Theatre and technology combine to recreate a lost palace
A multi-award winning heritage tour is transforming how museums help audiences interpret and enjoy heritage sites, using the perfect marriage of theatre and technology to create an immersive experience of history where it happened, without visitors once looking at a screen.
The Lost Palace, commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces, was an innovative R&D project, made in collaboration with a researcher from the School of Arts, and design and digital industry partners. It brought alive the tumultuous history behind London’s once magnificent Whitehall Palace, 300 years after it burnt down. Jim Richardson, Founder of MuseumNext, which champions future thinking in museums, described it as ‘pioneering’, and offering ‘a ton of lessons for those trying to make magic happen with digital in a heritage or cultural setting’.
Winner of two European Heritage in Motion awards, a Museums and Heritage Innovation Award and a University of Bristol Vice-chancellor’s Impact Award, it involved the public in its development, and was rated highly by visitors, with 90% agreeing it was unique, and 92% that it brought history to life and deepened their connection to the past.
A video about the project is available here.
Collaborating to deliver a experience
Theatre-maker and lecturer from the School of Art, Dr Paul Clarke, wrote, directed and co-designed the project, after a competition by Historic Royal Palaces led to a winning collaboration between the two teams with the best prototypes. Dr Clarke’s theatre company, Uninvited Guests, sound designer and composer, Lewis Gibson, app designers, Calvium, and theatre producers Fuel, joined forces with interaction designers, Chomko and Rosier, with additional input from Limbic Cinema.
The project involved mapping the 16th–17th century Lost Palace over modern day Whitehall, using performance, locative devices and digital technology to lead audiences on an augmented adventure into history, with compelling historical narrative provided by Dr Clarke’s archival research.
‘The challenge was in using people’s senses to connect them with the past and explore the space without a traditional screen. We wanted the content to respond to the way visitors moved, the way they interacted and the choices they made,’ said Tim Powell, Historic Royal Palaces’ Digital Producer.
"Gateways to the past"
The team used 3D binaural sound, recorded on location and triggered in situ by a wooden handset, acting as a ‘historical surveillance device’. The tour started at Banqueting House, which is the last remaining building of the palace.
Burnt architectural installations or ‘relics’ of the palace act as ‘gateways to the past’, said Matthew Rosier, Co-founder of Chomko and Rosier. ‘Visitors touch the device to them to conjure up stories that happened on that spot, or point it at modern windows to eavesdrop into conversations from hundreds of years ago. The technology also conveys the physiological element – so at the execution of Charles I, the device beats haptically giving the feeling of the heartbeat of the doomed king.’
Meeting the challenges
There were many challenges, not least the screenless technology. ‘The system had to pre-emptively understand whether parts of the story had been missed, or something had gone wrong, largely without user interaction - and serve an appropriate fall back without the user knowing, to maintain the magic,’ said Calvium’s Managing Director, Jo Reid.
This involved more than 15 rounds of testing, as Tim Powell explained: ‘We looked at how the story would work in real life, then analysed each interaction, building it first as a prototype, then testing it with the public on location to see what worked. It was a very responsive process. And, with a route covering around a mile, the whole experience had to gel’.
An acclaimed success
The final tour ran over two summers, to widespread media and critical acclaim. ‘The real joy was watching people,’ said Tim Powell. ‘It was quite rich and strange - the reactions of passers-by were a thrill to watch. It’s been a really special project - fantastic.’
Dr Clarke said, ‘Through the use of technology, engaging content and the wonderfully creative minds of our partners, we have built an experience of a lost heritage site. The impact has been significant, not just for Royal Historic Palaces, which is using it to inform its curatorial approach, but in debates about digital interpretation across the heritage sector. It has also involved considerable tech development and innovation, transferrable to other heritage buildings and contexts’.
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