All our Fairytales: part 1

A little something different for this month – every day of (the secular) advent, I will be posting link to a different version of the now famous Christmas song, which was created in the eighties by my very favourite band. No! Stick with me, you will enjoy this, honestly … ūüėÄ

As we work though this veritable feast of Fairytales, we will talk about controversial lyrics, cultural impact and what this song means to me, and to you. I have a pretty good idea what my 24 different versions will be, but if you want to bring an interesting version to my attention, please do. I may even kick out one of my planned versions and replace it with your suggestion.

By the way, I passed my viva, referred to in the last post. I have some modest corrections to do, and a bit of reading around those, but you can call me Doctor in the meantime.

Now on to our first Fairytale. This is an early version, incomplete and recorded only for further development. It has Cait O’Riordan on the duet. Cait was an original member of the Pogues. Her solo, I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day and hand her other duet with Shane, Haunted for the Alex Cox film, Sid and Nancy are two of my favourite Pogues tracks ever. Later on in the month, we will talk about why Fairytale isn’t.

We start with this version simply to show that genius sometime takes hard work and the development between this version and the one everybody knows is clear to see. It’s not widely available. You won’t find it on Spotify or Apple Music but the compilation album, Look ’em in the eye and say Pogue Mahone, has a number of early versions. Don’t worry, the is the only one I will incflict on you for this blog.

Back, for a while at least

Woah! It’s been over a year since I last post anything on here. I return because later today is my viva¬†voce, wherein I “defend my thesis.” Yes, that’s why I have been silent on here, I have been hammering my thesis into a shape that I am not ashamed of, reading it, proofing it, getting others to read it and proof it (and yet, yes, there are still typos) and submitting.

For the last couple of weeks, in preparation for tomorrow, I have been re-reading the thesis, meeting (virtually) with my supervisor and recruiting an old friend and academic Jane Malcolm-Davies to read it and to give me a practice viva, last week. Reading it is hard though – after a year of writing and re-writing, the words flow through me like a purge barely touching the sides. And all I take note of are the things I might have done better. The practice viva was a very useful experience though, and so I thought I might give myself another “practice” by writing this post.

What brought me back to the blog was recognising a sentence that had survived from one of my earliest posts, though eight years of other work and re-writes and edits. This blog was a useful way of processing my reading and other research as I was going it. It wasn’t what I needed though when I was rewriting the words that might have started on this site. And as this is the last chance to read my own thesis for the viva, I thought I might process it with a blog post in a similar way, hopefully anticipating some of the questions

Who is my audience?

One question Jane asked me about the thesis was “who are you writing this for?” And it’s a good question. It gave me pause to think. But I think the answer is I writ it for myself, and for people like me, heritage professionals who want to explore what digital interventions might be like, and who don’t want to be reliant on digital suppliers to tell heritage organisations what they need.

When I started this, eight years ago, I came into it with a truly open mind. My question really was “what can I and my fellow heritage professionals learn from games about storytelling in space?” I had no agenda, no thesis I wanted to test and, importantly no real experience in computer games. I guess I saw computer games as competition for my sector. Not financially speaking really (we are no completion for that global behemoth of games production); but for share of mind or… actually share of mind. I often tell the anecdote of a colleague who came to me saying that a game had made him cry the night before. At the time our organisation were trying to improve “emotional impact”, and as someone who had spurned computer games in my teens because they didn’t engage my emotions. I was intrigued, at the time my organisation was very interested it what we called emotional impact. If computer games could make my friend and colleague cry, perhaps we could learn something from them about storytelling.

So I didn’t apply for the PhD with any sort of hypothesis in mind. This was possibly a mistake, but I genuinely wanted to work out how games (and I should say “open world games”) that let the player wonder around an environment, manipulated emotion.

How did my research change?

When I started out, if I had any defined ambition at all, it might have been to create an application that tuned a heritage visit into some sort of investigative game. And I think I was definitely imagining the mobile device as the conduit of communication between place and person. Two bits of my research changed that ambition, neither of which fit into the main narrative of the thesis but were I feel worthy of including in an appendix, if only to explain why that wasn’t a route I was following.

What was a surprise to me, was during the “reading” of the three games I played, the realisation of just how poor heritage storytelling is. Note I say storytelling here specifically. It can be argued that “heritage interpretation” isn’t “storytelling,” but such an argument is broadly incompatible with a desire to engage visitors emotionally. This became research in practice with two aims: the first to see if heritage interpretation narratives could be broken down into natoms (narrative atoms), stored and reassembled to satisfy visitor’s needs; and secondly to explore how they might be put together in an emotionally engaging way.

What would I have done differently?

With the benefit of hindsight, of course I would have concentrated on this narrative conundrum from the beginning, but even arriving at the conundrum was, for me, a damascene revelation. As a professional interpreter who has been confidently telling stories in the sector for decades, realising that I might have been telling the “wrong” stories.

But practical things I would have done differently – it was only in the latter stages that I realised what useful tool Robin Laws’s story beats and transition analysis was. I wish I had found it earlier and used it to analyse at least parts of the three computer games I read.

Speaking of things I wish I had found earlier. When I was scouting around in the early stages for a “narrative database” I could easily use, the meSch¬†project, which is written specifically for curators and heritage professionals, was only just starting. In the end I used Scalar which is written for academics, but not for the heritage environment. But had meSch been around it would have been a perfect platform to experiment with

One other thing that might fit as an answer to this question is, had I switched to my current supervision team earlier in my research I could easily have been persuaded to drop the narrative track entirely and focus instead on music and sound – where there is simply not enough research on its use in the heritage environment.


Focussing on the academic challenges, the subject of cultural heritage interpretation overlaps so many academic disciplines that even producing a literature review was really hard. And then, pushing the work forward, I felt all the time I was falling between two stools – science and humanities. For example, exploring affect outside of the psychology, and databases outside of computing, but at the same time wanting to write something that could be understood, and taken forward, by both museum professionals and data engineers.

Where do I take this?

In the conclusion I detail a number of potential paths for further research. The one that I am most interested in professionally if further understanding, and potentially measuring, numen. I think this concept is closer to what museums and heritage sites really mean, when they talk about emotional engagement. But defining in properly and working out ways to measure it, will take a lot of work.

I am also excited by meSch – a tool written for professionals just like me. And I would love to take it for a spin on a future project, creating adaptive, personalised stories for visitors. But not just “visitors.”

I say that because my research was based very much around making the experience of people in places better, talking about responsive environments better meeting visitors’ needs. I deliberately eschewed virtual experiences, except when I first prototyped an adaptive story for the then closed Clandon Park. But in the last few months visiting places physically has been restricted. And its made me realise that the paradigm shift in story telling that I have advised for responsive environments might just as easily be applied to virtual visits. Despite being only a prototype, the Clandon experience was more satisfying for me as a creator, for reasons I explain in chapter 4. Perhaps there is be a chance, a need even, to create new personalised adaptive event numerous stories on-line.

Well that’s all the time I have. My via starts in 30 seconds

wish me luck

Mobile devices in heritage, why not?

Ages ago I surveyed people about mobile gaming and heritage. The results were not encouraging for my thesis, because interest in mobile gaming seemed low. Just under 200 people completed the survey, and most of them had at least heard of Minecraft (just 5% had not). But when asked about the most popular location-based game at the time, Ingress, the vast majority, 178 people¬†(81.3%) hadn’t even heard of it.

Since then of course Pokemon Go happened. It’s by the same company as Ingress, and build on their limited success with that game by adding a globally recognised brand. So I wanted to see how much it had increased awareness of location based mobile gaming. I opened a second, shorter internet survey. Initially the results looked good. Awareness of Pokemon Go pretty much matched Minecraft. Just 2.5% of respondents were unaware of it. compared with 2.4% who were unaware of Minecraft.

There is some evidence that people are more aware of location based games in general. Only 64.6% of respondents were unaware of Ingress. In the both surveys I also asked about Zombies Run!, a mobile game which while not strictly location based, does involve taking your mobile device outside to track you as you move. In the earlier survey, 63.6% were unaware of it. By the second survey that proportion had reduced to 45.1%. So, though I had discounted further developing a location based game for cultural interpretation after the first survey, growing interest in location based games may make it a more fruitful avenue to explore in the future.

There is a another barrier to consider however. I have mentioned a perceived reluctance to use apps and the internet on mobile devices in previous posts. But I haven’t found much research on why people don’t seem to like using their phones. This second survey offered an ideal opportunity to actually ask that question.

Well, not just that question. I asked a few more. I started off asking which ways of learning about the site they used. I offered a list:

  • Just looking at stuff
  • Reading labels panels or gallery fact-sheets
  • Reading a guidebook
  • Talking to a guide, docent or interpreter
  • Talking with the people who came with you
  • Joining a tour (led by a guide)
  • Using an audio-guide or multimedia guide
  • Using an app on a mobile device
  • Using the internet on a mobile device

People could choose as many as they wanted. What I particularly wanted to know was which ones they did not pick. So in order of preference, it turns out that the most popular interpretive media are

  1. Reading labels, panels or gallery fact-sheets (16% did NOT tick this)
  2. Just looking at stuff (28%)
  3. Talking with the people who came with you (47%)
  4. Joining a tour (led by a guide) (61%)
  5. Using an audio-guide or multimedia guide (62%) and Reading a guidebook (62%)
  6. Talking to a guide, docent or interpreter (64%)
  7. Using the internet on a mobile device (74%)
  8. Using an app on a mobile device (78%)

It’s worth pointing out that some people use mobile devices for apps but not the internet, and vice versa, but still, only 11% use mobile devices for either one or both. That said, 11% is about twice as many as as we have observed in the National Trust, and about twice as many as has been identified in other data. This might be a systemic bias of collecting data in an online survey. I would like to try and ask a similar question on site. Partly because it’s thrown up some interesting results – I imagined that talking to guides, docent or interpreters might be more popular than taking a guided tour, but actually it turns out that taking a tour it more popular than conversation.

The sample for these questions is only 85, so its not particularly robust. But actually this question was a preamble to supplementary questions asking for qualitative¬†rather that quantitative data. Respondents who said they did not use mobile devices were asked simply “What are the reasons why you prefer not to use an app on your mobile device?” and/or “What are the reasons why you prefer not to use the internet on your mobile device when visiting heritage sites?” each with a free text field. Some replies were just one simple short statement. Others gave multiple reasons. Analyzing all the responses, I first defined twelve categories of statement. Each reply scored one in each category to which it referred. In order the twelve categories are:

  1. Presence – for example “Want to be present in the place.” or “Detracts from looking at the exhibits and the moment” (33)
  2. Data/signal/battery limits – for example “Not always got data/coverage.” (32)
  3. One-use apps – for example “I have limited memory on my phone, and don’t want to install apps that I’ll only use temporarily” (10)
  4. Pre/post-reading – for example “I do normally read and research about the subject beforehand at home (computer, books…), so I don¬īt need to use such apps.” (6)
  5. Tech lack – for example “I don’t have that sort of phone” (6)
  6. Tech break – for example “I regard tech’ as a work tool so don’t engage with it for fun.” (5)
  7. Analogue experience preference – for example “I prefer my interaction with heritage to be unmediated by tech!” (5)
  8. Competence – for example “Do not know how to” (4)
  9. Social preference – for example “I generally visit with my family so want to explore with them and feel that using an app could be an experience that potentially minimises our interaction.” (4)
  10. Conversation preference – for example “I like to talk to real people and enjoy their enthusiasm” (4)
  11. Focus – for example “Too many other distractions with an open internet.” (1)
  12. Hassle – the simple statement “Too much hassle” (1)

So, regular readers will guess I might be expecting the presence category to be the overwhelming reason why people didn’t use mobile on site. As so it proves to be, but only just. I wasn’t expecting data/signal/battery limits to be an almost as big (and given the limited sample size – possibly bigger) objection to using mobile devices. The reluctance to download apps with limited or one-time use has been documented elsewhere, but given that 74% of my sample said they didn’t use the internet on their mobile devices when on site, a web-based on-site solution still doesn’t look like an attractive investment proposition. Web-based pre- and post- reading however seems like a reasonably strong impulse among an minority of visitors. As long as web content is made responsive, and easy to look at on small screen, it may help migrate users to on-site use as data/signal/battery issues are resolved (though I note that the latest generation of phones at the end of 2018 seem to have short battery life than their predecessors).

Music and sound on (and off) screen

It seems a long time since I visited the books on screen sound, but my exciting new second supervisor Beth said I should check out one of the foundation texts. This is Michel Chion’s Audio-vision: Sound on Screen. The first thing that grabs my attention is his pointing out that while “the image” in cinema is framed by the edges of the screen. “What is specific to film is that it has just one place for images – as opposed to video installations, slide shows, and other multimedia¬† genres, which can have several.” (He talks about how little, since the very earliest days of cinema, directors have attempted to change the edges of that frame, and “the rare experiment” of changing the aspect ratio within a film. There’s a lot more on that “rare experiment” in this blog. The one I’ll always remember fondly is in fact the two aspect ratio changes in Galaxy Quest.)

But this is to preface a point that sound in cinema has no frame.

Luckily for the makers of films with sound in the first four decades, our human need to mentally connect sounds with what we’re looking at tricked audiences into believing that sound came from (for example) the feet of our protagonist walking across the screen, when in fact there was just one speaker behind the screen. With the arrival of Dolby, Chion says, directors and their audio designers are able to create soundspaces that exist beyond the borders of the screen. Gorbman (who by the way also translated this book) introduced me to diegetic and non-diegetic sounds – those that happen in the world of the film (dialogue, music that seems to come from a radio on screen), and those that happen outside that world for the audience’s perception only (the rousing orchestral piece as the cowboys gallop across the plain). Chion splits diegetic music into two: visualised sound that happens on screen, and off-screen or acousmatic sound, which happens offscreen but is still part of the story world.

However he admits that this split has been criticised for being oversimplistic. Where does the adult voiceover representing the internal voice of the baby in Look Who’s Talking go in this model? And is that radio on-screen? Or, given that its transmitting sound from some distant studio in the movie world does that count as offscreen? So he ends up with a model that includes: onscreen; offscreen; on-the-air; internal; ambient and nondiegetic.

I am also interested in a earlier chapter which describes three listening modes.

  1. Causal (not casual) listening is where we listen to a sound in order to gather informational about its source. Chion says this is the most common form of listening (but without evidence for that claim).
  2. Semantic listening is where we listen to a “code or language” to interpret a message. Chion points out that Casual and Semantic listening can be employed at the same time.
  3. Reduced Listening¬† – This is the intriguing concept coined by Pierre Schaeffer, for the listening mode that focuses on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and meaning. It seems hard to do: participants in reduced listening experiments constantly seek cause or meaning. He goes on to say that, though its hard to concentrate on reduced listening, we all do a rudimentary form of it when “we identify a pitch or tone or figure out the interval between two notes.” However, a full description of the sound can not be achieved in a single hearing. So it must be fixed, a recording, not a live performance. Intriguingly, Chion says that such sounds “thereby acquire the status of veritable objects”

Whats interesting about this last form is the relationship between reduced listening and acousmatic sound. Chion says Schaeffer “thought¬†that the acousmatic situation could encourage reduced listening.” But he disagrees. Our first instinct will be causal, he argues, seeking the source of the sound. But a “seasoned auditor” he argues¬† “can exercise causal listening and reduced listening in tandem.”

I feel there is something in this. Chion isn’t writing about games, but in my reading of Red Dead Redemption especially I realised I was learning to¬†listen to the repeating sound loops in a different way. At first I was reacting in a causal way, swirling my point of view around, seeking the source of every cue. As I grew more “seasoned” I was listening in a different way. I am not sure it it was Reduced or Semantic, but it was more than Causal. Of course, that might have something to do with the other distinction Chion makes, between Active and Passive perception.

There is something here I feel that might help in better evaluating immersive audio experiences in heritage.


I am in Amsterdam, staying in a VERY EXPENSIVE HOTEL, because all the hotels in Amsterdam are VERY EXPENSIVE. We are here on a cultural city break, to take the kids to Anne Frank’s house, and the Van Gogh museum, among others. We pre-booked for those two because we had heard it was difficult to get tickets on the day. Yesterday, as we were packing to leave, I got an email from the Van Gogh museum. It contained a link to a “welcome video”. And I would like to share a few frames from that, you’ll see why.

The first impressive thing that happens, is a member of museum staff, shuffling sideways onto the screen carrying a placard, like a taxi driver at the airport, with my name on. This has never actually happened for me at an airport, but here it is happening, through digital jiggery-pokery, on an actual video. The email had mentioned it was my personal welcome video, but I hadn’t realised how personal.

Then, was the staff take their branded coats off, and hand then in at the cloakroom (I would have thought they had their own facilities, but there you go) the screen displays the weather forecast on the day of my visit. There is also a none-too-subtle hint that I should become a friend of the museum, which purports to show an interpretive wall vinyl:

This is the first time that I have seen digital technology actually used with by a museum for true specific personalisation. Ok, so it’s only my name, and weather data for a specific date, and actually it’s not that much more complex than those picture books that were advertised twenty years ago with “Your Child’s Name Here”. But it is being used to every pre-booked visitor, which at this time of year means pretty much every visitor. How long will it be before interpretation panels like the one in the last picture are actually personalised?


I’ve been head down, completing my upgrade package for weeks and so you have seen very little form me on this blog. But that package was submitted last Friday, and this week, I am at the University’s Hartley Residency, which is a refreshing opportunity to just learn and think.

Yesterday we had a seminar, and then a lecture form Steven Rings, of the University of Chicago. I always thought I was a bit a fraud in the archaeology department, but now I am in the music department (Did I tell you I have transferred to the music department? That’s another story.) am I listening to stuff I know nothing about. “But,” as they say, “I know what I like.” So thank the stars that Steve was talking about liking music, and writing academically about music that we like. He kicked of with his talk, quoting¬†Max Weber, who, correct me if I am wrong, accused modern thought, secularism, science and academia of¬† ‚Äúdisenchantment of the world.‚ÄĚ Rings argues that there is an academic pressure to distance oneself from the music one studies, to analyse it scientifically, reducing it to numbers, or socio-politically, reducing it to a series of choices made within a dominant ideology. In a way, to destroy it – to remove from it any sense of aesthetic pleasure, or “enchantment”.

All this talk of enchantment, reminds me of a couple of papers I read months ago, but didn’t blog about. To be honest, and didn’t think either contributed much to my thesis either. But they are in my mind because I recently went back to them and added a couple of bits from as least one of them to my draft. Keirsten Latham writes about “the Numinous Museum”, and something about enchantment, and secularism made me think about that term. In the 2007 paper, The Poetry of the Museum: A Holistic Model of Numinous Museum Experiences she says “Numinous experiences (also referred to as reverential, pivotal, profound) with any museum objects/exhibits are akin to aesthetic experiences with objects of art and encounters with the beautiful.”

“Reverential, pivotal, profound…” is this the same, or similar to “enchanting”? She goes on to say that “Numinous experiences are seen as a deeply felt, connective encounter with any object not just artistic works or beautiful things and can happen anywhere and anytime, depending on the coming together of many things at one point in time.” Which is interesting because it potentially equates the mundane with the spiritual. For example, visiting Crete recently, I was was intellectually stimulated by my day-trip to Knossos, but my own numinous experience was at a less visited palace at Malia. There, it was the act of looking down at threshold stone as I stepped on it, that gave a profound, emotional feeling of stepping on the same stone as someone had thousands of years ago. I understood it a Knossos but I hadn’t felt it.

Latham explains the term she uses comes, via Catherine Cameron and John Gatewood, from Rudolf Otto who, in his book, The Idea of the Holy used the word numen to describe a religious emotion or experience that can be awakened in the presence of something holy.

Which brings us back to secularisation: are we reluctant to talk about music (or anything) we love in terms of enchantment, for fear of being seen to worship it?


I thought I was done with Staiff, but he keeps dragging me back in! These are my final thoughts, I promise. The final chapter however is a doozy, and contains at least a couple of quotes I’ll want to squeeze into my dissertation. To be honest I thought Staiff had lost me with his celebration of “Gabriel’s” mash up in my previous post. He seemed to be saying heritage interpretation as a business should pull back and let the objects speak for themselves – which is often very good advice, I have seen places and things being over-interpreted, their spirit killed by too much didacticism. But his championing of the visitor making their own meaning, and sharing it with other visitors, presumed too much upon every visitor devoting time and energy to their visit. It’s a noble aim, don’t get me wrong, but not everybody has the time to play, to make meaning, and I worry it is elitism by the back door: only those with the time and experience to bring or make meaning should be alllowed to engage with the objects. I recall somebody telling a colleague “Knole doesn’t need¬†“interpretation”, all you need to do is read The Edwardians.”

However, Staiff reassured me by taking us (sadly in words, not real life) to a museum I have wanted to visit since first hearing about it (but given it’s about as far from me as its possible to get on this globe, I might never see it), the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. Some of my best museum visits have been when I was a little tipsy, and one that is build around a cocktail bar, and as Staiff says, invites visitors to ‘get inebriated’ to properly appreciate the living, constantly changing mix of “old and new art”, themed mostly around sex and death must be, should be, a Mecca of every curator. This is a place that embraces counter-tourism. (Note to self, write a post about the O-system. Another note to self , why haven’t you done it aleady, idiot?!) That Staiff says the MONA “is a material and embodied expression of how I imagine heritage interpretation” is a relief.

So finally to those quote that I’ll be working into my thesis. The first is another reassurance that he and I are not as far apart, philosphocally, as I had feared:

This is not an abdication on my part from the role of of heritage interpretation but a call to re-think it as a platform for negotiated meaning making; for non-linear and non-determined experiences; for facilitating choice and for being able to deal with the unauthorized, the non-conforming, the unpredicted, the subversive, the playful, for imagination, creativity and newly performed responses; for experiences where the power of the somatic, the emotional and serendipitous are acknowledged as possible ends in themselves; for co-authored experiences and meaning making; for experiences that are not necessarily born of the information imperative.

And one more, in fact his very last sentences, having described all (though I guess he’s not being encyclopedic in this effort, do perhaps I should say, a lot of) the things we do as visitors to special places:

All of these interactions focus on the visitor, and all of them, therefore, are infused with social and cultural characteristics. In its broadest sense, visitors at heritage places can be regarded as being in dialogue with places, objects and landscapes; as having a dialogic relationship with parts of our planet marked out as being special (for whatever reason) and with something from the past/present that needs to be kept (for whatever reason, official or unofficial) for the future.

Are we all cyborgs? Digital media and social networking

Continuing with my reading of Staiff’s Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation, I come to his chapter on digital media and social networking. He wastes little time on those who “persist wit the idea that podcast audio-tours and GIS-activated commentries care just extentions of ‘old’ ways on interpreting material culture, but simply using digital techniques,” rather (writing in 2014, remember) Staiff is a champion of “Web 2.0 as all it emblematically stands for”:

Web¬† 2.0 and the generation of of users who inhabit this experience […] are not interested in pre-packaged information that is passively received; rather they want open access to databases so that they as visitors can share the content and be co-authors of¬† the interpretation. The digital-savvy wants to be a creator of meaning as well as a consumer of meaning.

I shared a similar optimism when he was writing, but I am less convinced now. Yes, visitors to cultural heritage do share their experiences on social media, but they are not yet demanding access to databases to share that content and their own interpretation. Or at least not many are, despite the prevalence of smartphones, and our seeming inability to let go of them. The majority of visitors that I (and others) observe do not use their devices on site. It’s worth mentioning that back in 2014, he also saw 3G wireless as more of a¬† gamechanging technology than it turned out to be. Even 4G speeds haven’t enabled mass use of the internet on-site in heritage. Recently a colleague spoke hopefully that fifth generation wireless technology might finally get people using mobile devices more on site. We shall see, but I remain unconvinced.

But digital interpretation does not need to take place on-site. Staiff writes enthusiastically of a student’s response to a digital heritage interpretation assignment he regularly hands out. He describes how “Gabriel” chose his/her ancestral home town, Sienna, and started off creating an inventory of all the information s/he could find on the web about it, including Wikipedia and Youtube, official civic sites and personal blogs by both tourists and residents. Then, says Staiff “Gabriel” built an interactive website that allowed visitors to mash up the content he had sourced, and add to it. “Gabriel” built the code, but didn’t control the content “what emerged was a ceaseless interaction between fellow classmates, his/her family, and friends. It is impossible to describe in words the way this digital creation worked out or what it included because what stood out changed, at any point in time, as did the conversations and contributions.”

Staiff lists some of the things that caught his eye, representative of the dynamic and user generated nature of the site, and that list includes, for example:

  • A grandmother’s reflection about growing up in the contrade
  • a recipe for panforte
  • a poem about a beloved aunt who lived in Sienna
  • a friend’s university essay on Ducio’s Maesta; and,
  • a link to a video game Assassin’s Creed

… among many other things. Apparently the site “is a special place/space in Gabriel’s family with contributions both the Sienese side of the family and and Sydney side of the family.”

Which all sounds wonderful, in the new media mode of Manovich, something more than the sum of its parts, created by its users. Here, heritage is not simply an object or place that you look at, but (Staiff cites Laurajane Smith’s Uses of Heritage) something you do, a verb rather than a noun. Garbriel’s website is a utopian interpretation of the city.

Utopian in its truest sense, because it doesn’t exist.

Gabriel is in fact, a “hypothetical student” and the website Staiff describes “is the work of a number of students over several years […] merged together to form a composite example”, which is a pity because it sounds fun. Now, any one of Staiff’s students may have produced a site as dynamic, as comprehensive and as well supported by its users, but somehow I think not. I have written before about the critical mass of users that heritage specific social media sites need to be dynamic. I have also written about the luxury of time available to digital creators/curators, that very many people simply don’t have. The students that constituted “Gabriel” were given an assignment, given time to create their work. The majority of social media users are necessarily more passive. These are concerns that I think Staiff shares:

“In the digital world, who is participating, who gets to speak, are all speaking positions valid in relation to cultural places, objects and practices, who is listening/viewing, who is responding and why, what are the power relations involved here, do marginal voices continue to be sidelined, what about offensive and politically unpalatable commentary?”

But it can not be denied that there is truth at the heart of Staiff’s argument. Much more is being researched, written, drawn, filmed and in other ways created about the heritage than can possibly be curated by the traditional gatekeepers – museums, trust’s, agencies and their staff. Staiff acknowledges “the anxiety about who controls the authoritative knowledge associated with heritage places” but counters that “What is needed is a complete rethink and conceptualization of the role of heritage places in the digital age and to see the technological devices used by visitors, not as ‘things’ separate from the carrier, but as ‘organic’ and constitutive parts of the embodied spatial, social and aesthetic experience.”


Russell Staiff: Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation

When I had just started my research, in 2014 this book was published, literally down the road from where I live. So why I only discovered it a few weeks ago is a mystery. despite being published in my home town, I had to arrange an inter-library loan to get it from Leeds University Library. So, now I have to whizz through it, pulling out his thesis, and some choice quotes to illustrate it, before I have to send it back.

First, its worth point out that he come from a point of view that is (was?) skeptical about the profession of interpretation as espoused by Freeman Tilden. His preface recounts his puzzled reaction when a national park manager used the term. “Isn’t everything about interpretation? What else is there?” he, an art historian, asked himself. Indeed an early chapter is a dissection (or demolition?) of Tilden’s foundation text for the heritage industry.

On Tilden

His key point is that everybody interprets everything, all the time. Using the Michelangelo’s David as an example, he argues that while the erotic and comedic use of the David’s penis or buttocks displace the “authorized” narrative of David as the slayer of Goliath, sculpted by an artistic genius, “the two stories are not mutually exclusive for many viewers despite them being somewhat incompatible. […] Heritage interpretation cannot manage this level of of complexity without radical editing of the content or unsatisfactory and ethically suspect reductionism. What heritage interpretation can attempt is a facilitation of multiple meaning-making and meaning -making as a dynamic process within systems or representation.” He obviously thinks Tilden’s work tend more towards the reductionist angle.

For example, Staiff takes issue with Tilden’s use of the term “revelation”, on one had because it implies a hidden truth worthy of conspiracy theorists and thriller writers like Dan Brown, and on the other because “it maintains a hierarchical power relationship between the ‘expert’ and the non-expert, between those with ‘the knowledge’ and those ‘without the knowledge.'” He does acknowledge that later in the book, Tilden (in his discussion of aesthetics and beauty) “opens up the possibility of (1) the power of feelings and the role of sensorial experience of heritage and (2) visitor empowerment and (3) interpretation as a social construction.” But, Staiff claims, Tilden quickly closes that door because it “potentially unravels many of his principles of interpretation.”

Overall he considers Tilden’s work dated, and so it is. Perhaps he his correct that it is past time to move beyond Tilden’s principles.

On narrative

I very much enjoy how Staiff writes about narrative, “stories do something to us that descriptions do not; we seem to enter into what I want to call ‘fictive space.'” But, “As Roland Barthes and others have cheekily but pointedly written, texts ‘read’ the reader, the reader does not read the text. Stories, thefore do not guarantee a connection to the topographical and physical setting of the narrative. This is a crucial insight often lost in heritage interpretation.” Generally a fan of the power storytelling to give form and structure to what people are looking at, he is aware that “this is an imposed or even artificial structuring of heritage places. […] Is the way a narrative organises time and events (into causal relationships) the most appropriate way to communicate with visitors about a particular site?” On that last point, I would counter that cause and effect chronologies are just one of many narrative structures.

By way of example he imagines (creates) a segment of audio-guide for an excavation in Greece, but then critiques it. There are other ways of understanding places, he says. What of the science behind the engineering of any building? What of the context for the story his segment told? In his extract he mentions Homer’s epics. Do they need any explanation? Stories need to be peopled, but who are the people in the listeners minds? can heritage interpreters offer as well “rounded” a depiction of a historical personality as a biography, or even a novel?

He worries to that the desire for narrative might assign cause and effect to even descriptive interpretation, where no narrative is intended “In heritage interpretation the desire for explanation of often paramount in both those creating narratives and those listening, reading or seeing them.”

He concludes his musing on narrative and interpetation with four “implications”. The first is that “narrative is not the only way heritage places are represented but narrative is a very potent form of giving material things meaning and making material things the touchstone of our deepest desires, feelings, imaginations and emotions. […] The role of narrative in heritage interpretation reinforces the fact that what’s often at stake is not things but, objects and landscapes, but us.” (page 113)

Secondly he points out that there are many stories associated with any place, but they fall into two categories: sanctioned narratives – “those stories that have the imprimatur of institutions […] the narratives of scholarship (or historians, archaeologists, art historians, architectural historians, ecologists and so forth) and the narratives of custodians of heritage spaces (those who work for conservation agencies, heritage agencies or are traditional owners of a site) and usually a combination of the two”; and unofficial narratives “those created by everyone else.”

“Thirdly, narrative sutures heritage places into a particular form of representation; it absorbs the physical entity into chronological time, and it provides action, character, causation, closure and narrator. Heritage interpretation that employs narrative furthers this structuring but mostly uncritically.” I take issue with this, not with his concern that narrative might indeed structure the place uncritically, but rather I take exception with the idea that heritage interpretation “provides action, character, causation and closure.” Its often really hard to get action, character or closure out of a places history, in a way that makes an engaging narrative. Although, “Causation” there is plenty of, and I agree, probably too much. I agree with his assertion that “Chronology is particularly pernicious in the way that it organizes cultural heritage into a linear sequence.”

Finally he recognizes that “stories are a powerful and seductive way of connecting people to places,” buts asks “Is there an ethics of stoytelling at heritage places?” and here he challenges Tilden’s core aim, that interpretation should change attitudes and behaviours by instilling a conservation awareness.

In my next post, I’ll get into the meaty chapter, about digital storytelling.