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.