Please take this very short survey

The problem with doing a PhD part-time is that trends change more quickly than my research. It doesn’t mean that my research has been overtaken, but questions I asked three or four years ago might have very different answers.

To that end I have a very short survey I’d like to you do two things with. First of all, answer it yourselves, and secondly, share the link with as many people (over 16) as you can.

It really won’t take even five minutes to completeime. **Edit 22 Sept: so far the average to complete the survey is three minutes, fifty seconds.** Thank you in advance for your participation.


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.

The Navigation of Feeling

“What are Emotions?” is a question asked by William Reddy (2001) in his book The Navigation of  Feeling: A Framework for the History of History of Emotions. The first part of that books looks at the answers, from Cognitive Psychology in the first chapter, and Anthropology in the second. He points out early, however that:

Western specialists who study emotion cannot even agree on what the term emotion means.

He references Paul Ekman (et al)’s attempts to codify emotions by the few facial expressions that all cultures seem to attach a shared meaning to. That this is in the Cognitive Psychology chapter is interesting – I would have suggested it’s a more anthropological approach, but as Reddy points out it did encourage a lot of study looking at biological indicators of emotion, such as heart rates, hormone levels, skin conductivity etc. Reddy also points out two “nagging problems: (1) What happened to emotions when arousals subsided and the face returned to normal? (2) How were emotions such as love. shame or nostalgia to be fit into the scheme, when they had no obvious single facial expressions to go with them?” Not only that, he argues that “twenty years of work by many researchers” has shown only that “In the absence of forced choice and pretest training, agreement on other than happy faces was weak. If photographs of spontaneous facial expressions were used (i.e., naturally occurring ones, rather than the carefully posed ones of the initial tests), agreement sagged further.”

He also highlights the problematic relationship between emotion and cognition: “If
a sudden sense of fear redirects attention to a dark corner of the room, why not conclude that this sense of fear is the cognition of the potential danger of that corner? No experimental or test procedure has been offered so far that would allow one to rule out this possibility; it is resisted solely on the grounds that it counters the commonsense belief that emotion is something separate from thought, something opposed to ‘reason.'” That “reason” he argues is questioned more and more. Try as they might, philosophers and researchers are finding it harder, not easier to distinguish between “what counts as voluntary or controlled, and what counts as involuntary or automatic.” This is not helped by subjects’ mis-attribution of arousal.

Reddy also explores the difficulties measuring emotion. Most psychologists use valence, a measure of how pleasant or unpleasant an emotion is, and intensity, a scale of how difficult it is to override the emotion. Of course its not so black and white, fear is an “unpleasant” emotion, and yet horror movie audiences, theme park riders and gamers actively seek it out. Similarly Reddy argues that am emotion’s intensity may be altered by the triggering event’s relevance to a person’s goals – here he uses health anxiety as an example, “we generally pursue health for its own sake; but it is obvious that health is a means or condition for the pursuit of many, many other goals. As a result, pursuit of health as a means and pursuit of health as an end in its own right are likely to be indistinguishable (both to observers and to the person involved). Like-wise, loss of health is widely regarded with fear or anxiety. Such fear or anxiety is a “badge” of the deep goal relevance of health.”

When he goes on to explore mental control, I fear he strays more into the study of cognition that emotion, but he is striving to support an argument that “emotions can be regarded as overlearned cognitive habits.” I think Panksepp and Bevan might disagree, but I’m not seeking to argue the point – for my studies, whether emotions exist beyond cognition, or are tightly intertwined with cognitive thought is hardly relevant. When it comes to a cultural, or anthropological, approach I think my conclusions will be the same – my model already separates out social emotions from the more visceral ones identified by Panksepp and Bevan.

Reddy begins his examination of an anthropological approach by outlining the idenitity crisis of the discipline itself, especially in the area of the “production of knowledge”. He spills little ink on the psychocultural model of emotions. This approach, as with cognitive psychology, is built on the idea that there is “a broad commonality in human emotions”. He tackles the contructionist approach first, with the work of Michelle Z Rosaldo. Her study of of the Ilongot people of a mountainous region of the Philippines led her to conclude that emotion was, at least in part, a product of language.  However a roughly contemporaneous study in Tahiti by Robert Levy concluded that people suffered the symptoms of grief even if they didn’t have a word for it. Its interesting to note that the two in these studies examples given are opposed on my model. Grief is one of the mammalian emotions identified by Panksepp and Bevan, while Rosaldo’s word liget, while not having a direct analogue in English seems to fit well with Fiero in my model.

However, Reddy also relates a constructionist argument that is also a more cutting critique of the psychological view of emotions, from Catherine Lutz. “In Lutz’s view, the notion that emotions are biologically based is not simply erroneous, it is part of a larger, insidious, gender-biased Western view of the self that privileges alleged male rationality over the supposedly natural emotionalism of women. Expert and lay assumptions coincided, Lutz charged, in regarding emotions as internal, involuntary, irrational, potentially dangerous or sublime, and female. Men were rational and therefore better suited to action in the public sphere. Ethnographic research showed, however, that emotions were a product of social interactions and showed, as well, that outside the West, emotions were generally not distinguished from thinking in the peculiarly sharp way Westerners distinguished them, and were generally regarded as an outcome of social interaction, rather than as rising up, ineffably, from within.” This argument requires a change in philosophy. If knowledge is constructed by culture, it hard to criticize constructed knowledge, be that headhunting in the Philippines, or Western cognitive science. So, according to Reddy, Lutz’s approach was less about culture and more about discourse as defined by Foucault. But that is an argument well beyond the scope of my work.

Reddy gives some attention to other anthropological models too, but not much. What clearly interests him about those me mentions are steers towards a concept of emotion as performance. Indeed his long conclusion to the chapter, which starts out as an attempt to reconcile cognitive psychology and anthropology, is mostly about control of emotion through performance – oversimplified as putting on an happy face, or to use the example he prefers a “‘bright face’ (mue cedang)” in Balinese.


Smart conservation


Yesterday, to Oxford, to meet with the brilliant Niki Trigoni, who among many other things founded Navenio, a company that provides infrastucture free mobile location analytics.

It occurred to me, during our conversation, that there is a case for MLA in heritage sites that may be stronger than the story delivery that I’ve seen concentrating on. Organisations that look after heritage sites are normally incorporated with a mission something along the lines of “preserving (the site) for public benefit.” The “benefit” in that phrase is most commonly understood as access. Sometimes however, allowing access to the site so risks the preservation of the site that it has to be closed, for example at Lascaux.

So heritage sites must balance their duty of public benefit against their duty of preservation. A balance that its complicated by the fact that the visiting public support the preservation, with admission fees at the very least,or being so inspired by the preserved site that they go to contribute by subscription, donation, volunteered time etc. There is thus, generally, a conservation imperative to increase visits, to better finance preservation.

To help get that balance right, heritage sites monitor the impacts of visitor upon the place, and one tool they use is mapping the way visitor behaviours change, over time as visiting habits change, or in responses to changes within the site itself. The National Trust, for example, uses a methodology called Conservation for Access, or C4A.

But C4A is relatively resource heavy – it requires the (generously given) support of a small army of volunteers, and the analysis of the data takes time. So it is done only occasionally, every few years, and provides only a snapshot of  visitor behaviors from the period when the data collection took place. It is thus a relatively blunt tool. It is used to help the organisation budget for conservation, including staffing levels, and sometimes to inform changes to the visitor route, to protect fragile environments. But the effect of those changes might not be measured until the next time resources are dedicated to a C4A data collection and analysis.

Could we use MLA to crowdsource similar data? Could we persuade our visitors to share their movements around the place every day, building up a more accurate, always up-to-date and year round (the C4A toolkit was originally developed when most National Trust buildings only opend between March and October) picture of how the place is used? Would we find out that visitor behaviours change as, for example, ambient light levels change with the seasons?

A first iteration could offer us more accurate data for conservation monitoring and forward planning, but if it also demonstrated dynamic changes to visitor behaviors triggered by changes in the environment, then it might help make the case for real time analytics. Imagine being able to change the offer subtly to reduce the conservation pressure on one part of the site. Imagine the site being able to do that automatically, for example playing an audio presentation in an adjacent room, not triggered by visitors entering that room, but to attract visitors into that room, when the heritage assets next door are under too much visitor pressure.

Is it possible? I’m sure it is. Is it cost effective yet? That I don’t know, but a suitable experiment, over a few years across and number of sites might help us find out.


Heritage Jam 2017 #THJ2017

Winner - In-Person Team
I don’t like to brag, but … who am I kidding, I LOVE to brag! Here’s my winners’ certificate from 2015. It’s not too late, you could have one too

I’m in Crete for this year’s Heritage Jam, which is a shame, because I had such fun in 2015. I thoroughly recommend participating:

The Heritage Jam ( is back for another year of creative and innovative heritage work, and we would love everyone – from anywhere in the world – to get involved!

The Jam is a free creative event centred around making new and different interpretations of the past for audiences of your choice on a specific theme. You can create these interpretations individually or in teams – in person or remotely.

The Jam will be hosted by Leeds Museums and Galleries at Leeds City Museum, on the 27th and 28th of October 2017. There is also an online Jam for those unable to travel, which runs from the 18th of September to the 26th of October.


This year’s theme is ‘The Bones of our Past’, inspired by the ‘Skeletons: Our Buried Bones’ an exhibition currently hosted by Leeds Museums and Galleries at Leeds City Museum in partnership with the Wellcome Collection and the Museum of London (

Do you need to be an archaeologist or heritage professional to participate? NO! The Jam is open to all, including anyone with a passion for history!

Is there a fee? NO! The Jam has no participation charge, so there’s no reason not to join!

To sign up all you have to do is follow the link on our website – – and fill in a registration sheet.

All of our policies, including codes of conduct for the Jam, can also be found on our website:

We hope you can join us for this one of a kind event in October!

Sara & the #THJ2017 team

First impressions of Hololens

A couple of weeks back, I had my first experience with Microsoft’s Hololens. The university acquired a number of units to experiment with. My archaeology colleague Pat Tanner has been trying one out and showed me and Learning expert Sarah Fielding progress so far. Pat is a traditional shipwright by trade and PhD student, exploring the archaeological evidence of boat building techniques. Some of the results of his work is available here.

To work with Hololens, Pat had learned the basics of Unity 3d, so that he could place a relatively simple model he’d already made “into” the Hololens. That’s the model we were looking at.

another representation of Pat Tanner's model
The ship model that Pat demonstrated in Hololens (obviously this is a poster presentation, not what you see in the augmented reality). (c) Pat Tanner

Wearing the unit was more comfortable that I expected. It’s lighter than I imagined, and the weight distribution is better than the front heavy VR units that I’ve tried. That’s not to say that it isn’t still a little front heavy, but it is not as tiresome as Vive or Oculus Rift. Talking of which, it has one huge benefit over VR devices, I can wear it for more than a minute without it making me nauseous. This is a huge benefit for me, as I normally can’t explorer the wonders of VR properly.

One of the reasons of the lack of nausea is the fact that the objects you see are in the real space. It’s Augmented Reality, not Virtual Reality. (Microsoft insist on calling it Mixed Meality, but I’m not convinced they are right to do so. When it interacts with physical objects, then maybe.) So, Pat creates an entirely blank stage in Unity 3D which in virtual space overlays the meat space room we are in. Then me imports his model and positions it on, say the table in front of us. Of course the table doesn’t exist in the Unity 3D world. There, the ship model is just floating in space, but wearing the hololens, you can see it, ghostly, but because of the stereoscopic vision, it has the illusion of some “weight”. You can turn away from it, walk away from it, or walk closer, bend down to peer inside. The bulwarks of the ship are no barrier to you. You can push your head through the sides of the ship to look at the lower decks.

Or, stepping back, you can your gestures to “grab” the model and move it about. A camera system in the headset looks out for these gestures, and raising a finger in your eyeline places a box around your object, with handles at each node. Once you’ve move the model to where you want it, a pinch motion on top of those nodes lets you grab that and, depending on which node you have hold of, you can spin the model around or scale it.  This interface seems a bit clunky as though, in the absence of a new paradigm for AR gesture interfaces, we’ve fallen back on what worked with mouse controls on 3D modelling on screen. I’m sure, as more people develop AR devices and applications, a new gesture paradigm will arise.

But there may be another reason why using Hololens was more comfortable than VR units. And that reason may be something that I found a little disappointing. I was expecting my vision to be filled with the augmented world. As it was, what I saw was a “letterbox”, with the models sliding “off screen” not into the periphery of my vision, if I turned my head. That letterbox effect was initially exaggerated, before I realised that the head-band itself was obscuring the throw of the projection, blanking out the top third of the image. Adjusting the headset to push the band itself further back, and lowering the lens back down in front of my eyes, gave me a slightly taller letter box, but still a letter-box. Now I don’t know if this was a limitation of the hardware, or of the Unity 3D set-up that Pat was using, but I must admit to being a little disappointed in that aspect (…ratio 🙂 – did you see what I did there?)

Overall though, I was impressed. Can I see heritage places equipping their visitors with hololens to overlay what’s there today with what might have been? Not at these prices, but I am sure that this sort of AR has a brighter future than those VR headsets.


Designing another survey

I’ve been mulling it for weeks, but I’ve decided that I need to get some more data. So I’m preparing another survey, to be promulgated via the internet. It’s going to be asking cultural heritage visitors about their use of mobile devices around heritage sites. I got a pretty good sample size last time, so I hope I’ll get a similar response this time.

Though I feel that my social networks might be more likely to fill this one in, I’m curious to see how it compares to the one that was overtly about gaming. I don’t want to wonder whether there are more gamers than museum visitors in the world… 🙂

Actually though, I am going to include a couple of questions about mobile gaming. I want to see if certain attitudes have changed in the three years(!) since that survey. I expect to see more people (even museum visitors) aware of location based gaming after the Pokemon Go phenomenon. So I’ll have two questions based upon (but updated) a couple from that survey.

The main purpose of the survey though is to identify barriers to mobile device use around heritage sites. There’s a lot of conjecture it seems, in the literature but very little data. I think that’s partly because most of the audience research is based on questions asking “what would encourage you to use mobile devices” rather than “why wouldn’t you use them”.

The Lost Palace

One of the installations dotted around Whitehall to enhance the Lost Palace Experience
A couple of days ago, I took some colleagues to Whitehall to try the Lost Palace, a digital experiment that Historic Royal Palaces is trying over three years. This is the second year of operation and this run lasts until only the 5th of September, so if you want to try it, book quickly.

At its heart, the Lost Palace is an audio tour, but uses an number of tricks and effects to enable the visitor to interact with their environment and create a better sense of presence. Starting at the Banqueting House, the last building standing of the old Whitehall Palace the tour take on out into the streets and squares of London to imagine the building that once stood their, and importantly, to eavesdrop on what went on in those buildings.

The first section though takes place around a model of the old palace, upon which is projected an aerial view of London today so that you can see how streets now run through where buildings once stood. As the mechanics of your “device” are explained you also watch the projection transform into contemporary plan of the palace as it once was.

The “device” itself is interesting  – a vaguely horn shaped block of wood, which hides a phone inside, connected to a pair of earphone that give you binaural sound effects and narration. At the wider end a black “charred” block of wood is directional, point it up and the volume of the music being played in the room above increases. we are told we can also touch this charred end to various pieces of similarly “charred” wood we’ll find out and about to trigger bits of narrative. This is obviously actually triggered but some sort of RFID arrangement, which is at the heart of the National Trust’s a Knights Peril tour at Bodiam. We know that the team behind the Lost Palace visited Bodiam to try out that tour while developing theirs.

Once we are familiar with how to use the device, we are directed outside to touch the first charred wood planks and get transported back to become part of the crowd at teh Restoration of Charles II. This is quite an effective piece on immersion  – as you find your place to touch wood you hear people behind you wanting to get past. For a split second you think your fellow tourists are being a bit rude, until you realise these are seventeeth century voices jostling behind you, eager to give their child a glimpse of the new King.

From there we are transported to the palace’s theatre where William Shakespeare is casting for Lear. In one of a few misteps in the script, we are encouraged to audition, to emote and declaim in front of not just the general public, but (worse) our fellow tourists, which who we are about to spend 80 minutes. Readers who know me will know that I’m not shy about such things, but this was too early in the tour even for me. I think later, after we had had a go at being being Lord Rochester (my favourite debauchee) vandalising Charles II’s sundial, and I’m sure we would all have been a bit more willing to participate in street theatre.

My the directional capabilities of the device are best used outside the MOD building, where, having rowed into the Thames (which once lapped against the walls of Whitehall where the MOD now stands) you could point your device at different windows and hear different echos of the past, including Charles II’s “pimpmaster general” talking with Nell Gwynn; papist plots and more prosaic (and recent) offer of a cup of tea.

Then around the building to listen in on various scandals, vadalise a sundial and cross the  to road to stand under the entrance of the (now) Scottish Office eavesdrop on Henry VIII secret marriage to Anne Bolyn above the Holbein Gate. After that, we go into horseguards, and are offered a choice – on one side participate in a joust, on the other a visit to a cock-fight (or for children) the royal menagerie. After which, the device starts beating in your hand, like a human heart. Like Charles I’s heart.

And you follow his final steps to the same spot, by the entrance to the Banqueting house, where you witnessed the triumphant restoration of his son. This is where the scaffold stood upon which Charles I was beheaded. As the device beats in your hand, you hear the King’s last words, exhorting the executioner to cut swiftly and cleanly once he has made his peace with god. Then …

..the rhythm stops.

And time shift again as you enter the Banqueting House proper to admire the ceiling and take part in a dance. I would have danced myself, but the bean-bags on the floor looked awfully inviting.

The experience as a whole is a great demonstration of, not so much presence (you have to stay aware of 21st century traffic) but a sort of immersion, a suspension of disbelief that I experience when playing tabletop games rather than computer-based ones. In other regards, especially the piecing together of fragments of story, experienced out of sequence, it felt like a “walking simulator”, like Gone Home or Dear Esther.

I’ve just handed in the latest draft of my first four chapters, but I can see I will have to add something about this experience to that.