A little bit of the history of interactive storytelling at Chawton


I spent yesterday morning at Chawton, locating and counting plug sockets so @ll know my limitations as I design whatever the experience there will be next March. The visit reminded me that I had meant to write here of a previous digital interpretation experiment at Chawton.

Back then, in 2005, the Chawton House Library was not widely open to the public. Primarily a centre for the study of Women’s Literature, one could argue that the visiting academics were also heritage visitors of a sort, and the house and gardens also welcomed some pre-booked visiting groups, such as the Jane Austen Society of America, and local garden societies. In their conference paper, a team from the universities of Southampton and Sussex describe how, looking for “curators” to work with they co-opted the trust’s Director, Estate Manager, Public Relations Officer, Librarian and Gardener. All these people may have taken on the role nut just of curator, but also guide to those visiting academics and groups. The paper attempts to describe how their tours interpret the place:

visitors’ experience of the house and its grounds is actively created in personalized tours by curators.

“House and grounds are interconnected in a variety of ways, e.g. by members of the family rebuilding the house and gardens or being buried in the churchyard. Thus artifacts or areas cannot be considered in isolation. There are many stories to be told and different perspectives from which they can be told, and these stories often overlap with others. Thus information exists in several layers. In addition, pieces of information, for example about a particular location like the ‘walled garden’, can be hard to interpret in isolation from information about other parts of the estate – there is a complex web of linked information.[…]

“Curators ‘live the house’ both in the sense that it is their life but also that they want to make it come alive for visitors. The experiences offered by Chawton House are intrinsically interpersonal – they are the result of curators interacting with visitors. Giving tours is a skilled, dynamic, situated and responsive activity: no two tours are the same, and depend on what the audience is interested in. They are forms of improvisation constructed in the moment and triggered in various ways by locations, artefacts and questions.”

Tours are a brilliant way of organising all those layers of information, and I’m sure a personal tour from any one of the curators that they identifies would have been excellent. But the problem comes as soon as you try to scale, or mass produce, the effect. As I said at a conference I presented at a couple of weeks ago (I’m reminded I should write about that too) people, even volunteers, are an expensive resource, and so only the smallest places can afford to give every visitor a guided tour experience. Even then, individuals or families have to book on to a tour, joining other people whom they don’t know, and whose interests they don’t necessarily share. The guided tour experience gets diluted, less personal, less tailored to your interests. Which is when you start getting people saying they would prefer to experience the site by themselves, rather than join a tour. Of course some tour guides are better at coping with these issues than others, but visitors are wary of taking the risk with a guide they don’t know, even if they can recount experiences of brilliant guided tour experiences.

The project written about in the paper had two sides, one was to try and produce content for schools, but the other was of particular interest to me:

“The curators are interested in being able to offer new kinds of experience to their visitors. We aim to find out what types they would like to offer, and help to create them. There is thus a need for ‘extensible infrastructure’ based on a basic persistent infrastructure that supports the creation and delivery of a variety of content.”

And four questions they ask themselves are also of particular interest:

  • “How can we enable curators to create a variety of new experiences that attract and engage different kinds of visitors, both individuals and groups?
  • “How do we engage curators in co-design of these experiences?
  • “How can curators without computer science backgrounds contribute to the authoring of content for the system?
  • “How do we create an extensible and persistent infrastructure; one that can be extended in terms of devices, content and types of experience?”

At the time of writing the paper, they had conducted a workshop with their chosen curators, using a map with 3D printed features. Although “use of a map in the first instance may have triggered somewhat different content,” they discovered that “Eliciting content from curators is most naturally and effortlessly done in-situ.” (Which is my plan – I’m in the process of fixing a date with one of Chawton’s most experienced tour guides.)

I particularly liked the observation that “Listening to them is much more lively and interesting than listening to professionally spoken, but often somehow sterile and dull audio tapes sometimes found in museums and galleries.” So enthusiastically did the team connect with the curators’ presentation, that they decided to record the tours and edit them into the narrative atoms that were delivered by their  infrastructure. That infrastructure was not the subject of the paper, but if I recall correctly, GPS based running on “Palm Pilot” style hardware.

More importantly, the most pertinent conclusion was that the curators were best placed, not just to select the narrative atoms from the recorded materials but also “sort them into
themes and topics, so that the system can cater for people with different broad interests, for example landscape, flora and fauna, or how Jane Austen’s writing reflects the environment. This necessitates a learning process, which must build on existing practices and over time develops new practices based on experience and reflection.”

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