Management, Leadership & Teamworking 

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:

  1. Balancing four of us on a breezeblock.
  2. Walking through the woods blindfolded, looking for parts of a door and remembering in what order we discovered them,
  3. Trying to get one of our team and a “precious cargo” (a brick in a bucket) over a mined electric fence, 
  4. Building a nuclear fallout tent (with only one of us not blindfolded), and
  5. 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!)

The Boleyns and the Bechdel Test

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.

history riot


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…

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Sound Heritage at Chawton House Library

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.)

What PhD supervisors are for

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.

That’s what supervisors are for!


V&A collecting wearable tech

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.

Mobile Location Analytics doesn’t go down well in Hyde Park

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. 

Beginning a design document

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.

responsive environment

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.

Sound Heritage

 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.


Scrivener Top Tip

I’ve been a bit quite these last couple of weeks, because I’ve been head down, turning forty thousand words of so-called “Literature Review” into twenty thousand words that I might be willing to actually share with my supervisors. That was completed last Sunday, so I’m back in the land of the living. On Sunday, I wrestled with Word, EndNote and Scrivener to format my citations and learned this very useful top-tip – use Word as little as possible!

I love Scrivener. For those who’ve not heard of it, its an excellent tool for long-form writing. Designed to be useful and flexible enough for anybody writing novels, scripts, theses, dissertations – it has a bit of learning curve in setting it up to be most useful for your workflow, but all sorts of functionality. So you can bung all sorts of stuff into your “research” folder – pdfs, webpages, pictures etc., write passages as and when the whim takes you, then organise (or re-organise) those passages without having to cut and paste chunks of text. It works well with EndNote, so when you want to make a citation to just flip over to EndNote, select and copy the reference you want, then, back in Scivener, paste a simple, editable tag into the text.

What Scrivener isn’t designed to do is final layout, so when you have all your passages in the right order, to can “compile” them into a single text file for your layout engine of choice. The University have a Word template they like us to use, so the first time round on Sunday, I compiled it into a Word file. I thought it would be best to let Word turn all those EndNote tags into a bibliography. Boy was I wrong. Long story short, Word did put all the references at the bottom of the document, dreadfully formatted – centered, and not in any academic style I’ve ever encountered. But worse than that, it deleted all the citation tags! And it wasn’t an undoable action.

Luckily of course, the original was still safe in Scrivener, so I recompiled, this time into RTF, then used EndNote itself to turn the tags into nicely Harvard formated citations and add the the bibliography.  And very nice it looks too. Then of course I could save the RTF as a Word file.

So, that’s my top-tip: Format your text styles in Scrivener, compile into RTF, use EndNote to format the references, and then (and only then) save as a Word file.


@HeritageJam – the other live projects

I promised to write about the other projects that were created in the twenty eight hours (including sleeping) that we created Happy Gods. Of course we weren’t working solidly on Happy Gods for all that time. Though the Heritage Jam team kept us supplied with water, sugary snacks, and lunch, we all had to take a break or two to eat some proper food and to sleep, and I even took time out to contribute a little to one of the other projects.

That was  Jo Pugh‘s coded bookshelf. We had our briefing from Natalie in the Yorkshire Museum’s reading room (it features in the short film of her above), surrounded by old books caged in secure bookshelves. More than one person initially thought that doing something with those would be but, but it was Jo who did something. We weren’t allowed at the books themselves, so he took a number of photos of ranges of books on the shelves, and then sourced their contents from the museum’s own limited digitization project and other sources. (He wasn’t very complimentary about Google’s own efforts in this regard, but did even find some workable versions of the contents there.) He then set about presenting some of those contents on visitor’s phones, through QR codes that pointed to a choice of text or recorded excepts, and for those who hate the faff of QR (like me), short web addresses to type in. I helped by reading a couple of those excepts for him.

Jo was the only in-person Jammer not to work in a team, which is fine of course, but I really enjoyed being thrown in with a bunch of talented people and having to get creative with them. And next year, I told Jo (somewhat arrogantly on reflection), he should do the same. It was fun working with him for the short time I did, and I’d definitely be in a team with him.

Luke Botham and Mathew Fisher used a technology I’d seen before – manipulating virtual 3D objects by pointing a web-cam at a black and white icon. But they drew their 3D objects from the ADS Armana Archive, and they also had an idea I hadn’t seen before – to make the icons wearble, so that visitors might virtually wear some of the finds!

And so to Stephen Elliot, Laura Valeria, and others used a piece of software that Stephen’s company is developing. This is essentially a content management system that creates mobile applications using GPS outdoors and BLE beacons indoors to provide location-based interpretation. The team wove what looked to be a set of intriguing stories connecting the museum collection with outdoors locations.

All were excellent projects, and the teams (and Jo) had worked really hard to pull it them all together in the limited time. Everyone deserved to win, and in fact the competition was so close that the judges couldn’t choose between the three other projects, and they ended up sharing the Highly Commended spot.

So how come we won? Well, I think it was a close run thing, and I’ve been waiting to see if the judges comments explain more on the Heritage Jam website. None of the in-person entries have been put up on the site at the time of writing, but a blog post does explain a little of the judge’s thinking:

The judges were blown away by the scope and quality of the work and commended the team for the innovative way they had blended game mechanics across a stunning art-style to create a new and exciting way to engage with the collections.