Heritage Soundscapes

At my viva my external examiner pointed me towards this interesting paper, which she had co-authored – partly, I think, as an example of how I should restructure the discussion of my Chawton experiment in my thesis. But it contains some real gems ( like “the museums studies literature points out the restorative value of an aesthetic experience that is clear of any information acquisition or learning objective and is centred instead on the sensorial experience of being there”) that makes me regret missing it in my literature review: Marshall, M. , PETRELLI, D., DULAKE, N., NOT, E., MARCHESONI, M., TRENTI, E. & PISETTI, A.. 2015. Audio-based narratives for the trenches of World War I : intertwining stories, places and interaction for an evocative experience. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 27-39.

It’s a case study of a prototype “visitor­ aware personalised multi­point auditory narrative system that automatically plays sounds and stories depending on a combination of features such as physical location, visitor proximity and visitor preferences” Voices from the Trenches for a First World War exhibition at the Museo Storico Italiano della Guerra in Italy. What particularly interest me is that its part of the Mesch project which has some other outcomes which I refer to in my thesis. The paper describes their intent to move away from what they call “the information­ centric approach of cultural heritage.” I am sure a number of my professional colleagues would bridle somewhat at this accusation. After all, did not Tilden tell us in the 50’s that interpretation was more than mere information? But one od the things that my Chawton experiment uncovered was that actually too much “interpretation” turns out to be mere information after all.

The authors summarise previous experiments in responsive soundscapes, such as LISTEN, which “composes a soundscape of music and/or commentaries depending on the detected visitor’s behaviour: visitors that are not close or are moving are classified as unfocussed and for them a soundscape is created, while visitors that are standing still and close to the artwork are classified as focussed and a narrative (e.g. the curator describing the artwork) is played over the headphones.” Though many soundscapes are delivered by headphone, to avoid sound pollution for other visitors, the interesting project SottoVoce is designed around eavesdropping on what other people in our party are listening to. Half the respondents (in groups of two) heard the soundscape from each others phone speakers, while the other half had headphones. “When in loudspeaker mode visitors focussed on what was displayed on the screen of the mobile device and stayed close to the sound source while partners linked via the same audio on their headphones had a more dynamic visit driven by each other’s interest in the exhibits.”

“The ability to convey and evoke emotion is a fundamental aspect of sound” they say, and explain “The affective power of voice and audio storytelling has been recognised as creating a connection to the listener and is even amplified when spoken words are not coupled with the visual capture of the storyteller, creating a sense of intimacy and affective engagement.” An they built their soundscapes using the same sort of mix of music, speech and other sounds that I used (in a limited fashion) at Chawton. Some of the primary source material was recorded to sound more like oral history, with actors reading the words “with palpable emotion” to be more affective. The responsiveness is similar to that of LISTEN, but the “staying still” metric isn’t used, instead a simpler proximity method is used. woven into that soundscape are voice recordings for attentive listening, which is selected by the visitor choosing from a selection of cards. The sound was delivered by loudspeakers but, unlike SottoVoce, not on people’s own devices, rather places around the site. This was what I did for Chawton UNtours too.

The particular challenge with this project was that it was outdoors.The difficulties of maintaining equipment, connecting power and data etc means that most sites resort to delivering via mobile device. But on the other hand: “While engagement in a museum tends to be via prolonged observation, in an outdoor setting multiple senses are stimulated: there is the physical, full­body experience of being there, the sight and the sound of the surroundings, possibly the smell too. The multi-sensory setting places the visitor in direct connection with the heritage and enables engagement at an emotional, affective level rather than at a pure informative level.” (p6) The danger of using a mobile device to deliver interpretation is one I wrote about here, but essentially it stake them out of the where they are, it is the antithesis off presence.

With all this in mind the designers of the project set out five clear principles:

  • To engage at multiple levels, not just cognitive
  • To focus the visitors’ attention on the heritage, not the technology
  • To deal with group dynamics sensibly
  • To be provocative and surprise visitors, but design simple and straightforward interactions
  • To personalize content on the basis of clear conditions

The choice of sound over anything screen-based was an outcome of the second principle. Loudspeakers rather than headphones was also an attempt to focus attention on the heritage: “During a small experiment in a local outdoor heritage site, we observed that audio creates a wider attraction zone where passers­by become aware of the sound source, and a closer engagement zone around the emitting point where one has to stop and listen in order to understand what the voice says.”

So they designed a soundscape that featured music nd sound to attract visitor to a location and then vice recording to hold them there. The narratives are arranged thematically, with different voices (authoritative and intimate) indicating the nature of the content. Quite how the visitor chooses is not really made clear but I expect it is by approaching the voices that most attract them.

The team trialed the idea by observing the visitors behaviour using about 23 minutes of content, but I was disappointed that they did not come up with any solutions to the problems we encounter trying to evaluate the soundscape at The Vyne. It is hard to observe and distinguish between active listening and background listening. The authors seen to assume that if the active listening content is playing, then the partiocilapants are actively listening. The only evidence they have for this is a qualitative questionnaire, which I am not convinced is an accurate measure on engagment. Yes they said they enjoyed an benefitted from the experience, but if they did not know that was what was being tested, what proportion would have even mentioned the soundscape.

Of course they identified a number of challenges, not least fine-tuning the volume to be loud enough to attract attention and yet not so loud to cause discomfort. This is especially true of the different voices, with some by necessity quieter and more intimate. Of course they also predicted issues overs scalability – similar to the ones I planned fro but wasn’t able to properly test at Chawton “how well would such a system work in a busy environment with many groups interacting.”

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