and it could potentially be a walk. Anyway, it sort of spiralled and somebody contacted – from the Jewish community – contacted the local council and  they just said you’re right, we’re not doing anything. We can’t have this, we need to do something proper, here we’ll pay for a proper leaflet for you. So, it ended up as this full blown walk. But I had some undergraduate students from my department – from Theology, Religion and Philosophy – and some undergraduate students from History, Civilisations and Beliefs, who were working on the project. They did a lot of reading through all the secondary literature, just seeing what was out there.

Emily: That’s what we do.

Exactly. Looking in the library, books by [Derek] Keene. Because it’s a walk, you can’t just look at stuff from books.

Sam: So the visual interpretation comes out quite a lot?

It does and it had to be something where even though the buildings weren’t there, people could walk the route and have the places pointed out to them. So it’s really important to get a map of the city, use the stuff in Keene, find out who owned what buildings, where were Jewish communities and build the story around that. So, that’s basically what we did. We got a couple of PhD students in because it was escalating from this small thing I was doing with Danny and a couple of students to this sort of… whoa okay it’s big! And we’ve got a big launch. So, we pulled some other people in to help so they could help me write it up because it had sort of grown out of…

Sam: I suppose you didn’t anticipate it.

No! I didn’t anticipate it to be like this at all and it’s fantastic. Yeah, so that’s how it grew and the council were really pleased and in fact we’re now developing more stuff with the city council. Ellie [Woodacre] is working with them, to do a Royal Winchester Walk so that’s really great. I think that link will carry on. I’ve always had some links with the Cathedral but because of the Holy Sepulchre Wall paintings that have got Jews in them I’ve been unearthing a little bit more information about that. So, that’s something else I might look at doing. And then eventually we ended up, when I was working with Trish, and we’ve now got one of the 175 year PhD studentships taking that project further and basically looking at what  can be done in other cities. [Looking at] why places like York very much focus on the massacres and not on the more positive stories as well, and trying to find out whether there’s room for more nuanced stories, so it’s not just that Jews were murdered. It’s a case of, there were these thriving Jewish communities and it was much more complex than this. But, yeah it’s sort of grown out of all proportion.

Emily: It’s really brilliant that it started off as a small thing and that it’s just had this huge massive impact.

Well I’m doing one again with Archaeology and History, where we’re doing a WRAP for the West Hill Cemetery, so again we’re hoping something will come out of that. I do like interdisciplinary projects, and it’s a great opportunity for students to get involved in something nice and two undergraduates are named on the leaflet and two postgraduates – I think there are two postgraduates named on it because a couple pulled out, for various reasons. So, we’ve got students named on the leaflets and it’s something that they’ll always have.

Sam: I did it last year, and it was invaluable because there were things I didn’t realise until researching it. So it’s a very good opportunity and something I would recommend. So it’s good to know that those projects do amount to something much more.

Yeah. Not all of them have, I have to say. There’s only been a couple of years I haven’t done them but I’ve got a visual archive of photographs that needs to be [sorted]. I’ve had students on a couple of WRAP projects sort of collating them but they all need to be scanned in and then we can have a visual archive of amazing photographs of religion and in various natural places but… it’s just time! That’s the problem, there’d be loads of lovely stuff that would be great to do but, it does take a while and also, as I’ve now learnt from the Jewish Medieval Winchester thing, these projects can escalate. So what turned out to be a WRAP two years ago actually took me two years in total. So, students worked on it and then it just continued and suddenly I was working on stuff I hadn’t expected to work on. It was great, I loved it but they can be quite time consuming and I think I need to factor that in a bit more next time. Yeah, if you’re going to do big projects remember it might last for more than a year. But I’ve had students working with me on my carved cadavers project so one set up a Wix Website for me and another one helped me look through some photographs. They’ve all been mentioned in publications, so there’s definitely – they are good. I’ve got to admit, it’s great to get students – good students – involved. That are keen and really want to learn.

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