What I meant to say was…

Back at the University for the second day of PGRAS, the post-graduate archaeology symposium which I spoke at yesterday. My talk didn’t go brilliantly well. Despite my preparation last weekend, producing a script as well as my slide deck, I went off-script about a third of the way through, and didn’t get back on it, so I feel a lot of what I had meant to say went unsaid. I often find this when I a script myself, it’s seems I stick more to what I plan to say when I only use bullet points and ad-lib around those. When it’s a full script something in my mind rebels and I end up saying nothing in the script.

So, here’s what I meant to say:

  1. This is a session about storytelling. So I’m going to tell you a story, and like all good stories, its going to have a beginning, middle and an end. Given the audience I feel I must warn you – I can’t promise that this will have much archaeology in it. But I have included one piece, so keep an eye out for it
  2. Last time I was speaking in front of this forum, I explained that I was researching what cultural heritage interpretation might learn from digital games. Those of you that were here may remember that I’d was interested in eight “emotional triggers” (adapted from (Sylvester, 2013)) that engage players in games. You can ask me about these four afterwards. Right now I’m interested in these four, where I think cultural heritage may have more to learn from games.
    1. Generally we don’t like people Acquiring stuff from cultural heritage sites. But actually the “Can you spot ?” type sheets that heritage sites have for decades given to bored children, are using the acquisition trigger.
    2. Challenge is an interesting one, many games are at the best when the degree of challenge matches the player’s ability and they get into “flow”, but seriously how much challenge are cultural heritage visitors looking for, on a day out? We’ll briefly return to this in a while.
    3. Here’s a tip from me, of you have any musically minded mates looking for a PhD subject, then the world of music and cultural heritage interpretation is an open field. There is nothing published. Zero, Nada. Having done my literature review, its what I’d be studying, if I could play, or … er … tell the difference between notes, or even keep a rythym.
    4. But I can’t, so storytelling is the focus of my study.
  3. Before me move on to that, I’d like to pause for a small digression. Those of you who are still listening to me – take a moment to look around the audience. No I don’t want you to point anybody out. I don’t want to shame anybody. But just put your hand up if you can see anyone who isn’t looking at me, but rather looking at their mobile device.
    That’s OK. I know I can be boring. But it’s a demonstration of the secret power of mobile devices. They are teleportation machines, which can transport you away from the place you are physically in.
    And most cultural heritage visitors don’t want that. They have come to our places (they may even have used their phones to help transport them to this place – with on-line bookings or GPS route-finding) to be in the place.
    Of course, that doesn’t stop all sorts of people using mobile devices to “gamify” cultural heritage interpretation. This game at the National Maritime museum, is an example of one that adds new technology to the classic acquisition trigger. You co round the world, collecting crew and cargo from various ports. It adds the challenge trigger to the mix, because you can only SEE the ports if you look at the giant map through the screen’s interface.
  4. There’s a lot of research currently looking at interfaces for cultural heritage (Reunanen et al., 2015) considered for example, getting visitors to make swimming motions in front of a Kinect to navigate a simulated wreck site. But the more I read, and the longer I considered it, I’m more and more of the opinion that there is an interface for cultural heritage that technologists are ignoring: (click) Walking around, looking at stuff.
  5. Now, when it comes to storytelling, “walking around looking at stuff” is not without its problems. People like to choose their own routes around cultural heritage venues, avoid crowds, and look only at some of the objects.
  6. What that means, is that sites often tell their most emotionally engaging story, the beginning, (click)middle (click) and end ( click) towards the beginning of the visit, with a multimedia experience in the visitor centre, or if they can’t afford that, an introductory talk. Then, everything else (click). Which is what game designers call a branching narrative. And what Aylett (Aylett, 2000, Louchart, 2003) calls the “Narrative Paradox … how to reconcile the needs of the user who is now potentially a participant rather than a spectator with the idea of narrative coherence — that for an experience to count as a story it must have some kind of satisfying structure.” (Aylett, 2000). We can learn from our games address with paradox.
  7. Imagine then, a site where the visitor’s movements will be tracked around the site, and the interpretation will adapt to what they have experienced already. Museum and heritage sites consist of both physical and ephemeral narrative atoms (“natoms” after (Hargood, 2011)). Persistent natoms include the objects and the collection but also the spaces themselves, either because of their historic nature, or their configuration in relation to other spaces (Hillier, 1996). Ephemeral natoms are media that can be delivered to the visitor responsively including, but not exclusive to, lighting effects, sound and music, audiovisual material, and text.
    All of these natoms comprise the “curated content” of any exhibition or presentation. The physical natoms are “always on,” but the others need not be (hence the “ephemeral” designation). The idea of the responsive environment would be to eventually replace text panels and labels with e-Ink panels which can deliver text natoms specific to needs of the visitor. Similarly, loudspeakers need not play music or sound effects on a loop, but rather deliver the most appropriate piece of music for the majority of visitors within range.
    To reduce the impact of the narrative paradox (Louchart, 2003), the natoms will be tagged as either Satellites (which can be accessed in any order) or Kernels, which must be presented in a particular order (Shires and Cohan, 1988). Defining which natoms are satellites or kernels becomes the authorial role of the curator.
    Here’s comes the gratuitous piece of archaeology – does this diagram remind you of anything? (click) But in fact it seems somehow appropriate. Because, this is the Apotheosis moment. I want to make the visitor the “God” of his or her own story. Not quite putting them in the place of the protagonist, whose choices were made years ago, but both watching and controlling the story as it develops.
  8. I’m no technologist, so my plan is to “wizard of Oz” a trail run, using people following visitor groups around, rather than a fancy computer program. My intention is to test how people respond to being followed, and how such a responsive environment would negotiate the conflicting story needs of different visitor groups sharing the same space. I have a venue, the Director Chawton House has promised me a couple of weeks worth of visitors to play with, next year. This is where I am at so far, having spent a couple of weeks breaking down the place’s stories into Natoms.
    There’s a lot more to do, but next year I hope to tell you how Chawton’s visitors were able to explore the place entirely freely, (click) and still manage to be told an engaging story from (click) beginning, though (click click) middle (click) and end.

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