I’m Matthew Tyler-Jones, a part-time PhD researcher at Southampton University. I also work three days a week as a consultant specialising in Visitor Experience with the National Trust.
I came to cultural heritage via five years working at Midland Bank when I left school. In my free time, I volunteered as a costumed interpreter at Kentwell Hall and, with re-enactment societies, at various medieval sites around the UK and France. When, one evening, a few of us said “we could make a business out of this” I left my job at the bank to go to college, first to get an Art Foundation and then to Manchester Polytechnic to join an innovative course called Design for Communications Media.
What attracted me to this course was its multi-disciplinary approach, taking in graphic design, illustration, photography, animation, audio presentation and interactive media. I specialised in Educational Media Design, with the intention of applying what I was learning to cultural heritage. During my vacations and upon graduation I worked for the nascent company my friends had started, Past Pleasures, creating immersive living history festivals at Lancaster and Tunbridge Wells, as well as projects including: an exhibition for the centenary of the Commonwealth Institute; a design for a metafictional Sherlock Holmes exhibition in Croydon; and, a game that combined real-time investment advice from 300 year-old characters at the Bank of England Museum with a digital simulation, tracking the players’ investment portfolio from the founding of the bank to its tercentenary.
In 1996 I helped found JMD&Co, which went on to win a half-million pound annual contract to provide the costumed interpreters at Hampton Court Palace. As Operations Director, my responsibilities included IT and Finance. For two years I also lectured on Heritage Tourism and Visitor Management and Interpretation modules for a Portsmouth University validated HND/degree course at Farnborough Technical College.
Subsequently, I enrolled in the new Distance Learning delivered Masters’ degree in Museum Studies at Leicester University, where I became interested in the social use of space, particularly Bill Hillier’s “space syntax,” and the increasing futility of cultural heritage sites trying to tell doggedly linear stories in three-dimensional spaces. Although my dissertation explored models for mapping interpretation, and particularly learning styles, onto spaces, a satisfactory reconciliation of linear story and three-dimensional space eluded me.
After graduation, I decided my time in the “small business” end of cultural heritage was over for a while, and I left JMD&Co to join a cultural institution, the National Trust, as a Regional Community, Learning and Volunteering Manager. I led a small team which provided services and advice to properties across Sussex, Surrey and Kent. Though my remit was broad, I retained my interest in exploring how technology might reconcile storytelling and space. One of my first projects at the Trust was a pilot using mobile phones to interpret the countryside of the South Downs. I started Speckled Wood, one of the first, and still the most successful, project blogs for the National Trust. I brought the first National Trust iPad into use at Batemans, where, combined with a wax cylinder record player, and the help of renowned folk singer, Jon Boden, we’ve returned Rudyard Kipling’s voice back into his old home.
However, one of the innovations which I am most proud of is the National Trust’s virtual tours. Challenged with the prospect of limited access to a new acquisition, The Homewood, a 1930’s modernist home in Esher, I invited tenders to provide a web-based and on-site virtual tour of the property. Having seen some virtual tours that were being delivered and presented merely as a series of files, I worked closely with the chosen supplier, a small company based in Kent, to develop a properly interactive presentation, that in some ways offered even better access than those visiting the house would get.
The resulting virtual tour was very well received, and I began work with the Trust’s Head of Access and Equality and the IT department to specify, and invite tenders for, a national standard virtual tour, that could be deployed at many of our sites at a cost that each site could afford. The small company I’d first used at The Homewood won the national contract, because they could innovate and respond more quickly than some of the international suppliers that bid, and at one tenth of the price that the international companies quoted.
Working with the chosen company, and a range of disabled stakeholders, we created a touch-screen based human computer interface that could also, if required, be controlled with other input devices, and allowed visitors with a variety of disabilities to fully enjoy the virtual tour. The teams’ achievement was recognised with a Jodi Award for Excellence in accessible digital media in 2008.
That experience taught me that in the digital economy, whatever the product, there’s someone out there who has already worked out how to do it better and cheaper. One of the key factors for this is the growing ubiquity of mobile devices. The hardware that, for example, offered visitors an augmented reality view of Jamestown a few years ago is still available, and costs tens of thousands of pounds. But now my phone can do the same thing.
My phone also knows where it is of course, even my daughter’s cheap phone has GPS. Back when I was trying to get the public to use mobile phones for interpretation on the South Downs, the telephone companies wouldn’t even share mast location data, so we couldn’t be location aware unless we tied our service to a particular company. Now, I can stand in a place, turn on my phone and discover not just what the National Trust wants to tell me about it but also – through flickr, Instagram, Trip Advisor, Foursquare and a plethora of other sites – what other visitors want to say too.
I draw an analogy with the era of cheap photocopying and the rise of fanzines. Then, the means of production were put in the hands of the consumer, and gave birth to punk rock. With mobile technology and social media augmenting reality, I feel this could be a time for a punk rock attitude to cultural heritage.
But the chatter of the vox populi does not a narrative make (despite the best efforts of Storify). I need a story to be emotionally engaging, and for that to happen, it needs to be paced in a certain way, with peaks of excitement and troughs of reflection. So I find myself wondering how to curate all this user generated content, and then returning to the problem of reconciling linear storytelling and immersive environments. In 2010, in an attempt to look again at the issue, I put myself forward to write and deliver a module on Communicative Design for the University or the Highlands and Islands’ Heritage Interpretation post-graduate degree course.
Balancing my full time job, the duties of delivery to my students and the time needed for research was a frustrating experience. When the semester was over I resolved to look instead at taking a Doctorate myself. But one thing I did discover while teaching was a development in the digital economy that has seen little academic interest in the real of cultural heritage. When I last had time to play computer games, adventures and first-person shooters fell into two camps. On one side there were “on the rails” games, with a strong narrative but where the player’s attempts to go off piste were met with frustration. On the other side were “sandbox” games, where players could explore where they liked, but which lacked a compelling story. By 2010 however games developers have managed to create games such as Red Dead Redemption, that allowed freedom to roam, to explore a seemingly open world, but also delivered a strong emotionally engaging narrative. I mentioned Red Dead Redemption to a colleague recently and he said it was the only game that made him cry. What can cultural heritage interpretation learn from the developers of games like this?