A communication revolution is taking place. You could argue it started in the 1970’s when affordable photocopying gave rise to fanzines infused with a punk aesthetic and for the first time the man in the street could publish their opinions without the need for a wealthy backer to pay for the printing presses. You might say it went digital in the 1990’s when the bulletin boards and usenet groups of the early internet allowed people to share their interests without even the cost of photocopying – as long as they had a bit of time at the university library’s computers. You’d possibly be more convincing if you suggested it really started with the creation of the world wide web, and the rise of cheap dial-up data connections. Or maybe it came with “Web 2.0”, and user generated content. But whenever it launched, it reached escape velocity around 2007, when mobile devices that could access and publish everything that had come before, and affordable mobile data and home broadband all converged.

Cultural heritage however has been slow to join the revolution. For the most part, heritage sites have continued to conform to the pre-punk communication paradigm – transmitting their messages with carefully curated information panels, or commissioning  guidebooks, introductory videos, and audioguides with diligently edited and approved scripts, and (if they can afford it) a respected celebratory academic author or recognisable presenter. Cultural heritage’s professionals and volunteers only dabble in the social network with the security of their institution’s risk management procedures and internet policies to keep them in check. I intend to undertake research to find tools and ways of working that will allow cultural heritage institutions to more confidently participate in the digital communities around them.

Tilden’s (1977, 8) definition of interpretation is still cited by cultural heritage professionals, despite being written in 1957. Was it ahead of its time? Despite being written when behaviorist education theories and the transmission communication model were dominant (Hooper-Greenhill 1997, 67-72), it took a more constructivist approach to learning. Hooper-Greenhill (1999b, 17) asserts that “reality has no finite identity, but is brought into existence, is produced, through communication.” However this conclusion abrogates responsibility for interpretation to the communities (Kotler and Andreasen 1995) around a cultural heritage site, and (as she admits) takes no account of the power imbalances within and between those communities. For these reasons, I prefer a newer communication theory. Memes were first proposed by Dawkins (1976, 142-3) and expanded upon by Blackmore (1999). Inherent in cultural heritage’s mission are the memes that drive it. Conservative in nature, they are not unwilling to adapt to the cultural environment by forming new memeplexes with the memes that are brought onto the sites by visitors.

One of the most successful modes of memetic replication is the story. Vogler (2007) is just one of the professional storytellers who writes about the art of “breaking” a story into a movie script, and I find his ideas are useful tools because visits to many heritage sites don’t last much longer than visits to the cinema. The challenge though is that while motion pictures are linear, places aren’t. So its difficult to present story elements in the order that the author intended. Hillier’s (1996) work on the social use of space can help but doesn’t provide a solution. Live interpretation is a flexible and mobile medium that can use cultural heritage spaces effectively, and also provides the theatre demanded by The Experience Economy (Pine and Gilmore, 2011). But as Malcolm-Davies (2002) concludes, live interpretation that meets the expectations of visitors is expensive to provide. The digital economy may provide solutions: Pine and Korn (2011) explore beyond the simple dichotomy of real and virtual to identify a number of “realms” including, but not limited to Augmented Reality, that could be used to create new interpretation possibilities between places and their communities.

Recently computer based adventures games like Red Dead Redemption (Stuart, 2010) have achieved emotionally engaging stories in an “open world” virtual environment. What can real-world cultural heritage sites learn from the video games industry about presenting a coherent story while giving visitors freedom to explore and allowing them to become participants in the story making?

How can digital technologies (augmented reality, virtual worlds, video, touch screens, mobile apps, etc.) enable participative storytelling at cultural heritage sites at a cost that site managers can afford?

Research will be interdisciplinary, involving review and analysis of the literature around heritage interpretation, computer science, rhetoric, creative industries and business management. Predicting a gap in the literature specifically relating to storytelling in games, I expect there will also be some primary research involved, including interviews with creatives behind some of the games that demonstrate excellent storytelling in immersive environments.

However the main body of the research will be practical. Working in partnership with with small creative businesses with expertise in digital technology, I hope to pilot and evaluate a number of projects which interpret cultural heritage sites. The empirical fieldwork will involve front-end, formative and summative evaluation, collecting and analysing qualitative and quantitative data from the communities that use and surround the sites, as well and the creative and cultural professionals involved in the pilot projects.

The topic is one which has considerable public, industrial, academic and third sector impact potential. Lessons learned should give both small creative businesses and cultural institutions the confidence to work together in ways that are cost effective and fleet of foot, enabling sites to increase footfall, improve visitor experience and engage new demographics.

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