Focussing on emotional engagement

I went straight from my meeting in the computer department to lunch with my supervisors for a bit of a catch up. It gave me an opportunity to rehearse my current thinking on where I’m going with this PhD.

My reading, thinking and discussion since I started at Southampton has clarified some of my thinking, reinforced some, and opened up new avenues too.

The clarification first: when I started this, I talked a lot about narrative and storytelling, but what turns interpretive facts into a story? I’m pretty sure its something to do with emotional engagement. The problem is, how do I define, or measure emotional engagement? In the National Trust’s visitor survey, they do ask visitors to measure the emotional impact of their visits. And it seems that the places where visitors score a higher emotional impact are also the places where that are more enjoyable, more satisfying, and where visitors are more likely to recommend a visit to friends. But what are visitors thinking of when they answer that question, what do they mean by, or think the National Trust means by, the words ’emotional impact’? What can we tell those places where visitors don’t score a very high emotional impact? Are they just places that just don’t interest today’s visitor, or can we identify storytelling techniques that will better engage the visitor?

I haven’t discovered many answers yet in the literature relating to cultural heritage. Two of the Generic Learning Outcomes commissioned by re:source (now renamed and twice merged to become a function of the Arts Council) back in 2002 refer to emotional engagement: the Attitude and Values outcome includes “feelings” and “empathy”; and the Enjoyment Inspiration Creativity outcome includes “having fun”, “being surprised” and “being inspired”. But the suggested ways of measuring these emotional outcomes are just as vague as the National Trust’s ’emotional impact’ question.

Nevertheless, my work so far clarifies that emotional engagement is the theme, the golden thread running through all three avenues of research that I’ve started to explore.

The first goes back to a comment a colleague made when I explained I was starting this research. He said “the problem is, companies want to sell us technology, the mark-up’s good and it isn’t very hard work. But we want to buy good content, and that’s harder work to make, and the profit margins are small.” So, what is it that differentiates companies that present as technologists from ones that appear  as storymakers? Is my colleague’s assessment of the economics correct? How should companies and cultural heritage organisations work together to ensure a healthy, sustainable interpretation industry? I proposed to my supervisors that I should address this aspect of my research by surveying a number of companies, and maybe identifying a number with which to complete a more in-depth structured interview.

The second thread is the one I started with, the idea of structuring a compelling and engaging story over a three dimensional space. I’m hoping that the concepts of Adaptive Narrative and the Narrative Braid are going to help me do that, mixed with a little Space Syntax of course.

And the third thread is the new one – exploring the importance of music as a storytelling device. I’ve still got to find my way around that one but my supervisors gave me some useful contacts to get in touch with to continue my music 101. We also discussed the idea of using a visitor’s own music collection to provide the soundtrack to the visit – comparing the title’s available on a visitor’s device with a database that tags each track with different emotional cues, then selecting the most appropriate music to accompany the different stages of the visit, a sort of Heritage Hijack of your music collection, if you will. Sometimes the shuffle function of my iPod have given me memorable moments, playing Waterloo Sunset for example when I was crossing the Thames one evening for example, or having climbed to the top of the lighthouse on Lundy Island, letting I am a Rock kick in. So I know getting the music choice right can leave a lasting impression of a place.

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