I haven’t written a post for some time. And I’ll be frank, it because I’m struggling with the stories at Chawton. (As well as dealing with the last couple of weeks of the school holidays, and making a run to Southampton Uni, for work, on my day off – but that’s another story.)
My struggles have made me think about the whole philosophy of heritage storytelling. And this week, I was reminded how (if you will apply a somewhat Marxist point of view) the cultural heritage “industry” is a construct of the “dominant ideology”. I had occasion at work today to quote again Pitt-Rivers who talk about creating “in such a way as at least to make men cautious how they listen to scatter-brained revolutionary suggestions.” (1891 “Typological museums, as exemplified by the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, and his provincial museum at Farnham” Journal of the Society of Arts 40)
It seems this meme of progress through evolution has pervade heritage ever since then. Museums of the Industrial “Revolution” explain how one new technology leads to another, country houses are shown to develop over time, even museums of art – which surely celebrate artistic revolutions – resort to explain how artists are influenced by their predecessors.
Now there’s nothing wrong with these tales of progress per se, but we know that continual progress isn’t a very emotionally engaging story. Chronologies of development, or histories of places or collections, seem to smooth out the ups and downs, the hopes and fears of the people involved.
I’m not sure quite where I’m going with this, except to say I think I need to unpack more about the stories of the people, and use the developing place as a mere backdrop to events.
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. Laws‘ Hamlet’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.
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.
Today, or rather this evening, was the first part of the short Management, Leadership and Teamworking course I’ve joined. Organised by the University, it’s designed for early career Post-Docs, but PhD candidates like me were invited too.
There are twenty of us on the course, from all over the world. My team of five (up the Reds!) includes people from China, Iran (via Turkey) and Spain. After our briefing, and a far better YMCA supper than I was expecting. We completed our first five challenges:
Balancing four of us on a breezeblock.
Walking through the woods blindfolded, looking for parts of a door and remembering in what order we discovered them,
Trying to get one of our team and a “precious cargo” (a brick in a bucket) over a mined electric fence,
Building a nuclear fallout tent (with only one of us not blindfolded), and
Confronting a poacher.
Needless to say we failed at all but one. But on the way we learned a lot about each other and about how we might have better approached the challenges.
Keeping time, for example, was something we forgot about. We had twenty minutes for each task, and of course time flew by, but none of us was actually keeping track of time at all. (Which would have helped.) But quite apart from that we learned that a pisspoor performance can be avoided through PISPAR:
Problem – understanding what is actually being asked of us. For example, we didn’t need to build the tent, just get inside it, like a bag.
Information – we rushed into each task without gathering all the information that we might have done.
Solutions – we didn’t take time to share and evaluate possible different ways to tackle the task.
Planning – when we’d decided what to do, we didn’t for example, allocate tasks very well, or plan our time (see above)
Action – we did plenty of this, without much of the prep.
Reflecting – well we all had time to reflect afterwards of course. But we might occasionally have paused to reflect on the progress of each challenge, while we still had time to do something about it.
We weren’t total failures though. We (I) quickly worked out that the “poacher” we discovered was actually the gamekeeper, which our facilitator said very few teams manage. And the final activity was a “ski race” which we didn’t just win, we won by a country mile! (Go Reds!)
A great piece about how live interpretation can get under the skin of history. It maybe shows how much as changed since twenty years ago when, working for the same company, I was asked by a client to provide”more buxom” female interpreters in “less authentic, shapeless” medieval gowns. I refused, we lost the contract, and (I’m pleased to report) that client later went bust.
Lucy Charles and Rosanna Heverin, costumed heritage interpreters, Tudor historians and women’s history advocates, discuss the day their interpretation of the Boleyn women passed the Bechdel Test at Hampton Court Palace, and argue for the inclusion of intelligent females in heritage interpretation every day, not just International Women’s Day.
For nearly 500 years, Anne Boleyn has been interpreted by popes, princes, ambassadors, historians, actors, writers and, for the last 20 odd years, historical interpreters. She has been the revered mother of the English Reformation, a romantic heroine, a naïve tragic victim of Henry VIII’s tyranny, and an ambitious ‘heretic.’ Anne has appeared as a named character in 41 television and film productions; her portrayal unique to her socio-political environment. Intertwined with interpretations of Anne are varied interpretations of Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford – Anne’s sister-in-law. A darling of Henry VIII’s court before Anne came into the King’s view, Lady Rochford has been…
Today, I’m at the second of the University or Southampton and University of York’s Sound Heritage study days. We’re only halfway through the day, but I had to take myself away to write up the story that Dr Matthew Stephens, of Sydney Living Museums, told us this morning.
He told us about one object, the Dowling Songbook, which is the earliest book of music that he knows of that was bound in Australia, rather than imported already bound from Europe. He explained a little of the story that they uncovered while researching its provenance.
It starts with Lilias Dickson, the daughter of the man who brough the first steam engine to Australia. As a teenager she was apparently kidnapped by (or maybe absconded with) a conman by the name of John Dow. Rescued a short time later, she was back with her father when his own financial behaviour was questioned, and he had the urgent suddenly need to make his way North of the equator. He left his native born children in good standing though, and Lilias Dickson stood to inherit a comfortable living.
At which point, John Dow reappeared to claim that he had in fact, married they young girl, and that marriage having been consummated, he was her husband and thus had claim upon her inheritance. The case went to court, and was heard by Judge James Dowling. He found in favour of Lilias, but tough her fortune was saved, her reputation was not. The judge himself thought her of very low virtue.
Imagine his discomfort then, when, three months later, the Judge’s own nephew declared his intention to marry the sixteen year old. The young couple seemed to have a happy marriage however, and among their acquisitions was this songbook.
I loved this story and found myself thinking about how it might work in a responsive environment, with music form the songbook matched to the ups and downs of the story around a historic environment.
Which isn’t to say the other speaker this morning wasn’t just as fascinating. Ben Marks, Keeper of the Benton Fletcher collection of keyboard instruments at the National Trust’s own Fenton House. Gave a very entertaining exploration of the conflicts comprises involved in both conserving and playing historic instruments. His overriding message was that if an instrument is restored to be played, it should be played, and more importantly, maintained, in a playable condition. He gave us an insight into the sort of conservation and monitoring regime involved in looking after such instruments, and those which might be too fragile to be played.
I write this while the others visit the nearby Jane Austin Museum. This afternoon, the work starts. (And later a performance, of course.)
I had a great chat with my supervisor on Thursday, after helping out with a Masters seminar. As regular readers may have worked out, I’ve been having a great deal of trouble trying to get a coherent testable design to test out of my half-formed ideas and lofty ideals.
The problem was trying to think of a cheap way to test some of the theory I’ve come up with. I’d got hung up on trying to think of a way to track visitors round a site and test their reactions to that. Until I solved that I was handwaving the issues of breaking the story into natoms, and balancing the conflicting needs of multiple visits in the same space. Those two problems both felt more within my comfort zone. The problem is that I’m not a technologist, that bit is so far out of my comfort zone that I’d need to enlist (or pay for) one. On top of that, the tech itself isn’t that cheap – getting a wifi network into some of the heritage places I know, with their thick stone walls and sheer scale, isn’t about buying just one wifi router.
I’d mentioned the other problems (particularly in the one of negotiating conflicting needs) in the seminar. (The students had been reading about a variety of museum interpretation experiments for their “homework” and we discussed the common issue that many of the experiments focussed on the issue of a visitor in isolation, and hadn’t thought enough about multiple users in the same space). Afterwards I spent twenty minutes with Graeme, my supervisor, in his office. I felt he’d finally got what I’d been trying to say about a “responsive” environment, and his interest was particularly focused on the two issues I’d handwaved. We talked about low-tech ways or exploring both of those, and of course THAT’S what I should be doing, not worrying about the tech. These are both things I can do (I think!) rather than something I can’t .
So by the end of our chat, when Graeme had to return to his students we’d worked out the rudiments of a simple experiment.
What I need is a relatively small heritage site, but the possibility of lots of choices about routes, lots of intersections between spaces. What Hiller calls a low depth configuration (that last link is to a fancy new on-line edition of the book, by the way. It’s worth a read).
I need to work with the experts/curators of that site to “break” the stories. Break is a script-writing term, but it feels particularly appropriate when thinking about cutting the stories up into the smallest possible narrative atoms. (Although maybe “natomise” is better!)
Then I need to set up the site to simulate some of responsiveness that a more complex system might offer. Concealed Bluetooth speakers for example, or switches like these that can be controlled by Bluetooth.
Finally, rather than try and create the digital system that tracks visitors and serves them ephemeral natoms, I can do a limited experiment with two or more humans following visitors around and remotely throwing the switches that might light particular areas of the room, play sounds or what ever other interventions we can come up with. The humans take the place of the server, and when they come together, negotiate which of their visitors gets the priority. Graeme suggested a system of tokens that the human followers could show each other – but the beauty of this concept is that the methods of negotiating could become part of the results of the experiment! The key thing is to explain to the participants that the person following them around isn’t giving them a guided tour, they can ask questions of him/her, but s/he isn’t going to lead their experience.
So, now I have a a thing that it is possible to do, with minimal help and with a minimal budget. And its a thing that I can clearly see has aims that come of the research I’ve done, and results that inform platonic ideal responsive environment I have in my head. If it works, it will hopefully inspire someone else to think about automating it.
A colleague sent me a link to this post, from Corinna Gardner, curator of product design at the V&A. They have just acquired an ugly, but important piece of wearable technology. As she says:
Whether or not we own a Nike Fuelband or Jawbone UP, or even if they are only a fad, wearable technologies are a reality for thousands of people every day. The WT4000 is the flipside of the extreme efficiency we so enjoy when ordering a book for next day delivery or our groceries selected, packed and delivered to our doorstep.
Just a short note, linking to an article I read (on Christmas Day apparently) about using mobile phone data to analyse crowd movement in Hyde Park. This wasn’t real time, but based on historical data from provider EE. The comments suggest many think of it as an invasion of privacy, despite being anonymous and not real time. It suggests that they could be popular resistance to heritage sites using the technology, especially if using it in real time.
Alternatively, Dr Suzy Moat, in Jim Al-khalili’s radio programme, Putting Science to Work, made the case for using mobile photo data to monitor crowd movements and save lives by preventing panic/crush disasters such as Hillsborough, and those that that occurred in Mecca during the Hadj.
So I’m not discouraged from experimenting with the technology and testing users’ reactions to the privacy/benefit equation.
I’ve had the flu for the last week. A real bout, which knocked me out on a train at the weekend, and had me in bed, sweating and shivering for the best part of the week. So I’m a blog post or two behind, and that’s not all I’ve got to catch up on. Today is the only day I’ve been able to do anything useful at all.
I was able to read a bit though, little and often. And one of the little bits I read was this item about Ed Catmull of Pixar fame, explaining why Virtual Reality isn’t a storytelling medium. Though he doesn’t use the words, he’s obviously talking about the Narrative Paradox. Storytelling is linear he says, interactive experiences for something else.
That doesn’t stop me wanting to try imposing a little linearity on immersive experiences though. And to that end, just as I was (it turns out) going down with the flu, Graeme my super supervisor was persuading me to have a go at creating, a design document for my Responsive Environment idea. I haven’t managed to get as far as I want by today, but I have taken a first step, trying a rough diagram (really rough – not a flow chart, despite a passing resemblence) which I thought I’d share here.
Hmmm, it looks quite small on the upload, lets see how readable it is when its published. If it is at all readable, I’d appreciate it of anybody can tell me whether it makes an sense.
In the meantime, let me describe it in words. I’m looking to test how people react to being tracked around a heritage environment in return for the reward or a more tailored experience. While I was putting the diagram together I had in my head the example of Emily Van Evera and Martin Perkins’ recital/presentation on Lady Charlotte Bridgeman, that I wrote briefly about last time.
That was carefully crafted linear storytelling, wherein Martin and Emily curated a mass of evidence and anecdote into a presentation that had emotional impact. But it was designed for a seated audience in a concert hall, how might it work in a heritage setting? It could be a guided tour, or an audio guide, but could it also be the story told in a responsive environment, where people were free to wander and focus on the thing they were interested in, and yet still get at the emotional heart of the story before they finished their wanderings?
During the recital we were presented with story elements (lets call them Natoms – narrative atoms, as Charlie Hargood does) in all sorts of different media: documents (which could be original or images); portraits (ditto); text (spoken in this case, but it could be printed); sound (live music in this case, but it could be recordings); and even original instruments. There would of course have been similar media that appeared in the research but didn’t make the cut into the presentation. And there may be a few curios that aren’t directly related to the story but possibly interesting connections – the Elvis track that used the same tune as one of the songs we heard, for example.
Imagine all those (well not the originals) loaded into a media server. Each tagged with; connections to other Natoms; connection to the originals items that may be onsite; relevance to particular spaces on the site; and, most importantly, a few tagged as “kernels” which must be experienced in a particular order.
Now, were I to ask Emily and Martin, they might well say that everything they included in the presentation was a “kernel”, but I’d push back on that. (Thinking about it, I’d love to actually have this discussion with them and find out what they think the kernels might be.)
Anyhow all the data, all those Natoms, are sitting on the server, waiting to be served out to various access points. The access points might be e-ink panels replacing traditional museum text/graphic panels, speakers, screens, or even people, which devices of some sort to tell them about the visitors they meet.
Finally we have our visitors. Each visiting group (which may be an individual, a couple, a family or other group who intend to stay together during most of the visit) gets something, a BLE beacon, or wi-fi device that locates them around the site. They don’t use this device at all, just carry it around which them. They might complete a short questionnaire at the start of their visit to gauge their relative interest in the broad topics of the story, such as music, life in the country house, gender issues, etc, or even flag up emotional triggers that they don’t want to hear about for personal reasons, like domestic abuse, or cancer.
I’m running out of time now. So I’ll continue this in the next post.
A couple of weeks back, I was at university in Southampton, for the first workshop of the Sound Heritage network. Convened by Jeanice Brooks of Southampton, and Jonathan Wainwright of the University of York, it brings together heritage and music professionals and academics from around the country, and indeed, the world.
Jeanice kicked off with a presentation on the evidence for the importance of music in 18th and 19th century country house culture, and reasons why country house music is not better known and studied. The focus of music historians on the German music culture at the time, and a prejudice that domestic (by which I mean not just British, but “played in the home”) music simply wasn’t very good. The relatively recent change in musicology, away from these ingrained attitudes has led to a light being cast upon country house music for the first time.
Jeanice mentioned a number of houses where research has already taken place: Stourhead, Tatton Park, and other NT places among many others both in the UK and, for example, Vacluse House in Australia, the challenges in presenting musical collections are many and varied, especially for organisations like the National Trust. For example “Curators feel very unequipped to deal with this musical material.” She says a place might have tons of sheet music, but no family records or instruments, or one of the other two, but no music.
With the work of the National Trust’s own Mark Purcell, the sheet music is at least listed in COPAC. But most domestic places are not suited to playing this music for their visitors in formal concerts, and the music was never intended for concert listening in the first place. Working with the National Trust and Southampton University in research funded by AHRC, Tatton Park tried a number of experiments around their music collection – public master classes for students, commissioning some new works, and making films to share performances to larger audiences than you can fit in the music room. Here’s Jeanice introducing that project on YouTube.
Jonathan Wainwright explained a little more about the aim of the Sound Heritage network – A better understanding of the role of music in country house culture. To that end, he suggested what the network’s objectives might include: to create lasting connections between people from the various institutions; making connections between the tangible and intangible heritage, a web-site is a given, but could there/should there be a collection of essays, including not just the stories behind musical collections, but also the challenge of interpreting music ? Ultimately, he and Jeanice hope that the network will generate both large scale (national) projects and small scale projects. So he also threw a couple of questions out to challenge not just those at the workshop, but the wider network: what places’ collections are still in need of research? How do we match dislocated collections with their pace of origin?
Then we had a presentation from Karol Mullaney-Dignam, PhD, the only scholar in Ireland doing research in Country House music. She explained that there is an added political element to the issue of preserving and playing country house music – after independence country houses were seen as relic of colonial rule. The state was not particularly interested in preserving the buildings or the contents, and there was little appetite for a charitable solution like the National Trust. Since the nineties, with a growing “Culturally curious” domestic tourism audience, country houses have become a more accepted part of the cultural landscape. This has allowed Karol in her work for the Office of Public Works, to connect places and their music.
But music was completely overlooked in the OWS owned places, state owned places have had their collections sold off. Music collections are still found in privately owned houses, but rarely archived or cataloged, so she had her work cut out for her pieceing together stories from scraps of sheet music, the occasional instrument, and (mostly) household accounts.
I particularly liked her observation that the social use of these houses changed during the nineteeth century from enfilades, a series of rooms filtering access to power, to a circulatory party space.
Then after lunch we crossed across to the theatre to join a recital from Soprano Emily Van Evera and harpsichordist Martin Perkins. Over the course of an hour, the two musicians mapped the life of Lady Charlotte Bridgeman by her music. They showed us bills for music lessons, books and harpsichord spares, and even notation for popular music of the day, copied by Charlotte herself (and later borrowed by Elvis Presley, with different lyrics as you might imagine). The music they selected to play matched the romantic, and sometimes tragic events of her life.