Russell Staiff: Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation

When I had just started my research, in 2014 this book was published, literally down the road from where I live. So why I only discovered it a few weeks ago is a mystery. despite being published in my home town, I had to arrange an inter-library loan to get it from Leeds University Library. So, now I have to whizz through it, pulling out his thesis, and some choice quotes to illustrate it, before I have to send it back.

First, its worth point out that he come from a point of view that is (was?) skeptical about the profession of interpretation as espoused by Freeman Tilden. His preface recounts his puzzled reaction when a national park manager used the term. “Isn’t everything about interpretation? What else is there?” he, an art historian, asked himself. Indeed an early chapter is a dissection (or demolition?) of Tilden’s foundation text for the heritage industry.

On Tilden

His key point is that everybody interprets everything, all the time. Using the Michelangelo’s David as an example, he argues that while the erotic and comedic use of the David’s penis or buttocks displace the “authorized” narrative of David as the slayer of Goliath, sculpted by an artistic genius, “the two stories are not mutually exclusive for many viewers despite them being somewhat incompatible. […] Heritage interpretation cannot manage this level of of complexity without radical editing of the content or unsatisfactory and ethically suspect reductionism. What heritage interpretation can attempt is a facilitation of multiple meaning-making and meaning -making as a dynamic process within systems or representation.” He obviously thinks Tilden’s work tend more towards the reductionist angle.

For example, Staiff takes issue with Tilden’s use of the term “revelation”, on one had because it implies a hidden truth worthy of conspiracy theorists and thriller writers like Dan Brown, and on the other because “it maintains a hierarchical power relationship between the ‘expert’ and the non-expert, between those with ‘the knowledge’ and those ‘without the knowledge.'” He does acknowledge that later in the book, Tilden (in his discussion of aesthetics and beauty) “opens up the possibility of (1) the power of feelings and the role of sensorial experience of heritage and (2) visitor empowerment and (3) interpretation as a social construction.” But, Staiff claims, Tilden quickly closes that door because it “potentially unravels many of his principles of interpretation.”

Overall he considers Tilden’s work dated, and so it is. Perhaps he his correct that it is past time to move beyond Tilden’s principles.

On narrative

I very much enjoy how Staiff writes about narrative, “stories do something to us that descriptions do not; we seem to enter into what I want to call ‘fictive space.'” But, “As Roland Barthes and others have cheekily but pointedly written, texts ‘read’ the reader, the reader does not read the text. Stories, thefore do not guarantee a connection to the topographical and physical setting of the narrative. This is a crucial insight often lost in heritage interpretation.” Generally a fan of the power storytelling to give form and structure to what people are looking at, he is aware that “this is an imposed or even artificial structuring of heritage places. […] Is the way a narrative organises time and events (into causal relationships) the most appropriate way to communicate with visitors about a particular site?” On that last point, I would counter that cause and effect chronologies are just one of many narrative structures.

By way of example he imagines (creates) a segment of audio-guide for an excavation in Greece, but then critiques it. There are other ways of understanding places, he says. What of the science behind the engineering of any building? What of the context for the story his segment told? In his extract he mentions Homer’s epics. Do they need any explanation? Stories need to be peopled, but who are the people in the listeners minds? can heritage interpreters offer as well “rounded” a depiction of a historical personality as a biography, or even a novel?

He worries to that the desire for narrative might assign cause and effect to even descriptive interpretation, where no narrative is intended “In heritage interpretation the desire for explanation of often paramount in both those creating narratives and those listening, reading or seeing them.”

He concludes his musing on narrative and interpetation with four “implications”. The first is that “narrative is not the only way heritage places are represented but narrative is a very potent form of giving material things meaning and making material things the touchstone of our deepest desires, feelings, imaginations and emotions. […] The role of narrative in heritage interpretation reinforces the fact that what’s often at stake is not things but, objects and landscapes, but us.” (page 113)

Secondly he points out that there are many stories associated with any place, but they fall into two categories: sanctioned narratives – “those stories that have the imprimatur of institutions […] the narratives of scholarship (or historians, archaeologists, art historians, architectural historians, ecologists and so forth) and the narratives of custodians of heritage spaces (those who work for conservation agencies, heritage agencies or are traditional owners of a site) and usually a combination of the two”; and unofficial narratives “those created by everyone else.”

“Thirdly, narrative sutures heritage places into a particular form of representation; it absorbs the physical entity into chronological time, and it provides action, character, causation, closure and narrator. Heritage interpretation that employs narrative furthers this structuring but mostly uncritically.” I take issue with this, not with his concern that narrative might indeed structure the place uncritically, but rather I take exception with the idea that heritage interpretation “provides action, character, causation and closure.” Its often really hard to get action, character or closure out of a places history, in a way that makes an engaging narrative. Although, “Causation” there is plenty of, and I agree, probably too much. I agree with his assertion that “Chronology is particularly pernicious in the way that it organizes cultural heritage into a linear sequence.”

Finally he recognizes that “stories are a powerful and seductive way of connecting people to places,” buts asks “Is there an ethics of stoytelling at heritage places?” and here he challenges Tilden’s core aim, that interpretation should change attitudes and behaviours by instilling a conservation awareness.

In my next post, I’ll get into the meaty chapter, about digital storytelling.

Heritage Jam 2017 #THJ2017

Winner - In-Person Team
I don’t like to brag, but … who am I kidding, I LOVE to brag! Here’s my winners’ certificate from 2015. It’s not too late, you could have one too

I’m in Crete for this year’s Heritage Jam, which is a shame, because I had such fun in 2015. I thoroughly recommend participating:

The Heritage Jam (http://www.heritagejam.org/) is back for another year of creative and innovative heritage work, and we would love everyone – from anywhere in the world – to get involved!

The Jam is a free creative event centred around making new and different interpretations of the past for audiences of your choice on a specific theme. You can create these interpretations individually or in teams – in person or remotely.

The Jam will be hosted by Leeds Museums and Galleries at Leeds City Museum, on the 27th and 28th of October 2017. There is also an online Jam for those unable to travel, which runs from the 18th of September to the 26th of October.

REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN – read more: http://www.heritagejam.org/home2

This year’s theme is ‘The Bones of our Past’, inspired by the ‘Skeletons: Our Buried Bones’ an exhibition currently hosted by Leeds Museums and Galleries at Leeds City Museum in partnership with the Wellcome Collection and the Museum of London (http://www.heritagejam.org/blog/2017/9/18/and-the-theme-is).

Do you need to be an archaeologist or heritage professional to participate? NO! The Jam is open to all, including anyone with a passion for history!

Is there a fee? NO! The Jam has no participation charge, so there’s no reason not to join!

To sign up all you have to do is follow the link on our website – http://www.heritagejam.org/signup – and fill in a registration sheet.

All of our policies, including codes of conduct for the Jam, can also be found on our website: http://www.heritagejam.org/policies/.

We hope you can join us for this one of a kind event in October!

Sara & the #THJ2017 team

A new, easy to read guide

In a pleasant surprise today, a new book dropped through my letterbox. Interpretation in a Digital Age, by Paul Palmer and Neil Rathbone, is a concise, easy to read introduction and guide for Heritage professionals starting digital projects in their places. It promises "objective and practical guidance", and lives up to that promise.

It's an easy read, and neatly sums up the history of handheld guides in heritage sites as it walks the reader through concepts like: Bring Your Own Device; native, web and hybrid apps; media creation; webcams; and locational and proximity triggering. Palmer and Rathbone conclude a useful chapter on accessibility and inclusiveness with with a section on Mindfulness, wherein they argue we "need to develop more skill in the psychology of storytelling using digital media rather than blame the media". A sentiment with which, given the subject of my study, I can only agree.

There are chapters on using technology outdoors, understanding wifi, compliance and intellectual property, and project management. An optimistic chapter near the end explores some of the possibilities that "the digital toolbox" might enable, and the book ends with a jargon busting glossary that reveals the intended audience museum and cultural heritage professionals who not digital experts but are thinking of commissioning something and don't want to be fast-talked by potential suppliers.

It's not an academic work, it doesn't have references to other texts. Rather it is based on the practical experience to the two authors. So it's very good, if not technically detailed, on the how, and also offers practical advice on project management that will last longer than some of the technologies that are now current, but it lacks the why. It's not their intention (I think) to sell the concept of digital technology to heritage sites, rather it's a response to heritage sites looking to see what what is possible. Indeed in the introduction the authors refer to the "Gartner hype cycle", the tendency to over-estimate the potential of technology, and peter to be disappointed by its limitations. Given that more and more evidence I'm seeing suggests only a maximum of five percent of heritage visitors use apps or other mobile technologies, and that I heard recently that mention of an app is currently likely to kill an HLF bid stone dead, I'm still questioning whether it's possible to build a business case for the creation of digital content, let alone the purchase of hardware etc.

CultureGeek 2017 and Digital Customer Experiences


Better late than never, its a month since I went to two events in one week, and I’ve been so busy since then that I haven’t had time to write them up. Those of you who were following my Twitter stream live may ave some idea what excited me at the time, but for anyone else who might be interested, and more importantly for my own reflection, let me ram my thoughts together into this one post on both events.

We’ll start with Culture Geek in Kensington, which follows on from the M&H show, which I didn’t attend this year. This was the expensive one, with speakers flown in from other countries. I was pleasantly surprised to meet my colleague Alex there, so we were able to reflect a little between sessions, and there’s one thing especially we came away wanting to do, but more on that later. The conference touched on everything digital, including in-visit technology, but of course also plenty of on-line stuff. The first speaker was from that side of the field, Kimberly Drew, social media manager from New York’s Met museum. She drew on her experience as a person of colour doing a history of art degree, and how her life has changed during an internship at Harlem’s Studio Museum when a whole side of black art was revealed to her which had not been covered in her white-centric education.

Keen to share her epiphany, she and a friend started a Tumblr blog on Black Contemporary Art. Now that blog has over 200,000 followers, and she has unintentionally become “a poster child for diversity.” The Met weren’t looking for a “diversity champion” when they advertised the role of Social Media Manager (I asked her afterwards), but you can see why they snapped up such a dynamic, self-motivated blogger, with experience of, and reputation for, reaching out and expanding audiences.

Her work for the Met isn’t all about black art either. She sees the social media as the Met’s fourth space, alongside the 5th Avenue building,  The Cloisters and the Breuer. Her role there is to share 5000 years of art; connect users with the collection; highlight the ways the museum serves art and art history, and to “humanise” the museum and create invitations to participate. This last is the objective that benefits, in theory, from her previous experience, but of course they all do. Reflecting on her talk what comes across most is authenticity. Its a challenge for cultural heritage organisations, to match that authenticity of enthusiasm for both the medium and the message, someone who lives and breathes social media and the cause.

Kimberly is a young woman who inspires, and shows us how to do it, and the organisation she works for is a springboard, not a water-slides forcing her in a corporate direction. She’s one to watch.


The most interesting presentation for my research was given by Joe McFadden of the Royal Opera House. they are trying a number of digital experiments as they redevelop one of their spaces, known as the Piazza, with the intention of increasing the number of daytime visitors. Currently only the tens of thousands annually, which for a central London space, is very few. Their work is in three broad areas: Transactional – things like ordering your interval drinks online, and paying with Applepay; Experiential  – things like AR with hololens and VR (check out the work of the VOID) and post-show video on demand: and, Informational – things like personalised wayfinding (which made my ears prick up, but sadly when I quizzed Joe afterwards, he said they were struggling with the contending needs of different visitors at the same decision point, so It might not happen). We also talked about their current testing of an Alexa skill, so that Amazon Echo users could quiz their “household assistant” about whats on and even, possibly, buy tickets.

Which tied in with a fascinating presentation I saw later in the week at the Academy of Marketing’s Digital Customer Experiences event. There Prof. Merlin Stone of St Mary’s University talked about work he is doing on Baby Boomers and the heath service. These are “the largest generation of older people the world has seen”, but also the healthiest and longest living, the richest, most educated, etc etc. though its early days in the voice first market – he sees signs that they are also likely to be enthusiastic users of Alexa and other home voice assistants, and may well expect services (he was talking about health, but it applies equally well to Opera and Heritage, where baby-boomers are currently core market) to be provided by voice-first platforms.

Back to CultureGeek, Tim Wood of the Ballet Rambert showed us some simple online stuff that had proven surprisingly popular – live streaming of rehearsals. Not fancy dress-rehearsals, but studio work, the repetitive practice of moves and blocking. This is what set Alex and me off on a reverie about making a “slow TV” livestream event of a voyage down the length of the river Wey. One day….
Apart from those presentations at CultureGeek, there was interest as well in Patricia Buffa’s discussion of e-Marketing the Fondation Louis Vitton to Chinese tourists. The Chinese market isn’t a big one for my market yet, they are mostly urban tourists, and ticking off the iconic sites. But if (when?) it becomes spreads into the countryside and independent travelling there’s stuff we can learn here: the importance of Weibo/WeChat; finding Chinese celebrity advocates; doing exhibitions in Chinese partner locations; and, interestingly, the ubiquity of the QR code – “in China your QR code is your business card”.

We also got insight from the Science Museum’s use of Kickstarter to fund the rebuilding of Eric, Britain’s very first robot. We were shown a really interesting content management system created by MIT, and heard about building digital systems for a City of Culture in Hull. There were also some lovely experiments in mixed reality from the National Theatre, including a VR Alice in wonderland that the viewer experienced sitting on a toilet, and Draw Me Close, a VR opera that puts the audience in the naively drawn world of five year old Jordan. I’m not sure how sustainable the business model of this experience might be, the cast outnumbers the audience (of one) so that as the virtual Mum hugs you, or tucks you up in bed, a physical cast member also does it to you, to make an fully sensory experience. Its the closest we’ve come yet to the Ractors of The Diamond Age.

The Digital Customer experiences event was more commercial (after all, it was hosted by the Academy of Marketing at the Direct Marketing Institute). I had been invited to give a presentation, the abstract for which I posted a few weeks back. Apart from Professor Stone, whom I spoke about above, Dr Julia Wolney introduced the day with an overview of all the points in the customer “life cycle” where AI has growing potential.

Ana Canhoto gave a very interesting presentation about the conflicting attitudes to tracking and personalisation. As one respondent told her, its:

… creepy. But, then, it is just also very useful.

Dr Wolny returned to talk about her research into wearables, and the quantification of the self. As a recent wearer of an Apple watch, which I am using to incentivise my own movement, I was very interested in what she had to say. However based on her findings I’m not sure I’m typical. Women are more likely than men to track their fitness, but men are more likely to share their latest achievements. (I am not.)

But perhaps the most intriguing presentation was from Dr Fatema Kawaf – she presented a research technique I had not heard of before, but one I think may be valuable to evaluating heritage experiences. Its called The Repertory Grid, and as the linked article shows it comes out of psychology, a technique as a method to help the individual unveil his or her constructs. As Kawaf demonstrated though, it enables participants to use their own words to construct their understanding of experiences too. Kawaf was thinking about the retail experience, but I wonder if its ever been applied to heritage?

Building a story in Star Wars Indentities

A Stormtrooper marching band? The exhibition attempts to illustrate different values with illustrations like this.

It was Fathers’ day last weekend, as a treat, my family took me to the Star Wars Identities exhibition at the O2 in Greenwich. I was interested for a number of reasons, not the least of which was, being ten in 1977, I was (am) a massive fan of Star Wars. But one of the other reasons was the idea that visitors build their Star Wars identity as they go around the exhibition. This seemed to me to be a large scale, upfront attempt to personalize a cultural heritage visit. (And yes, Star Wars is cultural heritage now, I’m sure I saw other movies when I was ten, but I can’t recall what they were.)

The RFID tag that visitors use for the interactives

The mechanics of this personalization were wristbands, or if you were latex intolerant, “credit” cards, with RFID (I’m guessing) chips, and nine (not ten as advertised) stations around the exhibit where you could make choices that defined your Star Wars identity. The content of the show were props, models, costumes, concept sketches and some original art, mostly from the first six movies (though BB8 and a couple of props were squeezed in to represent the latest phase of production), with two streams of interpretation. One stream interprets the design of characters in the movies, and the second is a sort of “science of Star Wars” strand, with basic interpretation of things like genetics. Some of all this is delivered with traditional text panels, and some is aural, delivered by an IR activated headset. You are given a “medallion” style unit to hang around your neck and hook an earpiece over one ear. Then, stand in the right place in front of a panel or AV, and the relevant sound is beamed to your unit in a choice of languages. All you need to do, is control the volume… and make sure you don’t turn away from the beam, or cross your arms over the receptor, or let anybody tall stand in front of you, cutting of the beam – all of which will cut out the sound.

It’s worth  pointing out that the text comes in English and French. And that may betray the exhibition’s 2012 origins at the Montreal Science Centre. That of course explains where the science interpretation strand comes from, and why objects and stories from The Force Awakens feel shoe-horned in. One can’t argue with most of the interpretation – seeing how the characters like Yoda developed over time was interesting, the science was a bit basic, and its connections with the Star Wars story questionable (the exhibition suggests Force sensitivity is a genetic trait). The stuff on personality felt just one of many different models of personality types that, despite five post-Doc academics advising on it, reads like its been cribbed from a dodgy self-help book. Interestingly, it was the personality test that was the only interactive station that wasn’t a simple choice – visitors had to answer a number of questions before it revealed their personality profile.

When I started the experience, I was looking forward to discovering what my Star Wars identity would be, but three or four interactives in, when I realized that most of the stations were offering choices rather than revelations, I decided to rush back to the start and remake those choices – because I’ve known since I was ten what my Star Wars identity actually was: the son of Grand Moff Tarkin! Given that the character described in the link was mostly made of my direct choices, I am of course very pleased with the result. I was curious to see what my personality test said about me (or rather, about my Star Wars identity). Click on each of the buttons below the biography on the page I linked to, and it highlights the bit text in the biography that was chosen by your answers. So to reveal the personality results, all I need to do is click that button. The highlighted text says:

People often tell me I’m a generally adventurous and curious person, I also tend to be energetic and social.

… which suggests I was really getting into character when I was answering those questions, because that doesn’t sound like me at all 🙂

Actually the interactive I enjoyed most was Events. Touch your RFID bracelet to the receptor and a random life event spins into view, with a choice of how you react to it. I won a city in a “game of chance”, and had to decide (if I recall correctly) whether I governed sensibly, gave up the job, or “reveled in the prestige and borrowed liberally from the city coffers” which is the option I went for (of course). But my boy was disappointed that the random events on offer were not in some way defined by choices you’d already made – he too got the city, and I might easily have been “freed from slavery” by an event. The son of a Grand Moff in slavery? I don’t think so. 🙂

Despite its limitations (which one is prepared to forgive more when one realizes the technology is five years old), the opportunity to create a story like this was very much enjoyed by my family. I wonder if the exhibition had a deeper emotional impact on me because of it?

Simulating ideology in storytelling

The Story Extension Process, from Mei Yii Lim and Ruth Aylett (2007) Narrative Construction in a Mobile Tour Guide

Another great piece from Ruth Aylett, this time from 2007. Here, she and collaborator Mei Yii Lim are getting closer to what I’m aiming for, if taking a different approach. They kick off by describing Terminal Time, a system that improvises documentaries according to the user’s ideological preference, and an intelligent guide for virtual environments which take into account the distance between locations, the already told story, and the affinity between the the story element and the guide’s profile when selecting the next story element and location combination to take users to. They note that this approach could bring mobile guides “a step nearer to the creation of an ‘intelligent guide with personality'” but that it “omits user [visitor] interests”. (I can think of many of a human tour guide that does the same). They also touch on a conversation agent that deals with the same issues they are exploring.

This being a 2007 conference paper, they are of course using a PDA as their medium. Equipped with GPS and text to speech software, a server does all the heavy lifting.

“After [an ice-breaking session where the guide extracts information about the user’s name
and interests], the guide chooses attractions that match the user’s interests, and plans the shortest possible route to the destinations. The guide navigates the user to the chosen locations via directional instructions as well as via an animated directional arrow. Upon arrival, it notifies the user and starts the storytelling process. The system links electronic data to actual physical locations so that stories are relevant to what is in sight. During the interaction, the user continuously expresses his/her interest in the guide’s stories and agreement to the guide’s argument through a rating bar on the graphical user interface. The user’s inputs affect the guide’s emotional state and determine the extensiveness of stories. The system’s outputs are in the form of speech, text and an animated talking head.”

So, in contrast to my own approach, this guide is still story lead, rather than directly user led, but it decides where to take the user based on their interests. But they are striving for an emotional connection with the visitor. So their story elements (SE) are composed of “semantic memories [-] facts, including location-related information” and “emotional memories […] generated through simulation of past experiences”. Each story element has a number of properties, sematic memories for example incude: name ( a coded identifier); type; subjects; objects; effects (this is interesting its lists the story elements that are caused by this story element, with variable weight); event; concepts (this that might need a further definition when fist mentioned); personnel (who was involved); division; attributes (relationship to interest areas in the ontology); location; and, text. Emotional story elements don’t include “effects and subjects attributes because the [emotional story element] itself is the effect of a SE and the guide itself is the subject.” These emotional memories are tagged with “arousal” and “valence” tags. The arousal tags are based on Emotional Tagging, while the valence tag “denotes how favourable or unfavourable an event was to the guide. When interacting with the user, the guide is engaged in meaningful reconstruction of its own past,” hmmmmm.

So their prototype, a guide to the Los Alamos site of the Manhatten project, the guide could be either “a scientist who is interested in topics related to Science and Politics, and a member of the military who is interested in topics related to Military and Politics. Both guides also have General knowledge about the attractions.” I’m not convinced by the artifice of layering onto the interpretation two different points of view – as both such are being authored by a team who in their creation of the two points of view will, even if striving to be objective, will make editorial decisions that reveal a third, authentic PoV.

When selecting which SE to tell next, the guide filters out the ones that are not connected to the current location. Then “three scores corresponding to: previously told stories; the guide’s interests; and the user’s interests are calculated. A SE with the highest overall
score will become the starting spot for extension.” The authors present a pleasingly simple (for a non-coder like me) algorithm for working out which SE goes next. But the semantic elements are not the only story elements that get told. The guide also measures the Emotional, Ideological story elements against the user’s initial questionnaire answers and reactions to previous story elements and decides whether or not to add the guide’s “own” ideological experience on to the interpretation, a bit like a human guide might. So you might be told:

Estimates place the number of deaths caused by Little Boy in Hiroshima up to the end of 1945 at one hundred and forty thousands where the dying continued, five-year deaths related to the bombing reached two hundred thousands.

Or, if the guide’s algorithms think you’ll appreciate it’s ideological perspective, you could hear:

Estimates place the number of deaths caused by Little Boy in Hiroshima up to the end of 1945 at one hundred and forty thousands where the dying continued, five-year deaths related to the bombing reached two hundred thousands. The experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing was the opening chapter to the possible annihilation of mankind. For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends, is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human action. In the bombing of Japanese cities it was certainly decided to kill the innocent as a means to an end.

I guess that’s the scientist personality talking, perhaps the military personality would  instead add a different ideological interpretation of the means to an end. As I mentioned before, I’m not convinced that two (or more) faux points of view are required when the whole project and every story element that the guide gets to choose from are already authored with a true point of view. But in many other aspects this paper is really useful and will get a good deal of referencing in my thesis.

Forgive me, this will make little sense

I feel I need to record this here, but I fear it will be nonsense to most of my readers. Looking back at it it feels like the first step into incoherent PhD madness. So skip this one if you are looking for sense and inspiration.

I’m struggling with the Chawton project, tying myself up into narrative knots. Meanwhile my collaborator Ed is powering on with his part. Today I’ve been listen to his first pass at a number of audio mixes. Which sound great by the way, and make me a bit depressed at the lack of progress my part has been making.

The problem is all to do with the paradox of scripting an emergent story. When I brief Ed part of wants to say, “we’ll tell this bit of the story in this room, and so you need to use this sound,” but that defeats my object of trying to create stories with some sense of order whatever route visitors take through a place. So I wrote Ed a short but still rambling email, that I think captures what I’m getting at. Though it might be bollocks.

Anyhow I don’t want to lose it. And so since I started this blog as a notebook, rather than a finished demonstration of my finely honed wisdom, you  are about to get an actual note to self, the slightly edited text of that email. We can all work out what it means, if anything at all, later:

I’ve had a little epiphany thinking about your question. But I’m finding it difficult to put into words.  You asked whether the six beats are connected to the recorded quotes. I said no, and I still think that but I also said that a couple might be relevant, and so they might, BUT (I think) not so relevant that you should mix them into the finished work. The ones I was thinking of were: Fanny Knight, Mr Knightly and Jane Austen. But none of those enhance any one particular beat, do you get me? So don’t need to be missed in so they are heard every time. The beats set the mood, or rather, illustrate a particular mood. So… I think we’ve looking for sound mixes that accompany the beats, eg Loneliness. In the fancy system that doesn’t exist yet, the system might choose to interweave the “lonely” track with the Fanny Knight quote. But we don’t need to do that, or rather to fix it as that, in our rough and ready version.

But that lead me to another thought. (The Epiphany.) Which is that we (I) can’t afford to put speakers everywhere. So we need to select rooms that we are putting speakers in, and for each room WITH A SPEAKER, create a choice of soundmixes, that match the whatever beat the operator (the Unguide in our case, a fancy system in the future) chooses in that Room.

So, day we have a ball in the Great Hall – at the very basic level we might have a choice of a Jolly mix (for Up beats), or a sad mix (for setbacks), do you get me? We could have six different mixes for the six beats I’ve identified ALL for the Great Hall, so that whichever beat is selected has its own music appropriate for the great hall, and ANOTHER six choices for, say, The Oak Room. Am I making sense? But of course we’ve actually got three stories, and even if they all share the first beat, that would mean a possible five mixes for the Library story, and ANOTHER five for the Montague story, for EACH room? Crazy huh?

But all of that could be a LOT of work for you, so we need to keep our ambitions in check.

SO:

Tell me how many mixes you want to create, and together we can decide on a limited number of rooms where we’ll put speakers (we did day nine, but I can live with just one), and a limited number of mixes for each speaker (I think we want at least two for this experiment). How does that sound?

Building the Revolution 

I finally got to the V&A today, for their exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution. I got turned away at the end of Cromwell Road last time, as the museum was being evacuated after a bomb-scare. 

I’m writing this review on my way home, using my phone (so please forgive my typos) partly because I want to recommend you go, and there is not long left to see it. 

The exhibition charts the western cultural revolution of 1966-1970, though John Peel’s record collection, plysbof course fashion and design from the V&As own collection and other items, such as an Apollo mission space suit borrowed from other institutions. 

One of the gimmicks of the show is the audio, an iteration of the same technology used at the Bowie exhibition a couple of years ago. I didn’t get to go to that one, but I had a demonstration of that tech from the makers Sennheisser, at a Museums and Heritage show. 

I wasn’t very impressed. Though these headphones, which play music or soundtrack to match whatever object or video you are looking at, were well  received by the media back then, in my experience the technology was clunky. Other friends who’d been confirmed that they changes between sound “zones” could be jarring, and that it was possible to stand in some places where music from two zones would alternate, vying for your attention. 

The experience this time was an improvement. It was by no means perfect: I found the music would stutter and pause annoyingly, especially if I enjoyed the track enough to find myself gently nodding my head. Occasionally the broadcast to everyone’s headphones would pause so everyone in a room could share a multimedia experience (of the Vietnam war for example) across all the gallery’s speakers, screens and projectors. These immersive over-rides were effective, in much the same way as those at IWM North, but when a track you were enjoying or a video that you found interesting was rudely interrupted, one couldn’t help but feel annoyed. I found myself forgiving the designers however, for this and even the stuttering sound of the headphones, because it all felt resonant with that late sixties “cut-up” technique. 

Where the technology really worked however was on two videos that topped and tailed the exhibition. In the first various icons and movers of the period were filmed in silent moving portraits of their current wrinkled and grey selves. Their reminiscences of the time appeared as typography overlaying their silent closed-mouth gaze, a little like Barbera Kruger’s work, while  over the headphones you heard their voice. The same characters appeared at the end, that s time as a mosaic of more conventional talking heads. And for the first time, the interpretation was didactic as each in turned challenged the current generation to build on their legacy. 

For me, one of the highlights was the section on festivals, which invited visitors to take off their headphones, lie back in the (astro)turf and let (another cut-up of) the famous Woodstock documentary wash over them on five giant screens. 

The other things I loved were, dotted around among the exhibits, tarot cards that, at first glance, looked like they might have been designed in the sixties. But then you notice references to things like Tim Berners Lee and the World Wide Web. You realise these are a subtle form of interpretation, telling a future of the sixties that apparently came true and for those of us from that future, creating correspondences and taxonomies that connect the events of 1966-70 with today. The V&A commissioned British artist Suzanne Treister to create the cards, based on her 2013 work, Hexen 2.0. And the very best thing about them is you can buy them (pictured above) in the shop which must be the first time copies of museum interpretation panels have been made available for purchase. 

Of course, the aren’t the only form of interpretation. About from the soundtrack, there are more traditional text panels, labels and booklets around the exhibition. But the cards show how cleverly the layering of meaning and interpretation has been created. Many visitors will have passed them by unnoticed, given them a cursory glance or chosen to ignore them, and will have had an entirely satisfactory experience. But for those that paused to study them in more detail a whole new layer of meaning opened up. 

I visited with a sense of duty, to try out a responsive digital technology. But I found so much more to enjoy. This is a brilliantly curatored exhibition. So much better than the didactic, even dumbed down permanent gallery of the new Design Museum which I visited before Christmas. I urge you to go, if you haven’t seen it yet. It’s only on for another month. 

A colleague who had visited the exhibition before told me how depressed it had made him: the optimism of that period seems to have been dashed upon the reactionary rocks of 2016, Brexit and Trump. But I came out with a very different mood. 

One of the early messages of the exhibition is the period as a search for utopia. The final tracks you hear as you walk out (after the video challenge issued by the old heads of the sixties) are Lennon’s 1971 single Imagine and then, brilliantly, Jerusalem

No, of course they didn’t find the Utopia they were looking for in the sixties, but we could build it…

Mind Control and responsive narrative

Among the mince pies and over-cooked turkey over Christmas, I managed to find a little time to read an interesting paper. #Scanners: Exploring the Control of Adaptive Films using Brain-Computer Interaction shows once again, that the cool people are all at the University of Nottingham. What these particular four cool guys did was put a mini cinema in an old caravan. But this particular cinema wasn’t showing an ordinary film. Rather, the “film was created with four parallel channels of footage, where blinking and levels of attention and meditation, as recorded by a commercially available EEG device, affected which footage participants saw.”

Building on research in Brain Computer Interface (BCI) the team worked with an artist to create a filmed narrative that “ran for 16 minutes, progressing through 18 scenes. However, each scene was filmed as four distinct layers, two showing different views of the central protagonist’s external Reality and the other two showing different views of their internal dream-world.” Which layers each viewer saw was selected by the EEG device, for rather by the viewers’ blinks and states of “attention” or “meditation” as recorded by the device. The authors admit to some skepticism from the research community about the accuracy of the device in question, but that was not what as being tested here. Rather, they were interested in the viewers’ awareness of the ability to control the narrative, and their reaction to that awareness.

I was interested in the paper for two reasons. First of all, their conclusions touch upon an observation I made very early in in my own research, looking at Ghosts in the Garden, I got a small number (therefore not a very robust sample) of users of that interactive narrative to fill out a short questionnaire, and I was surprised by the number of respondents who were not aware that they could control (were controlling) the story through the choices they made. The #Scanners team noticed a similar variation in awareness, but more than that, they found that “while the BCI based adaptation made the experience more immersive for many viewers, thinking about control often brought them out of the experience.”

They conclude that “a traditional belief in HCI is that Direct Manipulation (being able to control exactly what you want to control) sits at the top of both these dimensions. We examined, however, how users deviate from line, and enjoyed the experience more by either not knowing exactly how it worked, or by giving up control and becoming re-immersed in the experience. […] these deviations from the line between knowledge and conscious control over interaction are most interesting design opportunities to explore within future BCI adaptive multimedia experiences.”

With which, I think I agree.

The other reason the paper interests me is that they described their research as “Performance-Led Research in the Wild” and pointed me towards another paper to read.

Chawton Untours and more

It’s a funny feeling time. The calendar pages seem to flicker by as the year rushes towards its end, the the deadlines for various aspects of the Chawton project loom ominously. On one level I worry I have achieved so little and yet, on an other so much has gone on. So it seems inevitable that this post will consist of a number of short catch-ups on various aspects.

Untours

First of all, I’ve got a name for what we offer the public next year. I’d been struggling to think of how I’d present the project to Chawton’s visitors in a way that meant something. I’ve been calling it “the project”, “my experiment” or a “responsive environment”, none of which would sell the concept to potential participants. But a few weeks back I met a colleague who told me about an experimental opening of the Roundhouse in Birmingham. Working with a couple of performance poets, they opened the building for sneek previews that they called “Un-Tours“.

The National Trust’s Un-Tours are not quite the same as what I’m planning of course. But I thought it was a perfect name: visitors will explore the house with a volunteer, but the volunteer won’t be a guide leading them from room to room. They choose where they go, and what they look at, and the volunteer responds to their interests with the relevant natoms. So my volunteers are Unguides, and the tours, Untours (I decided we didn’t need the hyphen). I told my colleague there and then that I was nicking the name.

A collaborator!

The next exciting thing that happened was meeting Ed Holland. Ed is studying Music at Southampton, and was looking for a studio project. He has agreed to help me with the sound natoms. I met him for a second time yesterday, with the always brilliant Jeanice Brooks, and we started to break the musical narrative, focused on domestic life at the turn on the eighteeth/nineteenth centuries, which will reference the Jane Austen connections that Chawton has, without being about her (given there’s a museum dedicated to her just down the road).

Talking about sound

Of course between those two meetings with Ed, I’ve been thinking a lot about sound. As long time readers may be aware, I’m keen to put as few barriers/filters as possible between the visitor and the space they are in. So my preference is always for speakers, but Ed suggested that headphones may offer a more immersive soundscape for less money.

However, one of the key investigations of this project is to investigate a set of “contention rules”, for when more than one visitor/visiting group enter the same space with different story needs. Of course, if everyone were wearing headphones, that soundscape contention wouldn’t be an issue. Which may be a good thing (for visitor experience) as well as a bad one (for my investigation). I’ve also been thinking about other ways my paltry budget might limit what we can achieve. I hope to store all the assets on the web (in Scalar currently) so that a volunteer Unguide can use any smart device to participate (BYD). But of course, that will (I’m thinking – you may know differently) limit each Unguide to delivering just one channel of sound to his/her visitor group. Of course that limits Ed’s ambitions for a multi-channel directional soundscape, but he is making contact with some of the sound guys in our School of Engineering to see if there’s any cool stuff (or speakers) we can use at Chawton.

Assuming we don’t get to borrow anything cool though, I’ve suggested that Ed:

  • Works on a creating a music/sound library based on the lowest spec – single channel a cheap Bluetooth speaker in each room.
  • Specifies the hardware requirements for a system that might deliver his ideal soundscape, either using a multichannel directional speaker system or headphones (Imagine 20 headphone users in the house at the same time). I can guarantee I won’t be able to afford it, but it would be useful research anyway. And we could test a limited version of the concept, with borrowed equipment, during the pilot stage (currently scheduled from the beginning of December in my project plan).

My budget, though tiny, is flexible (it’s my own money) so, I could maybe stretch to something in between the two extremes, if it was something that offered some of the functionality Ed would really want, and maybe had some domestic life afterwards.

Story troubles

The thing that I’ve had most trouble with these last few weeks is the story. I wanted to have at least three narratives – one of the history of the building (and I thought an early 20th century owner, Montague Knight, would be the easiest focus for that); one on Women’s Literature, and the Austen one, mentioned above.

I’n my innocence I thought that I would quickly knock-out an emotionally compelling Montague Knight narrative, but after weeks of reading, arranging and re-arranging, I’ve realised that (duh!) real life stories don’t comply with literary “rules”. Or rather, I’ve realised that maybe my standards, my expectations, for this were too high. I’ve wasted time trying down a rabbit hole, trying to craft a story that I was going to muck up anyway by letting visitors make their choices. I was crafting a traditional guided tour, not an Untour! So, I’ve decided on a different tack. Instead, I’m going to spend some time analysing the natoms I already have, and attributing a story beats to each one. The story should (after all) be procedural.

The outcome of this experiment isn’t (wasn’t ever) meant to be the best interpretive experience. all it is is a step towards the understanding how procedural narratives might work in historic spaces.