Professor Steve Poole wanted to redefine what it means to be a historian. Rather than only publish his work in print or make himself available for interviews from the press about his findings, the Director of UWE Bristol’s Regional History Centre felt a need to work with people from other disciplines to present history in a more interactive way. This desire led him to begin collaborating with experienced design specialists Splash and Ripple, who are residents at the Pervasive Media Studio, based in the Watershed (Bristol), a cross-artform venue and producer, sharing, developing and showcasing exemplary cultural ideas and talent..
Ghosts in the Garden
In 2012, together they created Ghosts in the Garden, a project for visitors to the Sydney Gardens in Bath to bring part of its history alive. The site, which makes up the grounds of the Holburne Museum, used to be a pleasure garden 200 years ago and, although few of the original features are still standing, the site once bustled with stall owners, entertainers, musicians – even pickpockets.
“We wanted give the public a flavour of what it must have felt like to wander around the garden,” says Poole. After he explored the archives to identify some of the more ordinary people who took part in the gala events, the team worked with storytellers and scriptwriters to develop characters and scenarios and design an interactive visit set in the early 1820s. “We didn’t want it to be a one-way authoritative guide book for audiences in heritage sites,” says Poole. “We wanted people to make discoveries by following clues and be part of a dialogue.”
Splash and Ripple therefore created a GPS-driven hardware prop called the Time Radio, a ‘listening device’ that enables visitors to tune in to the conversations of people from the past, triggered in certain areas of the ground. These sound bytes provide clues to follow, allowing audiences to piece the story together and even change the ending.
Their experience working on the pleasure garden led the team to their next project: the visitor experience at a National Trust property: Bodiam Castle. The moated 14th century fort in East Sussex wanted to involve its visitors more in the castle’s history. Poole and his team, including UWE Bristol colleague Professor Peter Fleming, therefore built a visitor experience involving a device similar to the sound radio: a drinking horn that houses a speaker and electronics to enable visitors to hear stories of historical goings-on in the fortress.
Romancing the gibbet
Steve Poole’s next project took him in a different direction. With knowledge of incidents in the 18th century when people were hanged at the scene of their crimes, he wanted to create a situated visitor experience at these sites, creating a project called Romancing the Gibbet.
A gibbet is an iron cage, used occasionally in the 18th century to contain a body after hanging to prevent the corpse rotting and display it as a deterrent. “Gibbeting was about creating a lasting memory on a community that the authorities felt should be taught a lesson,” says Poole. “We were interested in the ways narratives may have been passed down through generations.”
This project involved collaborative live public performances at the crime scene locations in the South West, including Over Stowey in Somerset, beginning with a brief historical background presentation from Professor Poole, followed by a poem by Ralph Hoyte with an audio representation by sound artist Michael Fairfax. In July 2017, this team also launched a series of locative audio apps for use at the sites of four of the hangings.
Poole’s most recent project – still in development – is Heritage Empath, an immersive audio experience delivered via smartphone comparing the life of migrants living in Bristol with those that moved to the city in the 19th century. The 18-month project, which again sees the University working with Splash and Ripple, has been awarded £200,000 from the Arts & Humanities Research Council.
Heritage Empath looks at the challenges migrants have often faced when moving to a new city or country, such as a language barrier, or adapting to new surroundings. Poole and colleagues will conduct and record interviews with modern-day migrants and compare those with witness accounts from past migrants who arrived in Bristol in the 1800s. By using a digital technology – most probably an app – visitors will be able to walk in designated areas around the city, such as the harbourside, and put themselves in the shoes of migrants from two different ages. “The challenge is to move the locative heritage experience from one in which we feel sympathy for historical characters to one where we may feel empathy,” says Poole. “The extent to which this is either possible or desirable – and then scalable in terms of outputs – is what this research is really about.”