Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Thoughts on producing a museum multimedia guide

The life of a modern museum curator is anything but dull, and new projects have a tendency to spring up at short notice (usually when funding becomes available) and take over your life.  One such project for me has been the development of new handheld multimedia guides for my museum.  I say 'for me' in a rather egotistical way, but of course the whole process has involved numerous colleagues and the company we employed to actually produce them.  This post, however, is my personal take on the process and my role in proceedings.  Putting some of these thoughts into words has been inspired by the talk I was recently asked to give about the process to the Midlands Federation of Museums and Galleries.

Museums are funny places when it comes to technology, and I think its fair to say that on the whole they are not usually near the cutting edge, preferring instead to hang back and invest valuable resources on technology that is older and more proven.  Modern multimedia guides, though, move a little closer to that edge.  Although not utilising features such as augmented reality quite yet the smartphone interfaces, screen resolution and production values on offer certainly make the product feel on a par with more commercial entertainment products.  For a regional museum, I admit to being quite proud of the quality of product we have produced.

But its one thing to want to wow visitors with funky technology, interactive games and objects coming to life in your hand, its quite another to actually produce the content that will consistently, cogently and comprehensively deliver that experience.  And as a curator, that task lands squarely on your shoulders.  Fun...

Because when you start to think about it, every museum gallery is (or bloody well should be) a mine of information and inspiration, of stories begging to be told - and particularly of stories that are difficult to tell in a 30 word object label.  Many therefore inevitably remain untold.  But visitors' attention spans are only so long.  With the best will in the world, no-one is going to commit themselves to an 8 hour slog around your gallery listening intently to every word you have to say.  Our multimedia guides, on the advice of those who do this for a living, consist of an adult tour and a children's tour, each just over an hour long.

'Fair enough' I hear you say.  But the gallery I deal with covers the whole archaeology of the very large county of Lincolnshire.  Imagine being told that you've got an hour to stand up and talk to a random group of people off the street, most of whom have no prior knowledge of the subject.  Your job is to tell them, in an interesting and engaging way and with reference to a series of objects placed in front of them, the entire history of Lincolnshire.  You have to explain the Ice Ages and the scant evidence of the earliest human inhabitation.  You have to talk about the development of farming and explain what round barrows are; about Iron Age votive deposition and early coin production; about the Roman invasion and life in an important Roman city; about Anglo Saxon burial customs and placename evidence, about Viking political organisation and trade; about Medieval monastic life, the feudal system and the impact of the English Civil War.  All in one hour.  Suddenly the task doesn't sound quite so easy...

In essence, there is a matter of seconds to not only describe each object you've chosen to highlight, but place it within its local, national or international context, reference wider social themes, demonstrate how the object was made or used and show the small decorative details that people miss when it is sitting behind glass - all while not boring or confusing the audience, being consistent with other interpretation, and trying to reflect accurate modern scholarship.

Needless to say, a clear picture of the overarching story you want to tell is essential from the outset.  Colleagues will attest to the howls of frustration coming from my general direction as my initial long list of objects and themes was whittled down further and further to meet requirements, and I confess it is a hard process to go through as everything has a story that you want visitors to know.  However, having come through that process I know it was the right thing to do - that a careful selection of objects to allow enough time to tell the right stories is better than including masses of objects but having no time to provide anything but the briefest of descriptions of them, most of which is simply a repeat of the label text.

A multimedia guide cannot sit alone in the gallery.  It has to be part of the interpretation strategy.  For a historic house, such a guide might be the only form of interpretation a visitor gets aside from talking to room stewards, but in a museum we already have masses of interpretation.  Wall panels and object labels already give descriptions of objects and sites, and the multimedia guide shouldn't repeat what is already being said - to do that would be a complete waste of both resources and opportunity.  The multimedia guide, for me, was a chance to go beyond the printed interpretation - to give visitors a personal tour, as if being guided round by a human being, pointing out the quirky facts and opinions that make history enjoyable and memorable.  In short, I wanted it to have a personality and a sense of humour.  I find our history exciting, and I want our visitors to share in that feeling.

Also important is a sense of equity across the gallery.  Our archaeological tours cover a vast span of time (around 300,000 years), and it is important that there is a balance between the periods.  I'm a Romanist, but it would be unseemly to let that bias show and neglect other periods - I think in that aim we've succeeded rather well.  Of course we'll never win, and I fully expect that we'll be chastised from certain people for not covering their pet subject in enough detail or, God forbid, at all.  Sadly, some never realise that such work has to be done for the benefit of tens of thousands of people, not to meet the personal interests of a single person.

It was important for the tours to be flexible, so that visitors who decided to abandon the chronological route (or simply got lost or confused and missed bits) could always know what was going on.  This meant ensuring that each piece flowed neatly when viewed 'in order', but didn't jar when seen individually or randomly.  Just another thing to bear in mind during the development and scriptwriting...

One important early decision was who should guide the visitor around.  A personality?  Museum curators and other staff members? A professional actor or narrator?  We quickly decided against a personality as a gimmick we'd regret in a few years, and settled on a professional actor and cameo interviews with staff and relevant external specialists.  Although I wouldn't normally give a plug at a time like this, I will do in the case of the actor we chose - Ian Houghton.  Apart from being an excellent actor, a lovely bloke and a pleasure to work with, the main thing for me is that he understood what this meant for us and cared about our product, our museum and our visitors.  I think that comes through on the finished product, and I'm absolutely certain that not every actor would have given us that.

The adult tours are therefore presented by a combination of characters from each period, acted in the 1st person, and a female narrator's voice over.  The children's tours are presented entirely by a modern-day character called Archie who starts each period in the modern day and travels back in time to appear in costume as an historical character, but always retaining his modern knowledge.  Both tours feature the staff and expert cameos and a selection of games and interactive pieces.

One of the most difficult things during the development process is simply to keep on top of it all - to meet all the deadlines but make sure that everything is accurate and keeping the balance you wanted.  Its so easy when checking through 100 pages of script to miss the odd word, but when you later hear it spoken by the actor you cringe and wonder how you let a minor inaccuracy or awkward phrase slip through.  Hopefully there aren't many of those in the finished product, but they are a constant worry as once the product is released on the public they tend to get noticed and, unlike an object label, cannot be corrected easily or cheaply.

So will all this hard work and multimedia sexiness lead to a whole new era in the experience of museum visitors?  Hopefully so, but only time will tell...

Monday, 4 February 2013

The King in the car park

So, after much hype and media coverage the announcement has finally been made that the team at one of my former institutions, the University of Leicester, believe that the body found in a Leicester car park is indeed that of controversial monarch Richard III.

Image copyright University of Leicester
The circumstantial evidence coming out over the past few months makes it little surprise that this is the conclusion, though I confess I expected a few more caveats thrown in with the announcement.  There has been a small amount of academic sniping at the announcement, particularly about how public it is, though I struggle to understand the viewpoint.  Yes, things have been hyped up to high levels and the University of Leicester is milking the moment, but why not?  The study of history is supposed to be exciting, and the rediscovery of a king is certainly that.  OK, most archaeological research takes place in far less dramatic circumstances and with fewer TV cameras there to record the process, and this research should of course be valued.  But that doesn't mean that we should shy away from creating wider public interest when a truly remarkable discovery occurs.  At least the discovery was made as part of a structured, multidisciplinary archaeological project and the announcement made on the basis of evidence that can, and I am certain will, be verified and debated in the future.

I'm afraid that if all such discoveries are to be first announced in the pages of a peer-reviewed journal rather than to the general public through the media, then academia can truly be said to have disappeared up itself and forgotten whom it is supposed to be working on behalf of.  Public excitement about historical discoveries is a good thing and doesn't have to mean that appropriate academic rigour has been ignored.

To return to the discovery itself, the evidence for the conclusion does seem convincing:
  • The body was discovered within the confines of the Greyfriary which chroniclers state was Richard III's last resting place.
  • The body was buried without coffin or shroud, unusually for the time, prompting comparison with accounts that Henry VII buried his predecessor in a less than respectful fashion.
  • Radiocarbon dating puts the body between AD1455 and AD1540.
  • Skeletal analysis put the male as being in his late 20s or early 30s, and Richard III was 32 when he died.
  • The skeleton suffered from scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, which matches with physical (though often overplayed) descriptions of Richard III.
  • The skeleton displayed 10 separate injuries, including multiple head traumas, indicating a violent death.
  • Finally, DNA from the skeleton was matched to that from a known descendent of Richard III's sister
Although the veracity of the DNA evidence will no doubt prompt the most debate, it is easy to see from the weight of circumstantial evidence why the Leicester team feel so secure in their announcement.  The University has constructed an excellent website about the project here.

A decision seems to have already been made as to what will happen to the remains as Leicester Cathedral, next door to the burial site, will provide a more respectful final resting place.  It is interesting to note, however, that Richard III himself apparently wished to be buried in York.  It is an easy accusation to make, but it feels like the Leicester reburial may have more than a little to do with tourism, especially as a visitor centre is planned for the car park site.  As there is already an excellent visitor centre at the Bosworth Battlefield site and Richard III had no other connection with Leicester than that his corpse was unceremoniously dumped there, one does have to wonder a little at the long term sustainability of such a centre.  Hopefully, the long term implications of the centre have been fully thought through.

Another implication is the nature of his reburial.  I have heard that it will be a 'multi faith' service, but have no idea why.  Richard III was a Catholic, and so should surely be given a Catholic reburial.  I'm just waiting for someone to suggest that he should have a Church of England burial...

Addendum - 5 February 2013

Having now watched the Channel 4 documentary with the same title as this blog post, I can't help but add some additional comments to the above.

Telling the story of the project to discover the remains through footage filmed throughout the process, the documentary was ... interesting.  Presented by some chap I'm reliably informed is from the BBC Horrible Histories series, the programme quickly descended into a strange parody of a documentary as it became less and less about King Richard III, or even the archaeologists and their scientific techniques trying to find and identify him, but about one rather overly emotional woman - Phillipa Langley of the Richard III Society.

Now, I'm not going to start tearing into someone for being passionate about their particular historic interest, but it was clear that the whole premise of the programme was to watch her being dramatic in an attempt to give the whole thing a 'human' touch.  In essence this meant that the (rather interesting) archaeological evidence was reduced to being a series of things presented to her for her to (over)react to - sit down in disbelief, start crying, leave the room in shock etc.

The part when the remains were being removed from the site and ended up being covered in a flag was bizarre in the extreme, and I'm pleased to see the archaeologists (the wonderful Dr Jo Appleby in particular) took an ethical stand against this.  Imagine if the remains had turned out to be one of Henry VII's soldiers!  The fact that the flag-draped box was then placed among shovels and trowels in the back of a van was a piece of wonderful irony.

I've always thought that the Richard III Society positioned itself as an organisation looking to find out the truth behind the myth, whatever that truth may ultimately be, and that it is definitively not the 'Richard III Adoration Society'.  Sadly, that didn't come across, as both Phillipa and the Americans interviewed online came across as zealots for the cause, unable to accept any evidence that even remotely cast Richard III as anything less than angelic.  If I was a member of the Society I think I'd rather unhappy to be represented in such a way.  Have a viewpoint, fine, but please - remain rational and interpret the evidence impartially when its placed before you!

Hopefully another TV channel will at some point be allowed to revisit the discovery and actually produce something that is worthy of both the evidence and the archaeologists who have studied it.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Roman Lincoln and the north/south divide

The division between the north and the south in modern England is a subject that rears its head from time to time in the media. The issues the debates centre around tend to be ones of money, social conditions, family values and political voting demographics rather than of mere geography.

Some places are clearly defined as to their position in this debate. Manchester is a northern city, Oxford is a southern city. But what of the nebulous bit of England in the middle - the oft sidelined and much maligned 'Midlands'?  Lincoln is very much a Midlands city geographically, even though it is about level with Liverpool (somewhere no one would categorise as either southern or Midlands), but most Lincoln residents would probably say they were more northern than southern.

But what about in Roman Britain? Where did the citizens of Lindum Colonia place themselves in the context of the province of Britannia?  Can we even suggest that people thought of themselves in such terms?

We have to begin by going back before the Roman invasion, to the Iron Age Corieltavi tribe.  The Corieltavi are often categorised as the most northerly of the south-eastern group of tribes that might be termed 'more civilised' to Roman eyes.  This 'civilisation' effectively relates to a greater degree of trade and contact with the continent and the production of coinage.  

At the point of the Roman invasion, then, the Corieltavian people living in and around what would become Lincoln, unaware of the changes that would soon come upon them, might well have considered themselves more akin to their southern neighbours than those north of the Humber, though important trade links undoubtedly existed with the north, as coin distributions attest.

The position of Lincoln at the northern edge of a 'civilized south eastern' corner of the country is reinforced in the early years of the Roman occupation, when the Ninth Legion had advanced as far as southern Lincolnshire.  The sequencing of the Roman fortresses at Lincoln is still open to debate.  The more famous fortress on top of the hill was a Neronian foundation, constructed in the AD60s, but there is the tantalising prospect of an earlier fortress at the south of the city, based mainly on tombstone finds.  The Fosse Way, running diagonally southwest from Lincoln to Exeter became the first established frontier of the new province, placing Lincoln on the very edge of the Roman Empire but most definitely within it.

The next point at which we can reflect on Lincoln's relative position within the province is in the early AD200s.  The Emperor Septimius Severus, desirous to reduce the power that the Governor of Britain possessed following the revolt of Clodius Albinus, decided to split the province into two, although the actual split seems to have been enacted by Severus' son Caracalla.

The two provinces created were known as Britannia Superior (the south) and Britannia Inferior (the north).  Although the modern English meanings of these names can be taken to refer to a hierarchy of importance, the names in Latin simply mean 'upper' and 'lower'.  However, it would be surely be disingenuous to suggest that the wealthier, less rebellious south wasn't the favourable province to govern.

The province to which Lindum belonged was unknown until the 1928 discovery of an altar in Bordeaux.  Set up in AD237 by Briton called Marcus Aurelius Lunaris, it expressed thanks to the goddess Tutela for a safe voyage across the Channel.  Lunaris was a priest of the Imperial Cult at both Lincoln and York, which he helpfully stated were both in the province of Britannia Inferior.

Despite previous cultural affiliations with the south of Britain, Lindum was now firmly established as one of the southernmost settlements of the new northern province.  It is also worth noting that it was in the reign of Caracalla that Roman citizenship was extended to everyone living in the Empire, so the special status afforded those living in a Colony such as Lincoln became universal.

The final major alteration to provincial governance occurred in around AD300. As part of an Empire-wide reorganisation under the Emperor Diocletian, the province was divided into four parts.  Although the new look and structure of the province is often presented in books and on the web as established fact, the evidence is actually rather scant and the interpretation quite conjectural.  For example, the boundaries of the four provinces are pure guesswork, and the capitals of them based mostly on those proposed boundaries.

The most commonly used interpretation sees the province divided as in the map below, with Lincoln becoming the capital of 'Flavia Caesariensis'.

An interesting site just to the east of the Roman walled city is the site known as Greetwell Villa.  This large rural estate was discovered and destroyed by Victorian quarrying, but the records that were made at the time show a home on a palatial scale with the longest corridor known from Roman Britain.  Could this have been the home of the provincial Governor of Flavia Caesariensis?

So the conclusion of all this?  Although we can never know the feelings of the citizens of Roman Lincoln, it is possible that a sense of not quite truly belonging to either north or south may be older than we imagine.  While definitely set apart from the rebellious tribes of the north, and perhaps even looking disdainfully on their northern neighbours, the people of Lincoln may equally have felt distinctly provincial when faced with the wealth and continental interaction of their southern counterparts.