The Theatre of Ghosts

I’ve mentioned Ghosts in the Garden before, but the first chance I got to experience it was three weeks ago as part of Museums at Night. Having been piloted last year, the Holburne Museum’s Special Listening Devices were broken out again by Splash and Ripple for an extended season as a paid-for attraction at the museum. For just £5 a family, or any other group or individual, can borrow one of the devices to eavesdrop on late Georgian activities in the pleasure grounds that surround the museum.

One of the Holburne Museum's recently discovered Listening Devices
One of the Holburne Museum’s recently discovered Listening Devices

The devices are stored in one of the the old metal museum crates in which they were originally discovered. Visitors are asked whether they’d like to hear about the balloon or the fireworks, and once a choice is made, the device is calibrated and then lifted out of the crate and handed to the visitor. At this point the complex clockwork inside the box is ticking loudly, almost as though it’s a bomb about to go off, and one has a sense of apprehension, clutching the surprisingly heavy little box as the safety strap is lifted over one’s head.

Where the magic begins
Where the magic begins

Then I’m sent out into the garden to see if I can pick up a signal. As I approach a set of gates, the box vibrates and emits strange noises, and through the aether I can hear a distant voice. The signal gets clear, and M. Merlin, a Francophone inventor and showman, celebrates his success in reaching into his future and our present. He explains that with the box, I’ll be able to wander the gardens and pick up snatches of conversation from the early nineteenth century. He even implies that my presence as an observer might change the  course of events, preceding Schrodinger’s theories by more than a century! He suggests some Georgian features of the garden to visit. Sadly most of these structures no-longer exist, but the thoughtful museum staff have provided me with a map, showing where they used to be, so I can find my way around.

Soon I’m embroiled in a story of unrequited love and forced labour. Though I don’t fully understand the Georgian technology at work here, it seems to me that M. Merlin’s invention somehow resonates with moments of high emotion, as I heard nothing of the ordinary humdrum life of the gardeners, or the dowager ladies taking the air in the park. Between the locations where dramatic, emotional scenes took place, all I could pick up were brief snatches of music and one or two words heard almost as if underwater. And yes it seems that just by being there, I’ve altered the course of history, enabling an oppressed young woman to dramatically escape her tormentor.

I rush back to the museum to have my device recalibrated, and then I’m out in the pleasure grounds again, meeting more unsavoury characters and helping them sabotage a fireworks display.

Part of the success of Ghosts in the Garden, I think, has nothing to do with the boxes or the way the stories are scripted. Rather it comes down to good old fashioned theatre. The Museums at Night event marked the moment when responsibility  for day-to-day running of Ghosts in Garden passed from Splash and Ripple to museum staff and volunteers. I was privileged to watch, first Splash and Ripple staff hand over the listening devices to visitors, and then Holburne museum volunteers doing the same job. As you might expect, the volunteers, on their first day on the job, were less experienced and less confident in what they had to say. When Splash and Ripple wove the magical story of the discovery of the devices during the museums redevelopment, and the care that must be taken when tuning into the past, children listened with open mouthed belief, and adults played along with good natured engagement. The volunteers hedged their bets as they told the same story, adding the occasional “apparently” and “they say”, and sharing their scepticism with the audience. So they didn’t quite manage to engage the visitors in the way that Splash and Ripple had.

It was their first day. Splash and Ripple  were also watching how they handled the theatre, and I’m sure were going to offer some constructive feedback. So by now I’m sure the museum staff and volunteers are all confident old hands, doing their bit to create the magical landscape that the special listening devices reveal. And they are helped in maintaining the illusion by the brilliant way in which the boxes tick as they are calibrated, taken out of the museum crate and handed over to the visitor. This sound effect alone is a brilliant piece of theatre.

And the whole experience, just a day or two after I met with my supervisors, has had me thinking about what it is that makes some interpretation companies technologists and others storytellers. I’m wondering whether all interpretation companies think of themselves as storytellers first and foremost,  even though some are obviously better at it than others? I’m also wondering whether cultural institutions reserve the storyteller role for themselves, and consider most of the companies they commission as “mere” technologists, providing the platform upon which the story is told?

It seems obvious to me now, looking back on projects I’ve been involved in my life on both sides of the provider/commissioner fence, that the most successful projects have often been where the commissioner has not tried to retain the storyteller role, and the provider has been given the freedom to become the storyteller. Or maybe in the Pleasure Gardens context, impresario would be a better word?

Ghosts in the Garden playbill
Ghosts in the Garden playbill

(Ghosts in the Garden runs at the Holburne Museum, Bath, until 29th June)

The need to keep technology in the background

My wife, who is currently working with a landscape design company, discovered this great post on Digital Storytelling from US based practice, Cannon Design, which concludes:

Our understanding of the environment can be enlightened by technology, but should not be replaced by it. So much of our human experience relies on our ability to explore, learn, and interpret. In many ways, GPS devices and online services are helping us better understand our world. They can certainly help to enrich our lives, but only if they are part of a greater personal experience. Like a game, finding our way around can be challenging, but when given the answer too soon, we lose the ability to learn from our experience and enjoy the story.

The the post also links to Serendipitor, an iphone app from Mark Shepard that “that helps you find something by looking for something else.”

This, especially in the “instructions for action and movement inspired by FluxusVito Acconci, and Yoko Ono, among others” makes me think about Phil Smith’s Counter-tourism. I can’t stop smiling, even though I’m wrestling internally with the concept of serendipity versus narrative paradox.

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.