Farewell to the Trust

I just came back from my last meeting with my line manager to hand over my equipment and staff ID. From this afternoon I am on leave until my official leaving day in a couple of weeks. And so ends eighteen years working for the National Trust.

Yesterday, determined that I should not slip off silently, I had an amazing Zoom call, with cake, cocktails and colleagues from across the country, including one I met on my very first day working for the Trust, almost 18 years ago. It’s a lot longer than I intended to stay. My plan had been to spend a couple of years working in the Trust, then move on into the local authority museums sector. But the Trust was at the same time too welcoming and too exciting – always offering new projects requiring different philosophies, different ways of problem solving, in a collegiate atmosphere where, though we were under-resourced, we all wanted to make things work. We ended up trading anecdotes over that Zoom call, with me being the most forthcoming raconteur – it was my leaving do after all.

So, in no particular order, I thought I would share some of the happy memories I have of the National Trust. There are many things of which I am proud. Very few, if any, are things that I did alone. I celebrate here all the wonderful people I worked with to make these things happen even if, in my enthusiasm, I might sound like they were all my own work. Take for example Speckled Wood , the house in Haslemere that I built 🙂. Honestly, I can’t even say I had a hand in its building as I don’t think I made even one shingle on its roof.

Copyright: National Trust/Dave Elliot

This was ranger Dave Elliot’s vision – long term volunteer accommodation that would heat the neighbouring bunkhouse with green energy and in doing so, manage the surrounding coppiced woodlands in the traditional manner, preserving their rich biodiversity. I like to think I helped Dave get the project approved against some stiff internal opposition, and then recruit dozens of volunteers via our working holidays programme. My central colleagues were not entirely convinced the project would be a popular holiday, but they sold out very quickly.

One of the first projects I was involved in was the acquisition and opening of the Homewood, a modernist house in Esher. We predicted two difficulties – most of it was on the first floor and only accessible via a spiral staircase, and we expected far more interest, especially from the architectural professional community, than the building could accommodate in its first year. So I commissioned a virtual tour of the place, working with the lovely people from Corvidae, who were selected in competitive tender. It was not the first virtual tour the Trust – the tender process had shown me that – but the quality across the organisation was very variable. So working with the then head of access and a project manager from our IT department we went out to tender for a national single supplier for virtual tours. Corvidae won that bid too, and together we created a solution that was award winning. I remember we were genuinely surprised by that win – we had sat ourselves right in the middle of the auditorium and had a devil of the time getting to the stage to receive the presentation.

The wonderful virtual tour team, with Heather Smith, plus Steve, Annabel, James and me Copyright National Trust

That wasn’t the only award I have had a hand in. I was heavily involved in Lifting the Lid, a huge conservation project at The Vyne, near Basingstoke, which required a complete re-presentation of the place while the work was on-going. We took the opportunity to tell some its hidden stories, in particular its role in Tudor royal politics. We submitted it for the Interpret Britain awards, and won, not just for our category, but the overall Award for Excellence in Interpretation. The judges called it “an exemplar of how we would like to see interpretation develop in the future, and for other organisations to take inspiration from.” That feels good. My wife, Sue, reminded me yesterday that I won a more personal recognition in my early years too – a Regional Director’s discretionary award. No certificate or anything but and extra ÂŁ150 on my payslip. I remember I spent it taking my team out for a meal and by buying a croquet mallet and balls so I could use the croquet lawns at Polesen Lacey (where the old regional office was) at lunchtimes.

Sometimes the recognition not an award, is a smile of acknowledgment that means more than any prize. One example that sticks in my mind is the opening of the house at Scotney Castle. I was involved in that in a number of ways, from what we now call Experience Design though learning planning to recruiting volunteers. When I (with the help of a central colleague called Earle, and the house team) created a plan to recruit 140 new volunteers in six weeks, I remember the manager of a neighbouring property saying we would not succeed. But we did. Her smile and nod was all the reward I needed.

Copyright: National Trust/Matthew Tyler-Jones

Down the road from Scotney is Batemans, Rudyard Kipling’s home. Working there, especially on a project “to bring Kipling’s voice back into his home” was its own reward. We had all sorts of aural offerings, a rare recording of an actual speech Kipling gave, to readings of the Jungle Book and from his letters. But one of my favourite memories was picking up folk singer of the year (multiple years) John Boden at the local station and driving him to Batemans to record a rendition of Kipling’s poem The Land, which was about Batemans, on to wax (!) to play on a cylinder-player in Kipling’s parlour. This after discovering that Kipling readings were popular recordings on wax cylinder even when we lived. So John Boden’s efforts sat alongside other, contemporary recordings that we had reproduced onto less fragile cylinders.

So many other memories come rushing as I try to draw this post to a close, all hoping to get included. The “One Ring” Exhibition at the Vyne, which was my idea and hit the news all over the world (this Maev Kennedy piece got us in hot water with the Tolkien Estate). Getting Box Hill ready for the Olympics and commissioning a Richard Long piece. Tasting wine when I sat of the Regional Management Team and were were planning that to serve at the annual members conference dinner that (back in those days) used to be hosted by reach region in turn. Standing on the roof of Petworth House, the only time I have every suffered from vertigo. Standing high in the scaffolding on the ruins at Nymans, or within Cobham Mausoleum, looking closely at things visitor would only see from far away. Walking the clifftops of the White Cliffs with the old property manager there, and learning first hand what “dogging” was (I was so innocent). Creating introductory films about places as diverse as Knole (about twice as long as I wanted it but entertaining none-the-less), Uppark and Bodiam castle. Writing a guidebook for Reigate Fort. Walking in so many parks and gardens, in so much countryside, in so many beautiful places and having to remind myself “I am getting paid to do this!”

To the people I leave behind at the Trust I leave this thought. Yes, you have lost a lot of good colleagues (not least me!) with this on-going covid-created restructure. But a lot of the amazing things we did, we did with tiny overstretched teams, maybe its a good thing – to be under resourced, maybe it will force people to cooperate even more and be even more creative. You will do even better things and have even more precious memories of what you did when I have gone. But… here is a priority list of things you need to do, some of the things I failed to do:

  • Restore the bridge at the Vyne, and the original visitor approach to the house
  • Create Dan Dare themed interpretation for the New Battery (Britain’s 1950’s rocket testing station)on the Isle of Wight
  • Turn the icehouse fire station at Petworth into an ice cream parlour that sells chilli flavoured ice cream
  • And please, please, please fix in the visitor infrastructure at Hinton Ampner!

Over, and out.

Digital Interpretation – changing the rules

Just in time for my thesis’ debate on affective interpretation, the excellent Steve Poole’s write up of Ghosts in the Garden,  Ghosts in the Garden: locative gameplay and
historical interpretation from below is published in International Journal of Heritage Studies. It starts of very well, by describing three ways in which digital technology has been used: “as an augmented guidebook and information resource, as a tool for enhanced simulation, and (less frequently) as a tool for changing the rules by which we construct and define historical knowledge [my emphasis] at heritage sites.” I’m feeling a little ground down by the limited scope of that my work has ended up with , which I think (I hope) is normal at this stage of the process, so it was refreshing to feel Steve’s sense of ambition.

So how does Steve propose that we use digital technology to change the rules? Well, he says it better than me, but its worth pointing out that its the ludic nature of digital story-telling that enables this rule-change: “Yet what most sets historical analysis apart from other forms of enquiry in the arts and social sciences is the fragmentary nature of the evidence around which historians build interpretative frameworks, the material irretrievability of past events (and people), and the inevitability of supposition, argument and disagreement. Construction, in other words, is as necessary a concept to historians as reconstruction. Accepting that history is a practice in which knowledge is crafted from often incomplete evidence challenges the authoritative basis on which explanation is conventionally built. Arguably, moreover, presenting the process of making history as
a craft rather than the knitting together of a series of factual certainties offers the heritage industry an opportunity to engage audiences in dialogue with the past.”

So games enable players to contruct their own understanding of history? Well I’m not entirely sure that’s the perception of the players. Ghosts in the Garden was running just as I was starting out on my own “choose you own PhD adventure”, and with the kind help of Steve’s collaborators on the project, Splash and Ripple, I surveyed a small but decent sample of visitors. I recall being particularly disappointed by responses to the question about whether their choices had changed the story. I’m forcing myself not to look at the data from my Chawton project yet, but I member taking my lunch while two participants discussed the survey at the next table. I’d asked a similar question, and these two discussed their answer. They concluded that (despite the narrative atoms they experienced, and the order they experienced them in being a lot less structured than the stories of Ghosts in the Garden), because the facts were historic there were immutable. They hadn’t changed the story with their choices, because they couldn’t change history.

Does it matter that (most) users don’t know that they are constructing the story through their choices? I don’t know. When I started out on this research, I thought it was important. Now I’m less sure.

Moving on, there’s a new reference I’ve not caught before, but which I know I must track down and read (Costikyan, G. 2006. “I Have No Words and I Must Design: Towards a Critical Vocabulary for Games.” In The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, edited by K. Salen and E. Zimmerman, 192–211. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.) if only to add it to the post popular topic on this blog (yawn): Ludology vs. Narratology.

There’s a more interesting one (Gottlieb, O. 2016. “Who Really Said What? Mobile Historical Situated Documentary as Liminal Learning Space.” Gamevironments 5: 237–257) which I must also check out.

Steve goes into great details on the construction of Ghosts in the Garden, most of which I already knew, but its good to have it in a form I can reference. I did like this revelation though, making a comparison I hadn’t though of before: “The Ghosts in the Garden approach to heritage interpretation adapts some elements of first-person computer games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honour; most notably in its attempt to subjectively immerse visitors in a past reality in which they are called upon to make decisions that impact upon outcomes.”

The most important bit though, was this:

“The process by which we might identify and evaluate alternative narratives ‘from below’, in other words, in a space from which they have been traditionally excluded, was more important to the project’s purpose than using technological gadgetry to retell familiar tales about elite social space. Inevitably, it was difficult to make such a methodology clear to public participants at the start. It was reasoned however, that the intrusion of a clearly ‘inauthentic’ Time Radio as a device through which ghostly voices from the past directly addressed a modern audience, was a sufficient indication that the experience was built as much around an imaginative world as a historically
accurate one. While it was important to the project that its narratives were based on researched archival evidence, the stories did not carry the consequential gravitas of those used in World War battle games and there was little danger of any factual inaccuracies compromising public understanding of its objectives”

He goes on the mention the Splash and Ripple project at Bodiam that i had a little to do with, and which I though was let down by the lack of exactly the sort of “History from Below” that Steve provides. (Though I don’t want to be too critical of that project – I heard recently that a team from Historic Royal Palaces had checked it out before their Lost Palace project.) And he finished with one final quote which I KNOW will make it into my thesis  – because I’ve just pasted it in:

affective interpretation that privileges emotion, personal response and feeling as essential components of heritage can be a source of conflict amongst audiences for whom dispassionate factual rigour is essential to the understanding of history.

Its a great read, and a very helpful paper.

Trapped in the bunker

The debrief session after the experience. Photo taken by Adam.

Last weekend at Geek 2017, I played Sarcophagus, a Nordic LARP (Live Action Roleplay). LARP, as we know it today, grew out of the international popularity of Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games. It didn’t take long, in the late seventies and early eighties, for people to start making costumes out of blankets and swords out of camping mats and gaffer tape, to take the game away from the table and into the real world. Indeed, I played in one of the first commercial LARPs, Treasure Trap at Peckforton Castle.

People still do that of course, and the weapons have become better made, safer and more “realistic” in their design (with in the spiky aesthetic of fantasy illustration). LARP is not limited to high fantasy genres either. In the nineties there was an explosion of gothic LARP in the US, with people playing communities of Vampires. Any world can be recreated in LARP form, even the real one.

The popularity of LARPing in Scandinavia, led to style/variant with its own name, Nordic Larp (note, in this form, Larp has become a word in its own right, no longer an acronym). This style has gained an international reputation for attempting something more than recreating fantasy adventures, exploring its possibilities as an art form in its own right. Similarly, the form often eschews external, procedural adventures in favour of exploring internal, emotional struggles.

Thus it was that I, and a dozen or so other players (though we’ll return to the ideas of games and players shortly), signed up to a five hour experience that would involve us being locked up in a nuclear bunker with no hope of escape. The players ranged from Larp virgins to experienced Larpers from Belarus, a Canadian musician, lecturers and students. (Three of us are doing PhDs.) We weren’t in that bunker the whole five hours though, and given that I’m writing this, you’ll understand we were let out. But this isn’t like an Escape room game, where we have limited time to solve the puzzles and find a way out, neither is any of us expected to win by becoming the king of a post-apocalyptic society. (Though, as we’ll see, my character might have thought so.) In fact its arguably not a game at all. Our facilitator, artist Adam James, kept correcting himself when he used the word game, explaining that his Larping mentor disapproved of it. So we are not players in a game, but rather players in an improvised drama, and not just the players but the audience as well. Indeed, Adam defined larp as an artform where the participants and the audience are one and the same. (Which is something Robin Laws used to say about tabletop roleplaying games, though he’s had to drop that definition as the streaming of such games on Twitch and YouTube has become more and more popular.)

The object of Sarcophagus is not to escape or win, but to explore the five stages of grief, as modeled by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kßbler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. First all though we had to work out who we were.

The preparation took a couple of hours in itself, with Adam explaining Larp, running us through some improvisation exercises and helping us create a character for ourselves. To begin with, he littered the briefing room with pictures, some large (A3) some small. Some abstract, some figurative, some photographs, some drawings. Adam encouraged us to walk among them, pick them up, and see if any of them inspired thoughts about who we might be.

I latched upon a couple, a medieval drawing of a ploughman and a dead bird which may have been trussed into some sort of totem, and imagined the pastural post-apocalyptic fantasies of my youth, things like John Christopher’s Tripods and Sword of the Spirits trilogies, the seventies BBC series Survivors, and Riddley Walker (which is set very close to where we were playing). What about a character who’d actually looked forward to the end of the world, I thought, a character who’d foolishly imagined a clearing away of everything what was wrong with the world, and a return to simpler, purer times. Of course he would be disappointed, Adam had made it clear that we’d know we wouldn’t even survive long enough to see the nuclear winter, let alone a new Garden of Eden.

Talking about it with other players, I imagined that my character might be rather reactionary, not necessarily well liked. Then Adam passed around a “hat” with little slips of paper listing the jobs we might have had before we found ourselves in the bunker. We found out we were hairdressers, waiters, sailors, stockbrokers and gym teachers. I pulled out “politician” and everything fell into place. I didn’t once mention the word UKIP once, indeed I painted myself as someone who, like Churchill, had moved between parties, but everyone knew exactly what sort of politician I had been. We also got to pick a flaw out of the hat. I ended up an alcoholic, though frankly I felt politician was enough of a flaw.

Then we split into two groups. One of people that wanted close connections with other player’s characters (for example, sisters), and a slightly smaller group who preferred thinner, looser connections. I went with the second, thinking many will have seen my politician on television, but few would know me well. We workshopped our connections, the gym teacher had taught my children, the security guard was someone I ignored on the way into the gated community to lived in, neighbour to the stockbroker, and the waiter was the rebellious son of wealthy donors to my political campaign.

Some more improvisation followed, this time walking as our characters, in different situations. Then after a break, and some meditation on what the world would be like if we died today, we met up outside the Bunker for one last improvisation workshop before going into (in this case) as reconstruction of a WWII Anderson shelter. Adam asked us to find a position to start then read out a short introduction:

11:27—Radio and TV broadcasts are interrupted by breaking news. Brussels and Copenhagen have been hit by large explosions.

11:31—Unconfirmed sources report that the blasts may be nuclear explosions.

11:33—Similar explosions are reported in Paris, Stockholm and Dublin.

11:37—A black helicopter lands on the roof of the prime minister’s office in Oslo London.

11:38—Associated Press confirms that Copenhagen has been hit by a nuclear explosion.

11:40—The air alarm goes off in London. Most people haven’t heard the news and just think it is an exercise. A few run to the shelters.

11:41—TV and radio transmissions are jammed.

And we begin. I won’t go too much into what happened, every version is different. Suffice to say, my politician tried to build a power-base in within the group, before properly realising the hopelessness of the situation, and even then trying to get people to like him – I’d managed to keep my bottle of booze (creme soda) secret until, hopeless, I shared what was left to curry favour. The only scripted moments were that introduction above, the lights going out in three phases before ending in darkness, and one event that one of the players is previously given guidance on timing. Note the importance even in this mostly improvised story, of having kernels – events that happen in order, even if its only the lights failing and the (spoilers!) event.

Afterwards there was a (vital) debrief session, almost a decompression chamber. We had time to get happy again, and use to the light of day and discussed how our story developed. Adam observed that we hadn’t quite entered the depression stage when he had to bring it to its conclusion, and I thought we hadn’t quite had time. I felt my character had been bargaining to the last, and was teetering on the brink of depression when Adam came through with the torch and rounded us up. I was about to say something to that effect when Adam let slip that we were meant to spend four hours, not two in the bunker.

Due to constraints of the day, we always knew we were only going to have two hours, but I would have liked to have played the longer stint if it were possible. And of course it is! If I get to play again, it will be a totally different experience. I won’t be a politician again, maybe I’ll be a historian, or hairdresser, and the stor(ies) will be, even if the lights still go out and “the event” happens as before.

I even thought about playing it in the bunker that the National Trust owns, on Orford Ness. Now, that would be cool.

Resonance: Sound, music and emotion in historic house interpretation

Just drafted an abstract for my Sound Heritage presentation:

This presentation explores what computer games can teach us about emotional engagement in cultural heritage interpretation. Beginning with a model of emotional affect drawn from the work of Panksepp and Biven (Panksepp, 2012), Lazarro (Lazarro, 2009), Sylvester (Sylvester, 2013)and Hamari et al (Hamari et al., 2014), it reveals how music especially has become a versatile emotional trigger in game design.

Drawing on the work of Cohen (Cohen, 1998)and Collins (Collins, 2008)eight functions that music has in games:

Masking – Just as music was played in the first movie theaters, partly to mask the sound of the projector, so music in new media can be used to mask the whir of the console’s or PC’s fan.

Provision of continuity – A break in the music can signal a change in the narrative, or continuous music signals the continuation of the current theme.”

Direction of attention – patterns in the music can correlate to patterns in the visuals, directing the attention of the user.

Mood induction; and,
Communication of Meaning- the nice distinction here is between music that makes the user sad, and music that tells the user “this is a sad event” without necessarily changing the user’s mood.

A cue for memory – The power of the music to invoke memories or prepare the mind for a type of cognitive activity is well recognized in advertising and sonic brands such as those created for Intel and Nokia.

Arousal and focal attention – With the user’s brain stimulated by music s/he is more able to concentrate on the diagesis of the presentation.

Aesthetics – The presentation argues that all too often music is used for aesthetic value only in museums and heritage sites, even if the pieces of music used are connected historically with the site or collection.

As an example, the presentation describes a project to improve the way music is used in the chapel at the Vyne, near Basingstoke. Currently, a portable CD player is used to fill the silence with a recording of a cathedral choir, pretty, but inappropriate for the space and for it’s story. A new recording is being made to recreate about half an hour of a pre-reformation Lady Mass, with choisters, organ and officers of the church, to be delivered via multiple speakers, which will be even more pretty but also a better tool for telling the place’s story.

With a proposed experiment at Chawton House as an example, we briefly explore narrative structure, extending the concept of story  Kernels and Satellites described by Shires and Cohan (Shires and Cohan, 1988)to imagine the cultural heritage site as a collection of narrative atoms, or Natoms (Hargood, 2012), both physical (spaces, collection) and ephemeral (text, video, music etc.). Music, the presentation concludes is often considered as a “mere” satellite, but with thought and careful design there is no reason why music can not also become the narrative kernals of interpretation.

 

COHEN, A. J. 1998. The Functions of Music in Multimedia: A Cognitive Approach. Fifth International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition. Seoul, Korea: Western Music Research Institute, Seoul National University.

COLLINS, K. 2008. An Introduction to the Participatory and Non-Linear Aspects of Video Games Audio. In: RICHARDSON, J. A. H., S. (ed.) Essays on Sound and Vision. Helsinki: Helsinki University Press.

HAMARI, J., KOIVISTO, J. & SARSA, H. Does Gamification Work? — A Literature Review of Empirical Studies on Gamification.  System Sciences (HICSS), 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on, 6-9 Jan. 2014 2014. 3025-3034.

HARGOOD, C., JEWELL, M.O. AND MILLARD, D.E. 2012. The Narrative Braid: A Model for Tackling The Narrative Paradox in Adaptive Documentaries. NHT12@HT12. Milwaukee.

LAZARRO, N. 2009. Understand Emotions. In: BATEMAN, C. (ed.) Beyond Game Design: Nine Steps Towards Creating Better Videogames. Boston MA: Course Technology / Cangage Learning.

PANKSEPP, J. A. B., L. 2012. The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions, New York, W. W. Norton & Company.

SHIRES, L. M. & COHAN, S. 1988. Telling Stories : A Theoretical Analysis of Narrative Fiction, Florence, KY, USA, Routledge.

SYLVESTER, T. 2013. Designing Games – A Guide to Engineering Experiences, Sebastolpol, CA, O’Reilly Media.

Petworth Park and Pokemon too

Yesterday’s post was timely, it turns out, because today, Pokemon Go was released in the wild. I downloaded it and caught my first two Pokemon in the Great Hall at Chawton, waiting for a meeting that I’ll write more about tomorrow. But after that meeting I was off down to Petworth to have a go with the new(ish) Park Explorer.


The Park Explorer is one of the outputs of a three year long archeology project, exploring what’s under the Capability Brown landscape that survives today. I have some responsibility for the way it works. When my colleague Tom explained his plan to build a mobile application, I dissuaded him. There is little evidence that many people  download apps in advance of their visit to Heritage sites. And even fewer wish to deplete their data allowance on the mobile network to download it on site.

Together, we came up with an alternative – using solar powered Info-points to create wifi hotspots around the park that could deliver media to any phone capable of logging on to wifi, and browsing the web. Though in this case it’s not the World Wide Web, but a series of basic webpages offering maps, AV, etc. We’re running this installation as a bit of an experiment to gauge demand, to see, if it’s offered, how many people actually log on.

Pokemon Go demonstrated why the technology might be useful. With the app newly downloaded on my phone I, of course, wanted to try it out in Petworth’s pleasure grounds. I’d guessed right, the garden’s Ionic Rotunda and Doric Temple are both Pokestops.  But the wireless signal is so weak and patchy (on O2 at least) that the game could hardly log on, let alone do anything when I got within range. After a frustrating few minutes I gave up and returned to the local wifi.

That crummy phone signal is one of the reasons we went to solar powered local wifi. Once I logged on I was soon listening to the voice of my colleague Tom as he explained some of the archeology of the garden, watching an animated film of the development of the park and scrubbing away a photo of the current three person gardening team and their power tools to reveal a black and white photo of the small  army of gardeners that used to work here.

All of this was very good. But there are some issues that I think need to be addressed if the idea is to catch on. First of all, finding the wifi signal and logging on isn’t as intuitive as I’d hoped. Your browser need to be pointed at 10.0.0.1 to find the home page. The home page design leaves something to be desired. The floating button to change text size seems an afterthought that annoyingly obscures the text its trying to clarify. Navigation isn’t intuitive (no obvious way forward from the welcome splash pictured above, for example) or that well organised – I’d hoped that I’d be offered media that was closest to my position (as identified by the hotspot I was logged into), but the browse button just led to a list of things. Switching to the map view was easier, but it showed the design lacked a degree of responsiveness – see below how the word “Map” is partially obscured by the tile with the actual map on. The pins that link to different media suggest that its good to be standing in particular places to view that media, but on the few that I tried around the pleasure grounds, there seemed to be no discernible benefit to being in the right spot. In the end I settled under a spreading Oak to sit and work my way through what was on offer.

One feature that worked well to compare old and new and see change over the centuries was the scrub away photo feature. Even here though there was a fault in the responsiveness of the design. If I turned the phone into landscape mode, the picture became full screen and I lost the ability to reset it.

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I imagined how good it would be, if it looked and felt (and responded) like the National Trust’s current website. Maybe, with a bit of work, it can.

More work would be and investment though, so, first of all though we need to interrogate the system’s solar powered servers, and see how many people are giving it a try.

Heritage Jam 2015 – sign up soon!

Heritage Jam at York University – registration opens on 20th August

I had a great Skype chat today with Neil and Paul from Info-Point. I’d first met them a couple of years back, and wrote about their product here. In fact, I’d put them in touch with one of my client properties at the time, Saddlescombe Farm, that had a problem which I thought Info-point might be the perfect solution for. It was – and Info-point have now supplied solutions to a number of out-of-the-way (and out of signal) National Trust sites across the country.

Their challenge is that they are technologists, not storytellers, but sometimes places come to them hoping they can supply the content, not just the platform. To this end, they are working hard at building a network of interpretation designers and content providers, who they hope will use their technology when heritage sites come calling.

We were chatting idly about setting up a two-day “hacking” event, to bring together heritage custodians, storytellers and technologists. While we were talking I thought “we could call it something like Heritage Jam!”

Afterwards I thought – “Heritage Jam… that too good an idea to be mine. Where have I heard it before?” and a quick Google later, I knew where. York University will be hosting Heritage Jam towards the end of September. I missed it last year, and made a mental not not to miss it this year. OK, so that mental note came back a bit garbled, but it came back in time for me to get myself on the mailing list. Registration opens and closes on the 20th August. So if you want to go, set a reminder in your diary! If you can’t get to York, there’s and on-line participation month kicking on the 20th of August too, so check that out.

Lauren Child at Mottisfont

Last week, I took my family to the opening night of The Art of Lauren Child: Adventures with Charlie and Lola and Friends. It’s the first time this author/illustrator, who stormed to the top of the picture book charts while my first child was in her infancy, has shared the original artwork behind her creations. Most of the pieces are from  her collection – she doesn’t sell her originals artwork. She is so established in the psyche of the modern child, what with Charlie and Lola on the TV and her books owned by children of every age (and quite a few adults), that its hard to believe she only published her first book (about Clarice Bean) seventeen years ago. The collection on display shows the variety of techniques she uses to create her illustrations, and hints at the iteration that each page goes through before it is committed to print.

Now, obviously You might want to see an example of Child’s work illustrating this post. But you are not going to get that. Instead you are going to get a picture of a label. These are brilliant labels. How brilliant? Well my ten year old isn’t as much of fan of Lauren Child as his sister or his Mum. He didn’t really want to be there. But half-way round the gallery, he told his Mum how interesting the labels were. And he was right. My extremely creative colleague, Louise, who curated the exhibition, carefully chose as much as she could of Child’s own writing about her work. And Child, being an author of children’s books, writes very engagingly, and accessibly for children.

   
 These labels are informative, funny, easy to read but never patronising, and I don’t think I’ve voluntarily read such a high proportion of labels in any other exhibition. Together they give readers insights into technique, biography, and the stories behind the stories.

Child also contributed some new captions for the gaps in the story the Louise was trying to tell. Given that my last couple of posts have been about the layout of exhibitions, its worth complimenting Louise and her colleagues on that as well. They deal with the historical Y shaped gallery layout very well, broadly following a chronological track: the first room deals with Child’s first published works – Clarice Bean. Charlie and Lola come next, with more more recent works divided between traditional two dimensional illustration (mostly from Who wants to be a Poodle? I don’t) and three-dimensional media work, including some of the sets and photos from her version of The Princess and the Pea

And the original glass of Pink Milk!

All in all a MUST SEE. Click on the link at the top for details. 

 

Magna Carta 800th Anniversary

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I spent Monday at Runnymede, on the 800th Anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta on that meadow. (Though personally, I like to think that it took place just the other side of the river in the Priory that used to sit beside the Ankerwick Yew.) Four thousand people came to celebrate the anniversary, including the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and of course the Queen (for one moment I was this far away from her!). I was there as part of the army of volunteers who helped run the event.

My role was part of the team of interpreters there to introduce people to the new artwork which has been commissioned by Surrey County Council and the National Trust to mark the anniversary. There’s a lot more about the piece, called The Jurors, at the end of this link. Its a great piece, by Hew Locke – twelve bronze chairs in the middle of the meadow. It proved a big hit with the crowds, who lost no time in sitting down on the chairs, and making connections between the stories the chairs told and their own lives.

Each chair is decorated with two reliefs, and I’ve chosen just a few of my favourites for the slideshow at the top of the post. Most of these photos were taken a few days before the event, when we volunteer interpreters got our first look at the piece, and they were taken more as a reminder as I revised some of the stories each relief reveals, so forgive the less than artistic photographs. There’s  a lot more details on the stories in the link above, as well as a personal audio guided tour from Hew himself, and, from that site, this is a great YouTube video of how Hew was inspired by the site and how it was made:

Everybody loved The Jurors, and I’ve heard reports from the team at Runnymede that it has attracted little crowds every day since the event. In fact they’ve asked us interpreters to return on a few predicated busy days to help interpret the piece. I think I might, once I’ve checked my diary. It was such a pleasure to work with.

Finally let me close with my picture of the Red Arrows flypast. I only took it on my phone, so its not a brilliant image of the Arrows themselves, but there’s something about the sky that I like.

Clandon Park


I was going to write about yesterday’s visit to the Museums and Heritage Show, but when I got home from London I’d heard the terrible news of the fire at Clandon Park.

The place is special to me for two reasons. Not only is it one of the places I work with (I was there only Monday making exciting plans for the future), but also, in 1999 before I ever dreamed of working for the National Trust, it was where I got married.

So I’m not writing with my National Trust hat on. I have not been involved with the salvage operation, and I only know as much as has been on the news. I’m writing as a punter who loves the place.

And not just the place, but the collection. So indulge me for a moment, and let me share some of my favourite objects from Clandon. I fear few of these will have been a priority for salvagers,  but I hope some of them may have survived.

http://www.queensroyalsurreys.org.uk/new_museum/20th_century_room/Case5/The_Football.shtml

Clandon was host to the Surrey Infantry Museum, guardians of collections from The Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment and Queen’s Regiment. Amongst all the medal banners and silverware was this old modest football. At first glance you might think is a relic of on those legendary Christmas football matches, but in fact this ball was dribbled across no-mans land ahead of a charge upon the trenches of the Prussian Guard.

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/clandon-park/visitor-information/article-1355889655366/

Clandon Park was one of the first country house hospitals opened in the first months of the First World War. The soldiers who were treated there filled a couple of autograph books with sketches during their recuperation. To commemorate the centenary, we created an installation in the room that had, at that time, become the operating theatre, and displayed those original books and reproductions of some of the sketches.

For the duration of that exhibition, the contents of the room were moved into storage. There are two items which used to be on dis play there that are possibly my very favourite pieces:

http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1441352.2

Huia, Wlliam (4th Earl) Onslow’s youngest son, was born in New Zealand in 1890, and at the bottom of this frame is a tiny picture of him as a baby, lying an a Maori feather cloak,

http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1441244.1

and this is that cloak. As I said I have no idea of their fate, but news of the loss of these two objects more than any other treasures from Clandon, will upset me the most. I’m almost welling up, just thinking about it.

Finally, an object that always made me smile:

http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/1440368

From the Gubbay collection, a Staffordshire piece inspired by Chinese art. I hope it survives to make me smile again.

A virtual bath

Yesterday I had an interesting visit to Kings College London, to attend a workshop in the fascinating space of the university’s Anatomy Museum. I wanted to lie on the floor below the massive skylight, in the position where once a cadaver on a table would have been, while students watched the opening of the body from the mezzanine that extended along three sides. But that’s not what you do, when you are meeting people for the first time, so I sipped my coffee and shook hands instead.

We were there to discuss a neighbor of Kings College on the Strand, surely one of the least known National Trust places in the country. The Roman Bath on Strand Lane is open only by appointment on Wednesday afternoon, but thousands of people must pass every day, hardly glimpsing the signs of its presence. Kings has put a little bit of money into exploring how better access to this (and other) hidden heritage might be achieved digitally.

Martin Blazeby kicked proceedings off by sharing a computer model of the space. Then Alex Butterworth who’s done a bunch of digital storytelling, and Valeria Vitale spoke about two similar (and indeed interrelated during research) concepts The Idea of Water, and A Web of Unexpected Connections. On the two, The Idea of Water most excited me – I could imagine it being installed inside the Roman Bath (which if you want you can peer at through a window when its closed) silently projecting the content (a bubbling source of quotes about water, in essence) on darkened walls controlled somehow by the people doing the peering, or by other virtual visitors in the comfort of their own home, or for than matter, by people walking across Waterloo Bridge…

In between those two concepts Marcia Balisciano of Benjamin Franklin House, shared the frustration of some her her visitors at finding the spaces (mostly) empty and unfurnished, and we knocked about a few ideas around using digital technology to give those visitors a little of what they wanted, while preserving the interpretive philosophy behind the house itself.