Mulholland on Museum Narratives

Working on the narratives for the Chawton Project, I’m taking a break and catching up on reading. Paul Mulholland (with Annika Wolff, Eoin Kilfeather, Mark Maguire and Danielle o’Donovan) recently contributed a relevant first chapter to Artificial Intelligence for Cultural Heritage (ed Bordoni, Mele and Sorgente).

Mulholland et al’s chapter is titled Modelling Museum Narratives to Support Visitor Interpretation. It kicks off with the structuralist distinction between story and narrative,  and points to a work I’ve not read and should dig out (Polkinghorne, D. 1988 Narrative Knowing and the human sciences) as particularly relevant to interpreting the past. From this, the authors draw the “narrative inquiry” process which “comprises four main stages. First, relevant events are identified from the historical period of interest and organised into chronological order. This is termed a chronicle. Second, the chronicle is divided into separate strands of interest. These strands could be concerned with particular themes, characters, or types of event. Third, plot relations are imposed between the events. These express inferred causal relations between the events of the chronicle. Finally, a narrative is produced communicating a viewpoint on that period of history. Narrative inquiry is therefore not just a factual telling of events, but also makes commitments in terms of how the events are organised and related to each other.” Which is as good and concise a summary of the process of curatorial writing as I am likely to find.

There’s another useful summary paragraph later in the document. “When experiencing a museum exhibition, the visitor draws relationships between the exhibits, reconstructing for themselves the exhibition story (Peponis 2003), whether those relationships are, for example, thematic or chronological. The physical structure of the museum can affect how
visitors perceive the exhibition narrative. Tzortzi (2011) argues that the physical structure of the museum can serve to either present (i.e. give access to the exhibition in a way that is independent from its underlying logic) or re-present (i.e. have a physical structure that reinforces the conceptual structure of the exhibition).” Tzortzi there is another reference I’ve not yet discovered and may check out.

What the paper does not do however, is make any reference to emotion in storytelling. the authors seem to leave any emotional context the the visitors’ own meaning making. The chapter include a survey of current uses of technology in museums, and academic experiments including virtual tour guides and opportunities to add the own interpretations and reminiscences, as well as web-based timelines etc.

But, digital technology gives us the opportunity (or need) to break down cultural heritage narratives even more, and an earlier (2012) paper by (mostly) the same authors, Curate and Storyspace: An Ontology and Web-Based Environment for Describing Curatorial Narratives describes a system for deeper analysis. (Storyspace turns out to be a crowded name in the world of writing tools and hypertext, so eventually the ontology and Storyspace API became Storyscope). The first thing that the ontology brings to the table is that

a curatorial narrative should have the generic properties found in other types of narrative such as a novel or a film

So the authors add another structuralist tool, plot, to the story/narrative mix. “The plot imposes a network of relationships on the events of the story signifying their roles and importance in the overall story and how they are interrelated (e.g. a causal relationship between two events). The plot therefore turns a chronology of events into a subjective interpretation of those events.” But using the narrative inquiry process “the plot can be thought of as essentially a hypothesis that is tested against the story, being the data of the experiment.”

I like this idea. But its worth distinguishing between the two uses of the word “interpretation” in cultural heritage. The first use, familiar to my archaeologist colleagues, describes the process of building an understanding of of aspect of the past from the available evidence. The second, more familiar to my museum and heritage site colleagues describes the process of explaining the evidence to non-professional visitors. At its very best, the museum/heritage site form of interpretation will resemble and guide visitors though the process of inquiry that builds an understanding of the evidence on display. But most of the time the second form of interpretation more closely resembles storytelling. That’s not a fault or failure of my museum/heritage site colleagues, most visitors are time poor in story rich environments. But digital technology has the potential to allow museum and heritage site interpretation to more closely resemble the first use of the word.

What digital technology offers, is the opportunity for brave curators to offer alternative plots, or theses, and test them in a public arena, rather than just through a peer review process. Or even to create plots procedurally by following the visitors’ path of attention between objects, maybe discovering plots the curator had not imagined.

The two experiments that the authors describe go someway towards this, by their dry ontology misses an emotional component. The event ontology could surely include an authorial opinion on whether the narrative element suggests a simple emotional reponse (even as simple as hope or fear) but instead “If the tag represents an artist, then events are used to represent, for example, artworks they have created, exhibitions of their work, where they have lived, and their education history.” Dry, dry facts… There is the tiniest nod towards, if not emotion per se, the some sort of value in their brief discussion of theme:

Theme is also related to the moral point of the story. This could be a more abstract concept, such as good winning through in the end, which serves to bind together all events of the story.

Given that they say “Narratives are employed by museums for a number of purposes,
including entertainment” they haven’t given much time to what makes narratives engaging. There is hope however. In their conclusion, they do say “Other narrative
features such as characterisation and authorial intent could potentially be
foregrounded in tools to support interpretation.”

 

Interactive story beats

In my exploration of interactive storytelling I’ve concentrated on computer games, because I’m exploring the digital delivery of story. But I’ve already decided that for my experiment at Chawton next year, I’m going to “wizard of Oz” it – use actual people instead of trying to write a computer program to deliver the interactive narrative.

I’ve been thinking about the issues around that. People are natural storytellers, though some are better than others, so I have a double edge problem. As I recruit and train people to be my “wizards of Oz”, I need to train the poor story-tellers to be better, and weirdly, I need to train the great storytellers to be worse! My reasoning is this, I want to prototype what a computer might do, there’s little or no experimental value in simply enhancing a great storyteller’s natural ability with some environmental bells and whistles. So part of what I’m trying to learn is about how to systematize (is that a word? It’ll do) story.

I’ll explain about Kernels and Satellites of course, but I need (I think) some sort of simple system of identifying how different story elements might fit into the emotional journey the visitor is going to take.

So, I’m reading Robin D. LawsHamlet’s Hit Points. Laws is a game designer but mostly of tabletop, or “pen and paper” role-playing games (though he has written for some computer games too). This book attempts to systematize (I think it is a word) story, with an audience of role-playing gamers in mind. I think it may be useful for me, because it attempts to train the Game Master of such games (the “referee” who, together with the players, makes the story) to be aware of the emotional impact of each scene or action (which he calls, using a screen-writing term, “beats”) on the players, and better choose which element to serve up next to keep everyone emotionally engaged. Tabletop Roleplaying Games must be the most interactive, responsive, stories ever created. In a way, my “wizards of Oz” will be like a Game Master, not telling a story they prepared earlier, but working with their visitors to create a story on the fly, but keep it emotionally engaging.

In a handy short opening chapter called “How To Pretend You’ve Read This Book” Laws explains “With its system of beat analysis, you can track a narrative’s moment-to-moment shifts in emotional momentum. Beat analysis builds itself around the following very basic fact:

Stories engage our attention by constantly modulating our emotional responses.”

Sadly though, I can’t get away with reading just this chapter. It’s only later that he actually shares the classification of beats that he uses in his analysis.

Hamlet’s Hit Points Icons and Arrows by Gameplaywright LLP and Craig S. Grant is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

He begins with two types that he says will make up the majority of beats in any story, Procedural and Dramatic beats. Procedural beats move the protagonist towards (forfilling the audience’s hopes) or away from (realizing the audience’s fears), his practical, external goal. Dramatic beats do the same for the protagonist’s inner goals. “We hope that the beat moves him closer to a positive inner transformation and fear that it might move him towards a negative transformation.”

Laws talks a lot about hope and fear. In fact he simplifies the audience’s emotional response to every beat (which he describes as its resolution) as being a movement towards one of these poles. I’ve got fear on my nascent emotional affect and affordances diagram, its one of Panksepp’s primal emotions, but I’m not yet sure where hope sits – I wonder, is it in care?

In both types of beat, Laws describes two parties, the petitioner, who wants the thing, and the granter, who must be negotiated with. Dramatic beats are mostly actual verbal negotiations, procedural beats might also be fights, tricks, races or other challenges.

From the way Laws describes them, I’d expect that most kernels in a story are likely to be one of these two types of beat. And the other types are more likely to be satellites. He lists:

Commentary – “in which the protagonist’s movement towards or away from his goal is momentarily suspended while the author underlines the story’s thematic elements.” Laws uses Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet as an example.

Anticipation – which “create[s] an expectation of coming procedural success, which we look forward to with pleasure.” The example here is “Popeye has eaten his spinach. (any given episode of Popeye)”

Gratification – “a positive emotional moment that floats free from the main narrative. They often appear as rest breaks between major sequences. A musical interlude often acts as a gratification beat (unless it also advances the story, as it frequently does in musical genre).”

Bringdown – the opposite of gratification. “Jerry Lundergaard’s car alone in a desolate parking lot, is completely iced over after his father-in-law bars him from a promising business deal. (Fargo)”

Then Laws offers us three “informational beats”:

Pipe – “A beat that surreptitiously provides us with information we’ll need later, without tipping the audience to its importance.”

Question – “introduces a point of curiosity we want to see satisfied […] a question usually resolves as a down beat.”

Reveal – “provides the information we were made to desire in a previous question beat, or surprises us with new information. In the latter case it might come out of the blue, or have been set up with one or more pipe beats laying the groundwork for the surprise.” The example he uses is the Revelation that Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense is dead. “We tend to be more engaged by exposition when it has been teased to us by a prior question, or can clearly see its impact on our hopes and fears.”

(Laws explains that literary fiction makes much use of question/reveal cycles to manipulate emotion, rather than the procedural / dramatic beats that fill genre fiction and thrillers.)

Laws goes on to analyse three scripted narratives in full, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the films Dr No and Casablanca, but that’s not what I’m discussing now, though having recently rewatched Casablanca as part of my children’s continuing cinema education, I was  interested to read his analysis of that. It is worth pointing out, however, that the “curve” of a story like Casablanca is inexorably downward. Laws compares the maps his analysis creates with “the classic chart you may recall from secondary school literature classes” (which I’ve touched on before) and notes that the lines his analysis creates are “flatter overall. It tends to resemble a stock tracker measuring the progress over time of a slowly deflating security […] Even stories that end happily […] tend to move downward over time.” He explains that narratives build up fear with numerous incremental steps, before sudden uplifting moments of hope. So in most stories, there are simply more down beats than up beats, given that the up beats are more intense. I think there is also a point that Laws misses, in many of those narrative curves the absolute value of emotional intensity is being measured, with no thought as to whether the emotion is hopeful or fearful.

So, is all this useful to me? Well I think at the very least I think I can get my “wizards of Oz” to think about up beats and down beats, and make sure not to pile on too many down beats in a row without the occasional up beat. Whether or not heritage interpretation lends itself to procedural and dramatic beats, there is definitely room for question/reveal beats, and it could be argued that too much interpretation goes straight for the revelations without asking the questions or laying the pipes first. So I think it is something that may prove useful.

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.”

Storyplaces

Last Sunday I helped out with a trial of Storyplaces, a research project exploring the poetics of location based storytelling. The exploration has two big questions behind it: How do writers change what they do to write locatative text? and, How does experiencing text “on location” affect the reader?

My job for most of the day was to follow and observe readers as they used the stories (which are available as an HTML5 web-app, when you are next in Southampton), to ask them a few qualitative questions and record their answers. But before any volunteer test subjects arrived I got to give a story a go myself.

I chose The Titanic Criminal in Southampton, which took me on a walk from the Tudor House where we were based to the area known as Chapel, where my story started on the site of a working man’s house on Chapel Street. Even before the story started, I was in “storyspace” on the way to the start point. I’m not that familiar with Southampton (apart from the docks) so as I walked I was exploring new spaces. Was it novelty or the idea that a story was about to begin that made everything seem so magical? Or was it the eerily beautiful liturgy sung through the doors of the Greek Orthodox church I passed?


That sound stopped me in my tracks, and I loitered until the verse was finished, but it set up expectations that were ultimately disappointed. I was ready to be blown away by the poetics of space and story, and when I got to the start point, just other other side of a level crossing, even the run-down post industrial scene that greeted me had a certain ephemeral quality as I read the story of the houses that used to stand on this spot.

Then my phone directed me to the next location, The Grapes, a pub on Southampton’s Oxford Street. Storyplaces does not suggest a route, it just shows you the location(s) on a map from OpenStreetMap. So I followed parallel to the railway line a little way, then crossed it over a foot bridge, feeling very much as though I was on a little adventure. The Grapes has a wrought-iron sign dating from the early twentieth century, which the text of the story pointed out. But at this point I came to realise that this particular story sat uncomfortably half-way between an imaginative narrative based on fact and a guided tour of Southampton. My professional interest began to impinge on my enjoyment of the story, and I couldn’t immerse myself any more in the narrative.

And then the story broke. The text offered a link to a video on the BBC website, which failed to play, but succeeded in emptying my browser’s cache, meaning I couldn’t get back to my place in the story. I went back to base to carry on with volunteering.

I was lucky enough to we assigned to observe the writer of one of the stories as she tried out the app for the first time. We talked a little about her process of writing, and translating her imagined experience into the the rules that  the StoryPlaces software uses to deliver the narrative (a process which, we discovered, hadn’t quite done what she had intended). The conversation made me want to give it a go, and to write a least a first draft in situ, as I explore the places that later readers will be lead to by the narrative.

I shall have to ask the David and Charlie, if I can be one of the writers for a future iteration of the project. In fact, I’ve just decided I will write them an email straight away.

 

 

What I meant to say was…

Back at the University for the second day of PGRAS, the post-graduate archaeology symposium which I spoke at yesterday. My talk didn’t go brilliantly well. Despite my preparation last weekend, producing a script as well as my slide deck, I went off-script about a third of the way through, and didn’t get back on it, so I feel a lot of what I had meant to say went unsaid. I often find this when I a script myself, it’s seems I stick more to what I plan to say when I only use bullet points and ad-lib around those. When it’s a full script something in my mind rebels and I end up saying nothing in the script.

So, here’s what I meant to say:

  1. This is a session about storytelling. So I’m going to tell you a story, and like all good stories, its going to have a beginning, middle and an end. Given the audience I feel I must warn you – I can’t promise that this will have much archaeology in it. But I have included one piece, so keep an eye out for it
  2. Last time I was speaking in front of this forum, I explained that I was researching what cultural heritage interpretation might learn from digital games. Those of you that were here may remember that I’d was interested in eight “emotional triggers” (adapted from (Sylvester, 2013)) that engage players in games. You can ask me about these four afterwards. Right now I’m interested in these four, where I think cultural heritage may have more to learn from games.
    1. Generally we don’t like people Acquiring stuff from cultural heritage sites. But actually the “Can you spot ?” type sheets that heritage sites have for decades given to bored children, are using the acquisition trigger.
    2. Challenge is an interesting one, many games are at the best when the degree of challenge matches the player’s ability and they get into “flow”, but seriously how much challenge are cultural heritage visitors looking for, on a day out? We’ll briefly return to this in a while.
    3. Here’s a tip from me, of you have any musically minded mates looking for a PhD subject, then the world of music and cultural heritage interpretation is an open field. There is nothing published. Zero, Nada. Having done my literature review, its what I’d be studying, if I could play, or … er … tell the difference between notes, or even keep a rythym.
    4. But I can’t, so storytelling is the focus of my study.
  3. Before me move on to that, I’d like to pause for a small digression. Those of you who are still listening to me – take a moment to look around the audience. No I don’t want you to point anybody out. I don’t want to shame anybody. But just put your hand up if you can see anyone who isn’t looking at me, but rather looking at their mobile device.
    That’s OK. I know I can be boring. But it’s a demonstration of the secret power of mobile devices. They are teleportation machines, which can transport you away from the place you are physically in.
    And most cultural heritage visitors don’t want that. They have come to our places (they may even have used their phones to help transport them to this place – with on-line bookings or GPS route-finding) to be in the place.
    Of course, that doesn’t stop all sorts of people using mobile devices to “gamify” cultural heritage interpretation. This game at the National Maritime museum, is an example of one that adds new technology to the classic acquisition trigger. You co round the world, collecting crew and cargo from various ports. It adds the challenge trigger to the mix, because you can only SEE the ports if you look at the giant map through the screen’s interface.
  4. There’s a lot of research currently looking at interfaces for cultural heritage (Reunanen et al., 2015) considered for example, getting visitors to make swimming motions in front of a Kinect to navigate a simulated wreck site. But the more I read, and the longer I considered it, I’m more and more of the opinion that there is an interface for cultural heritage that technologists are ignoring: (click) Walking around, looking at stuff.
  5. Now, when it comes to storytelling, “walking around looking at stuff” is not without its problems. People like to choose their own routes around cultural heritage venues, avoid crowds, and look only at some of the objects.
  6. What that means, is that sites often tell their most emotionally engaging story, the beginning, (click)middle (click) and end ( click) towards the beginning of the visit, with a multimedia experience in the visitor centre, or if they can’t afford that, an introductory talk. Then, everything else (click). Which is what game designers call a branching narrative. And what Aylett (Aylett, 2000, Louchart, 2003) calls the “Narrative Paradox … how to reconcile the needs of the user who is now potentially a participant rather than a spectator with the idea of narrative coherence — that for an experience to count as a story it must have some kind of satisfying structure.” (Aylett, 2000). We can learn from our games address with paradox.
  7. Imagine then, a site where the visitor’s movements will be tracked around the site, and the interpretation will adapt to what they have experienced already. Museum and heritage sites consist of both physical and ephemeral narrative atoms (“natoms” after (Hargood, 2011)). Persistent natoms include the objects and the collection but also the spaces themselves, either because of their historic nature, or their configuration in relation to other spaces (Hillier, 1996). Ephemeral natoms are media that can be delivered to the visitor responsively including, but not exclusive to, lighting effects, sound and music, audiovisual material, and text.
    All of these natoms comprise the “curated content” of any exhibition or presentation. The physical natoms are “always on,” but the others need not be (hence the “ephemeral” designation). The idea of the responsive environment would be to eventually replace text panels and labels with e-Ink panels which can deliver text natoms specific to needs of the visitor. Similarly, loudspeakers need not play music or sound effects on a loop, but rather deliver the most appropriate piece of music for the majority of visitors within range.
    To reduce the impact of the narrative paradox (Louchart, 2003), the natoms will be tagged as either Satellites (which can be accessed in any order) or Kernels, which must be presented in a particular order (Shires and Cohan, 1988). Defining which natoms are satellites or kernels becomes the authorial role of the curator.
    Here’s comes the gratuitous piece of archaeology – does this diagram remind you of anything? (click) But in fact it seems somehow appropriate. Because, this is the Apotheosis moment. I want to make the visitor the “God” of his or her own story. Not quite putting them in the place of the protagonist, whose choices were made years ago, but both watching and controlling the story as it develops.
  8. I’m no technologist, so my plan is to “wizard of Oz” a trail run, using people following visitor groups around, rather than a fancy computer program. My intention is to test how people respond to being followed, and how such a responsive environment would negotiate the conflicting story needs of different visitor groups sharing the same space. I have a venue, the Director Chawton House has promised me a couple of weeks worth of visitors to play with, next year. This is where I am at so far, having spent a couple of weeks breaking down the place’s stories into Natoms.
    There’s a lot more to do, but next year I hope to tell you how Chawton’s visitors were able to explore the place entirely freely, (click) and still manage to be told an engaging story from (click) beginning, though (click click) middle (click) and end.

“Breaking” Chawton’s story

I’ve been disassembling Chawton House Library’s guidebook and handout down into Natoms, as the very first stage of my project there. Natoms are not my idea, but a concept from Southampton colleague Charlie Hargood. However, for my purposes I’ve distinguished between Persistent natoms (or P-natoms) which are physical and thus, for the a heritage visitor, stay in one place and do not change, and Ephemeral natoms (or E-natoms) which are not tied to a particular place or even form, they are any media which can be digitally transmitted and shared, such as text, video or music.

To break the guidebook that Chawton supplied down, I’m currently using Scalar, for reasons I explained in an earlier post. It took a little time for me to work out how I should best use it, and to be honest I think I might come unstuck when I start distinguishing between kernels and satellites, but right now I’m getting into the flow of it, so before I went too far, I thought it would be good to share.

First of all I wanted to to some of the P-natoms in place. These are the rooms that our visitors will be exploring. It was very easy to list the rooms, and soon I had that list of rooms, each tagged as a P-natom, looking like this in Scalar’s useful “connections” visulisation:

ChawtonP-Natoms

But I had a slight crisis of confidence about how best to illustrate the links between spaces, or as Bill Hillier puts it, the permeability. Scalar allows simple hyperlinks, but doesn’t visualize them, or make them reciprocal. It also has a Path function, but that is only one way, really for stringing natoms together into a long-form text. So in the end I went for the program’s tagging function, which is quite sophisticated in distinguishing between items “being tagged” and “tagging”. Once I’d tagged the transitions betwene the listed spaces, my visualization looked like this:

ChawtonLocationConnectionsTagged

I added the gardens at this point. I plan to keep my experiment within the walls of the manor house itself, but some doubt, or fear that I wasn’t future-proofing the model, made me put them in, as the exit form the gift shop.

These spaces are by no means all the P-natoms. More of the the collection will go in later. Next however I wanted to try adding some E-natoms. And that meant starting by breaking down the guidebook text. The first part of the guidebook was an essay, a brief chronological history of the place. Broken down into its constituent parts, and tagged as E-natoms, this is what that essay looked like:

ChawtonE-natomsChronology

As you can see, at this stage there is no connection between the the new E-natoms and the P-natoms, or between the story and the place. However, already some (but at this stage surprisingly few) of the e-natoms were suggesting engaging stories: which I’ve tagged “Literary Women” and “Jane Austen”. But look what happens when you start adding in parts of the collection, in the spaces in which they are displayed, and their associated stories. To two P and E-natom “solar systems” start to join together:

ChawtonlinkingE-natomsandP-natoms

This is after the collection in just one space, the entrance hall, has been broken into the natoms. Its going to get a lot more complex as work progresses.

Chawton

I dreary day to photograph a fine building, but the meeting made up for the weather!
A dreary day to photograph a fine building, but the meeting made up for the weather!

Just a quick note today to reflect on the meeting I had this morning with Gillian Dow, Executive Director of Chawton House Library. This place has been preying on my thoughts since I visited for the last Sound Heritage workshop. In fact, somebody (my friend Jane and her colleague Hilary) had suggested last year that it might be the perfect place to try out my Responsive Environment ideas. But my visit for Sound Heritage made me think more and more that they were right.

  • The place has many interesting stories but ones that can conflict with each other. Do people what to know about it’s centuries as a residence for the Knight family, its connections with Austen, and/or its modern day research into early female writers?
  • It’s a place that hasn’t been open to the public long (this year its its first full season welcoming days out visitors) and is still finding it’s voice.
  • Its relatively free of “stuff” and has modern display systems (vitrines and hanging rails), which means that creating the experience should not be too disruptive.
  • It has pervasive wi-fi (the library’s founding patron Sandy Lerner, co-founded Cisco systems) which will make the experiment a lot easier and cheaper to run, even though I’ve decided to Wizard of Oz it.

So today I explained my ideas to Gillian and, I’m pleased to say, she liked them. We’ve provisionally agreed to do something in the early part of 2017, before that year’s major exhibition is installed. I brought away a floor plan of the house, and I have just this moment received a copy of the draft guidebook, so I can start breaking the story into “natoms”. It looks very much like its all systems go!

I have to say I’m very excited.

(But right now, I’m meant to be taking the boy camping so, I’ll leave it there…

Time Explorers

Time Explorers Pastport, can you decrypt the puzzle?
Time Explorers Pastport, can you decrypt the puzzle?

To Hampton Court, to meet with Beatrice and Katherine, colleagues from Chartwell, my Marketing colleague Philippa and, from Historic Royal Palaces, Jane and Fenella. We looked in on some atmospheric live interpretation (this time not by Past Pleasures but a company of actors recruited for a more dramatic presentation of the Tudor apartments over the summer) but the main business of the day was to talk with them about their Time Explorers digital missions app, which I’d first encountered on a recent visit to the Tower of London.

I’d blagged my way on to the visit, which Beatrice had organised, because I wanted to hear first hand the thinking behind the app. At a very basic level, its a children’s trail. Aimed at groups with children aged seven to eleven, it can be downloaded, prior to visiting on on the Palace’s free wifi (iOS only, at the time of writing), or picked up on up to 50 pre-loaded iPads, that the palace offers for free to visiting families, or at a reasonable charge to school groups.

The same app offers three digital missions at Hampton Court, and another two at the Tower of London. There are plans to offer more content at both places, and eventually at the other Historic Royal Palaces. The app framework cost HRP around £200k to commission (from GR/DD), and each new mission will cost something like £10k-£15k to produce. This investment isn’t just in the app, but in the Time Explorers brand, which will widen to include other digital (on-line) content, printed trails and other activities on-site, and possibly even retail products.

We each took a pad and split up to make sure we could cover all the missions. I took the architecture trail, and was charged by Vanbrough to help him assess the Tudor palace for renovation. As anyone who has ever done a paper children’s trail will agree, most are simply spotters’ lists – “can you see the (x – either historic feature/detail or partially hidden soft toy or similar anachronistic item)” – and within these digital missions there were indeed a few activities that followed along similar lines. I had to identify some of the creatures carved on top of the great hall for example. Using my favorite list of ludic motivation triggers, this is the basic acquisition trigger.

There was an added twist in that if I claimed to see a creature that wasn’t actually there, I’d lose a “time gem”. I had five such activities to work through, and any wrong answers would cost a time gem. If I didn’t get any wrong then each activity would earn me five gems. This loss of time gems is what I’d describe as a challenge trigger. One of my colleagues valiantly got all her answers wrong to see if it was possible to lose all her gems, and it is, but game takes pity on you and returns one gem to avoid saddling parents with distraught (if unobservant) children. Not all the activities involved observation skills, some asked participants to speculate on behaviours, or the order of importance of things. And these arguably did little aid the stated aim of lifting children’s heads from the screen to look around them. But as they construct meaning in this way, then the learning trigger definitely kicks in. When they do look up, the environment offers them presence triggers, spectacle and sensation.

What the game does not have, ludicly, is a social trigger, Fenella explained that the game is mean to be played with groups sharing one machine, but there is little in the game play to encourage social interaction (though I’ve just remembered a feature wherein you can take a photo of a friend and dress him – but make sure its a He, choose a female friend and you’ll lose time gems). The designers eschewed music too, and speech, so as not to disturb other visitors – which may have been a wise decision. There is much story in each challenge either, which is rather a waste of the patrons (like my Vanbrough), my collegues commented that after the Venician spymaster had given the players their objective in another mission, there was no story that made them “feel like a spy.”

Challenge returns at the end of the mission when the time gems you have retained define the number of seconds you have to get as many questions as you can right in a quiz, testing what you’ve learned so far. Here I found a bug. My architecture mission crashed when I tried to take the quiz. The application recovered very well and I hadn’t lost my progress in the mission, but every time I tried to take the quiz, it would crash and recover again. In the end I took another mission, and completed that quiz. The number of correct answers to got are added to the number of gems to retained to give every player grade from bronze to gold.  A nice acquisition trigger, and then you can claim your Pastport and badge (again, acquisition) as pictured above. It a nicely considered decision, if you complete more missions, at any palace, you can collect the relevant badges to add to your pastport.

I did try that architecture quiz again, and having completed the second mission and quiz, it didn’t crash, but repeated the second mission’s quiz!

The badges have given me plenty to think about for my Opposites Attract challenge, which I’ll consider over the weekend.

Walking around looking at stuff

Image from Aalto University, Media Lab Helsinki

A few weeks ago, I was presenting my work to a group of my supervisor’s Masters students. I joined in on the preceding seminar session, during which they talked about a number of experiments in digital interpretation in museums.

One thing that struck me about many of the experiments was that they each required the museum visitor to use a new interface. Some were simpler interfaces that others. One involved shining a torch, another was planned to involve gestures to navigate a reconstruction of a sunken ship. This second interface, a Vrouw Maria exhibit at a Finnish maritime museum, challenged users who “would not understand what they were expected to do or, when they could start the navigation, problems that were accentuated by the tracking system, which was not completely reliable at that point. […] The navigation itself was not error free either: people had difficulty stopping the motion and steering up or down. In addition, it was hard to hit the info spots without running past or through them. Again, tweaking the parameters of the gestural interface was needed. Pointing around for 10 minutes or more with the arm extended started to get tiring—something that cannot be completely solved if the input is so heavily based on pointing.” (REUNANEN et al, 2015). The discussion made me think about, not just these experimental interfaces, but pretty much every museum interactive kiosk or app created since digital technology arrived on the scene.

To a lesser or greater extent all these technologies involve museum visitors having to learn a new interface to access data. Some may prove easier than others to learn, but all of them are different, all of them need to be learned. Which makes accessing the data just one step more difficult. On the other hand there is a generic interface which museum, gallery and heritage site visitors learn (it seems, for most individual) in early childhood. The default museum interface is:

Walking around and looking at stuff

… as I said to a colleague yesterday. (Well actually I said “walking around and looking at shit,” but I meant shit in the most inoffensive way. And though I’d dearly have loved to headline a blog post with this more colloquial version, I’m mindful of my curatorial  and conservation colleagues, and I don’t want them to feel I’m demeaning our collections.)

What prompted me to write about it today was the news yesterday that Dear Esther is to be re-released for  the Playstation 4 and X-Box One. Dear Esther is “credited” with kicking off a genre of games known as “walking simulators” or “first person strollers”, and criticised by many gamers as not being a game because (among other things) there is no challenge (unless you count interpreting the enigmatic story that your simulated walk reveals).

I’m reminded of Gallagher’s (2012) observation (in the brilliantly titled No Sex Please, We Are Finite State Machines) that “Video games are unique in the field of consumer software in that they intentionally resist their users, establishing barriers between the operator and their goal.” This contrasts somewhat with what Nick Pelling (who coined the term Gamification as I discussed last week) said about game interfaces “making hard things easy, expressive, near-effortless to use.” So which is it? Are game interfaces easy or difficult? Juul and Norton give a pretty conclusive answer: its both.

“Games differ from productivity software in that games are free to make easy or difficult the different elements of a game. While much may be learned from usability methods about the design of game interfaces, and while many video games certainly have badly-designed interfaces, it is crucial to remember that games are both efficient and inefficient, both easy and difficult, and that the easiest interface is not necessarily the most entertaining.”

The team behind that Vrouw Maria experiment had considered making users mime swimming for the gestural interface, but they rules it out because it was “engaging but at the same time socially awkward in front of an audience.” What they ended up with was an interface that was neither efficient, nor entertaining. While it may indeed have been socially awkward for many, the swimming gesture control would have been very entertaining. Their final decision indicates that they considered the transmission of data the more important purpose of the exhibit.

Last week I discussed how gamification is most often used as a way of motivating behaviour: drive more efficiently, take more exercise. “Explore more” is something many museums and heritage sites wish for their visitors. An interface that is challenging but entertaining may well motivate more exploration. But there is an alternative.

Dear Esther is arguably not a game, because its interface (basically Walking Around Looking a Shit Stuff) is too easy. Yet it’s designers would argue that it is a game, just that uses story as a motivator rather than challenge. For museums and heritage sites, where Walking Around Looking at Stuff has long been the default interface Dear Esther might offer a model for digital storytelling that motivates more exploration.

This is what I’m trying to achieve with my responsive environment: Digital content., compelling stories, that are accessed by Walking Around and Looking at Stuff.

The Big Why #IdeatoAudience

Yesterday, I went to Digital: From Idea to Audience, a small conference (more of a large workshop actually) put together by Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove, with funding from Arts Council England. I might have enjoyed a trip to Brighton, but this actually took place in central London, just across the road from the BBC.

The programme was put together by Kevin (not that Kevin) Bacon, Brighton’s Digital Development head honcho. (By the way – I’m going to quote from this post in my forthcoming presentation at Attingham.) Kevin stated at the outset that the day didn’t have a theme as such, but rather a “Nuts and Bolts” conference, a response to many of the questions he had been asked after making presentations elsewhere. He hadn’t briefed the speakers, only chosen them because he had felt they might have experiences and learning of use to people working on digital projects.

But if a united theme came out of the day, then it was Keep Asking Why?

Kevin kicked off the day talking about his work at Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove, a number of sites across the city (including Pavilion istelf, Preston Manor, the Booth museum and both Brighton and Hove museums) that attract around 400,000 visitors a year. They hold three Designated collections (of national importance). He wanted to talk about two digital projects one of which was (broadly) unsuccessful, and the other (broadly) successful.

The first was Story Drop, a smartphone app that took stories from the collection out into the wider city. GPS enabled, it allowed people to take a tour around the city based on an object from the collection. Get to a location and it tells you more about it, and unlocks another object. As an R&D project, it worked. Piloting it, they had very favourable responses. So they decided to go for a public launch in January of 2014. The idea being that lots of local people would have got a new phone for Christmas, and be keen to try out a new app.

The launch turned out to be a damp squid. The weather was partly to blame, January 2014 was one of the wettest on record. But even when the streets dried out, take-up was not massive. Kevin said to me during the break, that maybe only hundreds of people have downloaded the app to date, two years later. He showed a slide detailing some of the reasons why people weren’t using it.

barrierstoapp

These reasons chimed with my own research. It wasn’t an unmitigated failure, people do love it – but only for a very small number of people. So he said, think about why people will use your digital project.

Which is the approach he took for the redevelopment of the Museum’s website, shifting from designing for demographics to designing for behaviours (motivations, needs, audiences). And that was far more successful : 23% increase in page views and 230% increase in social shares.

Then, Gavin Mallory from CogApps took the floor to talk about briefs. He has already put his presentation on Slideshare.  As experienced providers to the cultural heritage industry, they’ve seen a lot of briefs. Some good, some wooly, or overly flowery, too loose, too tight, too re-cycled, or as Giles Andreae would have it “no [briefs] at all!” I must admit, I’ve been guilty of a few of those.

After lunch Graham Davies, Digital Programmes Manager, National Museum of Wales and asked (emphatically) Why? Or rather, why digital? I think the titale of his session should have been “From Digital Beaver, to Digital Diva”, which its something he said, but he didn’t call it that, but it was a really useful set of challenges to make when somebody says “we need an app” or “an iPad to do this.”

 

I’m running out of time so I’ll finish with just one quote from the final speaker. Tijana Tasich, who has worked at Tate and is currently consulting to the South Bank Centre. Talking about usability testing, she said “we used to test just screens and devices, but with iBeacons etc. we are increasingly testing spaces.”