I’m speaking at the upcoming Academy of Marketing E-Marketing SIG Symposium: ‘Exploring the digital customer experience: Smart devices, automation and augmentation’ on May 23 2017. This is what I wrote for my abstract:
Relevance to Call: Provocation, Smart Devices. Augmentation of the Customer Experience
Objective: A work-in-progress research development project at Chawton House explores narrative structure, extending the concept of story Kernels and Satellites to imagine the cultural heritage site as a collection of narrative atoms, or Natoms, both physical (spaces, collection) and ephemeral (text, video, music etc.). Can we use story-gaming techniques and digital mobile technology to help physical and ephemeral natoms interact in a way that escapes the confines of the device’s screen?
Overview: This provocation reviews the place of mobile and location technologies in the heritage market. Digital technology and social media are in the process of transforming the way that the days out market is attracted to cultural heritage places. But on site, the transformation is yet to start. New digital interventions in the heritage product have not caught on with the majority of heritage consumers. The presentation will survey the current state of digital heritage interpretation and especially the use location-aware technologies such as Bluetooth LE, NFC, or GPS. Most such systems deliver interpretation media to the device itself, over the air or via a prior app download. We explore some of the barriers to the use of mobile devices in the heritage visit – the reluctance to download proprietary apps, mobile signal and wifi complexities and most importantly, the “presence antithesis” the danger that the screen of the device becomes a window that confines and limits the user’s sensation of being in the place and among the objects that they have come to see. Also, while attempts to harness mobile technology in the heritage visit display interpretation that is both more relevant, and in some cases more personalised to the needs of the user, they also tend towards a “narrative paradox” – the more the media is tailored to the movements of the user around the site, the less coherent and engaging the narrative becomes.
Method: Story-games can show us how to create an experience that balances interactivity and engaging story, giving the user complete freedom of movement around the site while delivering the kernels of the narrative in an emotionally engaging order. At Chawton we plan to “wizard of oz” an adaptive narrative narrative for that place’s visitors.
Findings: Work so far demonstrates that a primary challenge for an automated system will be negotiating the contended needs of different groups and individuals within the same space. The work at Chawton looks to address this.
This is the first time I’ve written an abstract in this format, and I found it quite a challenge. What you add in and leave out is always a difficult decision, and this format, which was limited to one side, had me opting to leave out the references which I might have made room for if I had not had to write something under each of the prescribed headings. It’s also the first time I have had formal feedback on an abstract, which I share below:
Relevance to call: Good fit Smart devices, user experience,
augmentation, culture (5)
Objective: A practical case example of augmentation in a
heritage setting (5)
Lit rev: No indication of theory used, as this is a practical
case study (n/a)
Method: A specific case of Chawton House presented. (5)
Results: Interesting findings re barriers to use of mobile
devices in heritage, and the experience evaluation (4)
Generalisations: Interesting and original context of heritage
institution using augmentation, can extend to
other heritage sector applications. (4)
So, not a bad score, but I wonder what I would have got (out of 30?) if I had included the references. Does the bibliography count within the one page limit? Or, could I have included it on a second side?
Still, not time for those questions. I have the write the actual presentation now. 🙂
Just a quick post today. Last week some colleagues and I visited Kensington Palace, to see the latest Princess Diana exhibition. We were on the look out for new display and interpretation techniques, and one of my colleagues proved an excellent guide because she had prepared the mounts for many of the dresses, when she had worked at Historic Royal Palaces (HRP).
But the thing that grabbed my attention was this:
I’ve drawn on it so you can see the important bit. They were offering free wifi, but not to add an interpretive layer, or enable children’s trails. I guess the public might be thankful for an opportunity to use social media from the exhibition, and yes, the marketing department of HRP will enjoy creating a social buzz around the the exhibit. But there’s another reason behind make wifi pervasive throughout the palaces, and when you log on, you can see what it is:
Each visitor who signs up for wifi gives their permission to be tracked around the site. And not just when they are using the wifi, but even when the phone is in their pocket. Every now and then the phone, even when not being used, scans for wifi networks, and when it does so, it shares its MAC address. So, during the visitor’s stay, their progress round the palace can be tracked, wherever wifi reaches. Which exhibits did they visit? Where did they linger? How long did it take them to get served in the restaurant?
In the last couple of weeks I’ve received a couple of books. I’ve not read much of them as my PhD reading has been disappearing down Chawton story rabbit holes. But I thought I might share them here, while they are still fresh.
The first especially, because if you buy The Museum Blog Book, you’ll be buying my words! (I won’t get any money, the sum total of my payment is the book itself, the delivery of that was a pleasant enough surprise though.) Its a chunky book, almost 700 pages of bloggy goodness. As I mentioned, I haven’t had time to read much. Given the relative shortness of each piece it feels like a bedside book that I should dip into of an evening. Some of the title intrigue me though, so I thought I’d post a few links here. If you follow them you’ll read them before I do:
The second book was handed to me the day before yesterday. I’d met its author, Clare Hughes of Feilden Clegg Bradly Studios through work a couple of years ago and was very impressed. Since then, she has been around the world with Winston Churchill Memorial Trust bursary, examining the museum experiences and postulating upon its future. She spoke at an internal National Trust conference last month, and copies of her book, Made You Look, Made You Stare, were prizes for our Move Teach and Inspire awards. Its a really accessible and insightful illustrated record of her museological travels.
I want to start with a clip of the Thamesmen’s 1965 classic “Gimme Some Money”*, because that’s the point of this short post. You may be aware that I need some versatile wifi (not Bluetooth) speakers for my experiment at Chawton. I spent considerably longer that I expected looking for some that did what I need, and also were affordable within my budget. I did eventually find some that were a few pennies less than £150 which was, to be honest, a good deal more than I wanted to pay but considerably cheaper than the alternatives.
I bought a couple to test. Not only do they do what I need, they do more. I needed them to work with all the wifi standards including Apple Airplay and Android, but they also have very good Bluetooth connectivity. They are very easy to operate internet radios, and two or more can be linked for a Sonos-like multi-room experience. They’ve got a great battery life. I think they are also very beautiful, designed with real Scandinavian flair. They are very well set up for a life beyond my experiment. Which brings me to my point.
Would you like one?
Having tested these two out both at home and on Chawton’s wifi network, I was prepared to buy the other three I need. Only to discover the price had gone up! Now, I’ve been in touch with Libratone, and they have kindly given me a discount that brings them close to the price I bought them first two at, just a few quid more than £150. So, I was wondering if anyone out there was thinking about buying a speaker like this for your house, or for a present, who might be prepared to let me use it for a week in June first.
If you want to help me buy one, I’ll keep all the packaging etc. and look after the actual speaker very carefully of course. Then after the Chawton experiment, I’ll reset it to factory settings, pack it all back up in its original packaging and mailing box, and send it you, paying for tracked delivery. (Given that the price rise is probably due to currency fluctuations, I think this is only likely to be an attractive offer to UK based helpers.) In return for helping me out, you’ll be able to take advantage of the discount Libratone have offered me, and of course you’ll have earned my eternal gratitude.
If you are interested you’ll probably know me well enough to have private contact details for me. If you don’t and are still interested, then I thank you for your trust. I won’t let you down, comment here, and I get in touch with you. I only need three more speakers, so it will be first come, first served. If you are quick you can also choose what colour you want.
*Fans of Spinal Tap will be aware that there wasn’t really a 1965 hit from the Thamesmen.
I had a great meeting with Gillian Dow at Chawton today. To be honest, I’d been worrying about it for weeks, knowing that the story development was in no state to be complete in time to run the even in March as we had agreed. I’d even been nervous about contacting Gillian, knowing I was letting the Library down on a promise I’d made last year. But worrying was not going to solve anything, so I bit the bullet last week, and wrote a short email explaining my problem, and fixing today’s meeting.
Gillian was very understanding, and we’ve fixed a new date for the experiment – the week between the 4th June and the 11th. But not only that, I think we cracked one of the main story problems I’d been having. Gillian went straight to the crux of my problem: that Montague Knight seems the obvious character to hang the story of the house upon, and yet his own biography doesn’t quite offer the emotional arc that I was looking for. Though he wrote (with his cousin, William Austen Leigh) the history of Chawton and its owners, its stops short of his own time there, and the emotion beat of loss happens after he dies, childless.
But it doesn’t, Gillian pointed out. Yes, Montague’s home improvement efforts at Chawton all seem positive and upbeat, but they are counterweighted by the loss of the home he grew up in family seat. When he was 30 his father, Edward, sold the family’s Kent home, Godmersham Park. Suddenly, all the work Montague put in at Chawton gets an extra significance. And there’s an emotional beat, loss, which can resonate in the story of the dismemberment of Godmersham and Chawton’s libraries. It could also celebrate the news of some of that collection, a 1833 “Bently” set of Austen’s work with Montague’s bookplates in, being donated back to Chawton.
In other news I also tested the out the wifi plug controller and speaker with Chawton’s network, and they both worked. So all in all, it was a VERY good morning.
*Edited to reflect my realization that Montagu didn’t grow up in Godmersham – his father lived with this family in Chawton from 1826.
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 Kübler-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.
Today I’ve been juggling two tasks. In the morning to went to the university library to look for anything useful in their copy of Montague Knight’s (and William Austen-Leigh’s) Chawton Manor and its owners; a family history. Its text is available on Archive.com of course, but I wanted to see if there was any interesting marginalia in Southampton’s copy. Sadly, the only addition was cutting from a relatively magazine, slipped between the pages to provide a colour reproduction of the naive but informative painting of the house that hangs in the Tapestry gallery, and which is also in the printed book as a line drawing.
But I did make some notes from the text. I got caught up in the story of Adam Gurdon: “who was disinherited and outlawed with other adherents of Simon, Earl of Leicester, has been described as a ‘ woody height in a valley near the road between the town of Alton and the Castle of Farnham.’ This region was not disafforested until the end of Henry Ill’s reign, and was a favourite ambush for outlaws, who there awaited the merchants and their train of sumpter horses travelling to or from Winchester. Even in the fourteenth century the warders of the great fair of St. Giles, held in that city, paid five mounted sergeants-at-arms to keep the Pass of Alton during the continuance of the fair, according to custom. […] There is a picturesque story of a personal encounter between Adam Gurdon and Prince Edward. The prince, we are told, ‘ desirous of putting an end to the troubles which had so long harassed the Kingdom, pursued the arch-rebel into his fast- nesses ; attacked his camp ; leaped over the entrenchments, and singling out Gurdon, ran him down, wounded him, and took him prisoner. He raised the fallen veteran from the ground, he pardoned him, he admitted him into his confidence, and introduced him to the Queen, then lying at Guildford, that very evening. This unmerited and unexpected lenity melted the heart of the rugged Gurdon at once; he became in an instant a loyal and useful subject, trusted and employed in matters of moment by Edward when King, and confided in till the day of his death.”
I was also researching speakers. I met with Ed last week, and between us, we decided there were five spaces that we need a speaker in. Meanwhile I’ve been ruling out Bluetooth speakers, which can’t deal well with swapping between streaming from different devices, and decided that we need wi-fi speakers. Which is a curse, because I had hoped to spend a few tens of pounds on each speaker. Active wi-fi speakers cost hundreds. But today I think I identified one which meets my needs – less than £150 each, doesn’t require a proprietary app and works with AirPlay for iOS and DLNA for Android and Windows. They are even rechargeable with a 10-12 hour battery life (though I’ll believe that when I test it with the regular switching between devices these will have to cope with), so I won’t be tied to power outlets when choosing where to place them. I’ve ordered two to test them, both on their own and in different rooms. If they work as I hope, I’ll get another three. If they don’t do what I expected, well at least I’ll have done soem early Christmas shopping. 🙂
I feel I need to record this here, but I fear it will be nonsense to most of my readers. Looking back at it it feels like the first step into incoherent PhD madness. So skip this one if you are looking for sense and inspiration.
I’m struggling with the Chawton project, tying myself up into narrative knots. Meanwhile my collaborator Ed is powering on with his part. Today I’ve been listen to his first pass at a number of audio mixes. Which sound great by the way, and make me a bit depressed at the lack of progress my part has been making.
The problem is all to do with the paradox of scripting an emergent story. When I brief Ed part of wants to say, “we’ll tell this bit of the story in this room, and so you need to use this sound,” but that defeats my object of trying to create stories with some sense of order whatever route visitors take through a place. So I wrote Ed a short but still rambling email, that I think captures what I’m getting at. Though it might be bollocks.
Anyhow I don’t want to lose it. And so since I started this blog as a notebook, rather than a finished demonstration of my finely honed wisdom, you are about to get an actual note to self, the slightly edited text of that email. We can all work out what it means, if anything at all, later:
I’ve had a little epiphany thinking about your question. But I’m finding it difficult to put into words. You asked whether the six beats are connected to the recorded quotes. I said no, and I still think that but I also said that a couple might be relevant, and so they might, BUT (I think) not so relevant that you should mix them into the finished work. The ones I was thinking of were: Fanny Knight, Mr Knightly and Jane Austen. But none of those enhance any one particular beat, do you get me? So don’t need to be missed in so they are heard every time. The beats set the mood, or rather, illustrate a particular mood. So… I think we’ve looking for sound mixes that accompany the beats, eg Loneliness. In the fancy system that doesn’t exist yet, the system might choose to interweave the “lonely” track with the Fanny Knight quote. But we don’t need to do that, or rather to fix it as that, in our rough and ready version.
But that lead me to another thought. (The Epiphany.) Which is that we (I) can’t afford to put speakers everywhere. So we need to select rooms that we are putting speakers in, and for each room WITH A SPEAKER, create a choice of soundmixes, that match the whatever beat the operator (the Unguide in our case, a fancy system in the future) chooses in that Room.
So, day we have a ball in the Great Hall – at the very basic level we might have a choice of a Jolly mix (for Up beats), or a sad mix (for setbacks), do you get me? We could have six different mixes for the six beats I’ve identified ALL for the Great Hall, so that whichever beat is selected has its own music appropriate for the great hall, and ANOTHER six choices for, say, The Oak Room. Am I making sense? But of course we’ve actually got three stories, and even if they all share the first beat, that would mean a possible five mixes for the Library story, and ANOTHER five for the Montague story, for EACH room? Crazy huh?
But all of that could be a LOT of work for you, so we need to keep our ambitions in check.
Tell me how many mixes you want to create, and together we can decide on a limited number of rooms where we’ll put speakers (we did day nine, but I can live with just one), and a limited number of mixes for each speaker (I think we want at least two for this experiment). How does that sound?
In the evening after I visited the V&A, I’d managed to bag the last ticket for the last entry slot that day of the exhibition at the South Bank Centre. I’m a Moomin fan, having read all the books when I was a child. I’d already seen much of what was on show at the public Library in Tampere, Finland, which is the guardian of most of the Tove (best pronounced something like “Toover”) Jansson archive. The South Bank exhibition, Adventures in Moominland, takes advantage of the Tampare collection moving to a new home there in May to borrow part of the collection for a similar presenation to last year’s very successful Wondercrump World of Roald Dahl. Just like that successful family exhibition, this one also uses the author’s work to explore the life of the author.
Tove Jansson’s life was not entirely happy, she grew up during civil war in Finland, with loving parents whom she loved and respected in return. But while she was a progressive left winger, her father sided with the Fascists. Not only that, she had a hard time coming to terms with her lesbian sexuality. These are some quite challenging concepts to share with an audience as young as might visit this show, but the curators and interpreters did a very good job of it.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this exhibition sees less actual children than last year’s. While Dahl’s popularity has endured with every generation, in the UK Moomins grabbed the imagination of a good part of my generation in the seventies, and had brief surges of popularity with a couple of later children’s television series, but it seems to me that they are best known by people of my age, and not so quickly recognised by younger generations (except, I’m willing to bet, by the children of older fans – I know I read all the books to my own children).
The group assembled for my tour were, apart from one young fan, all adult. It’s harsh of me to say its what I expected – it was after all the last tour of a workday in term-time, so even the home-schoolers will have likely gone home. (And I bet, given the lack of school in the novels, that there is a correlation between homeschooling parents and Moomin fans, but I digress.) The format followed Wondercrump’s successful formula. An introductory talk from a host who warned of scary dark experiences ahead, but reassured us that though the Moomins often had scary adventures, they always ended happily. “Apart from Moominvalley in November” I said. Then she handed over to a guide, a young woman dressed in such a style as to resonate with Jansson’s illustrations of the Mymble, Fillyjonk and Toft, etc., without actually trying to be one.
The guide led us in and as with Wondercrump, we discovered she was playing a two-hander with a disembodied voice. This time, it was Sandi Toksvig – guess Danish is a bit like Finnish. So so we progressed with these two guides, recorded and live, through spaces that evoked Sniff’s cave, Snufkin‘s tent, the woods of Moominvalley, a raft like that in Comet in Moominland, Moominpapas lighthouse island, and the Moominhouse itself. In each space the guide and exhibits focussed (mostly) on one of the books, and explained what each book had to reveal about Tove’s life. Even the youngest reader will recognise (even if they might struggle to put it into words, as I did when I was seven or nine or whatever) that the novel series (there were a couple of picture books too, but I only found those as an adult) start out as outward facing proceedural adventures but become more inward looking, dramatic, and psychological with each publication. It can put some young readers off the later books, but those who persevere have their first introduction to existentialism.
The South Bank adventure doesn’t follow the books in order, but structures the story about Jansson coming to terms with her sexuality and acknowledging her love for her life-long partner Tuulikki. Moominland Midwinter thus becomes the climax of the exhibition’s story. In the novel young Moomintroll wakes up early from hibernation, in strange new snow-covered world, which he doesn’t like at all, until he meets Too-ticky, the girl who shows him its wonders. I admire the curators’ resistance to chronology in favour of a more satisfying emotional journey, preceding Midwinter with the loneliness of Moominpappa at Sea, which actually came eight years later.
Maybe wisely, they avoid the last novel Moominvalley in November, altogether. As a young reader, this was the most important work for me. Taking place after the Moomins have left for the lighthouse island in Moominpappa at Sea, the other inhabitants of the valley move into their house and try to recreate their life, waiting for them to return. But they never come back. Jansson’s mother had died while she was writing this final novel, and she is said to have said she “couldn’t go back and find that happy Moominvalley again.” I can’t quite explain the emptiness that fills my chest, even as as an adult, as I remember finishing the novel as a child. I am convinced it was a vital moment, maybe the very first step in my journey to being a grown-up.
So, I wrestle with some dissatisfaction that the experience didn’t feature my favourite work, while at the same time being impressed with the effectiveness of their story construction. I was also even more impressed with the “mixed media” approach of exhibit, lighting effects, audio commentary and sound and live guide. In a way its a more scripted version of what I’m trying (and currently failing, it feels) to do at Chawton.
I feel it might be a technique that other places (and yes I’m thinking of the National Trust places I work with) should experiment with.
I finally got to the V&A today, for their exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution. I got turned away at the end of Cromwell Road last time, as the museum was being evacuated after a bomb-scare.
I’m writing this review on my way home, using my phone (so please forgive my typos) partly because I want to recommend you go, and there is not long left to see it.
The exhibition charts the western cultural revolution of 1966-1970, though John Peel’s record collection, plysbof course fashion and design from the V&As own collection and other items, such as an Apollo mission space suit borrowed from other institutions.
One of the gimmicks of the show is the audio, an iteration of the same technology used at the Bowie exhibition a couple of years ago. I didn’t get to go to that one, but I had a demonstration of that tech from the makers Sennheisser, at a Museums and Heritage show.
I wasn’t very impressed. Though these headphones, which play music or soundtrack to match whatever object or video you are looking at, were well received by the media back then, in my experience the technology was clunky. Other friends who’d been confirmed that they changes between sound “zones” could be jarring, and that it was possible to stand in some places where music from two zones would alternate, vying for your attention.
The experience this time was an improvement. It was by no means perfect: I found the music would stutter and pause annoyingly, especially if I enjoyed the track enough to find myself gently nodding my head. Occasionally the broadcast to everyone’s headphones would pause so everyone in a room could share a multimedia experience (of the Vietnam war for example) across all the gallery’s speakers, screens and projectors. These immersive over-rides were effective, in much the same way as those at IWM North, but when a track you were enjoying or a video that you found interesting was rudely interrupted, one couldn’t help but feel annoyed. I found myself forgiving the designers however, for this and even the stuttering sound of the headphones, because it all felt resonant with that late sixties “cut-up” technique.
Where the technology really worked however was on two videos that topped and tailed the exhibition. In the first various icons and movers of the period were filmed in silent moving portraits of their current wrinkled and grey selves. Their reminiscences of the time appeared as typography overlaying their silent closed-mouth gaze, a little like Barbera Kruger’s work, while over the headphones you heard their voice. The same characters appeared at the end, that s time as a mosaic of more conventional talking heads. And for the first time, the interpretation was didactic as each in turned challenged the current generation to build on their legacy.
For me, one of the highlights was the section on festivals, which invited visitors to take off their headphones, lie back in the (astro)turf and let (another cut-up of) the famous Woodstock documentary wash over them on five giant screens.
The other things I loved were, dotted around among the exhibits, tarot cards that, at first glance, looked like they might have been designed in the sixties. But then you notice references to things like Tim Berners Lee and the World Wide Web. You realise these are a subtle form of interpretation, telling a future of the sixties that apparently came true and for those of us from that future, creating correspondences and taxonomies that connect the events of 1966-70 with today. The V&A commissioned British artist Suzanne Treister to create the cards, based on her 2013 work, Hexen 2.0. And the very best thing about them is you can buy them (pictured above) in the shop which must be the first time copies of museum interpretation panels have been made available for purchase.
Of course, the aren’t the only form of interpretation. About from the soundtrack, there are more traditional text panels, labels and booklets around the exhibition. But the cards show how cleverly the layering of meaning and interpretation has been created. Many visitors will have passed them by unnoticed, given them a cursory glance or chosen to ignore them, and will have had an entirely satisfactory experience. But for those that paused to study them in more detail a whole new layer of meaning opened up.
I visited with a sense of duty, to try out a responsive digital technology. But I found so much more to enjoy. This is a brilliantly curatored exhibition. So much better than the didactic, even dumbed down permanent gallery of the new Design Museum which I visited before Christmas. I urge you to go, if you haven’t seen it yet. It’s only on for another month.
A colleague who had visited the exhibition before told me how depressed it had made him: the optimism of that period seems to have been dashed upon the reactionary rocks of 2016, Brexit and Trump. But I came out with a very different mood.
One of the early messages of the exhibition is the period as a search for utopia. The final tracks you hear as you walk out (after the video challenge issued by the old heads of the sixties) are Lennon’s 1971 single Imagine and then, brilliantly, Jerusalem.
No, of course they didn’t find the Utopia they were looking for in the sixties, but we could build it…