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Film: Establishing R&D in a heritage organization

How can you create meaningful experiences of history in a building no longer exists? That was the question Tim Powell from Historic Royal Palaces asked at MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2015, taking delegates behind the scenes of his R&D project The Lost Palace.

Tim: Hello there. My own voice, get used to it. So this is my fifth Museum Next, so I’m a bit of a veteran, but it’s my first ever trip to America so I’m kind of … this has been a bit of an I-Spy in Movieland for me. I’ve seen … I went into a diner yesterday and saw cops in a diner. Amazing. I’ve seen two Lincoln Continentals, it’s amazing. But it’s also my first experience of jetlag, so if I at any point stop and gaze into the middle distance please come and tap me on the shoulder.

When I told my mum that I was coming to speak at this conference in America she said couldn’t they have found someone closer to do it. So I’d like you to judge what I say now on whether you would have rathered [sic] someone closer be doing it.

So I’m here to talk about the Lost Palace, it’s a project I absolutely adore and one that my organisation is very excited about, and we think that by working with new partners in new ways we’re making things that our audiences want to help us create but we’re right in the middle of it so you’re not going to see a finished product, you’re going to see a kind of end of development phase, a work in progress.

I’m going to speak in three parts, one which is about our digital challenge and how we think it’s unique and different from maybe other organisations. Second is about how the Lost Palace project is answering that challenge, and third what we’ve learnt so far and what we’re doing next. So … I haven’t done any slides yet.

So about Historic Royal Palaces, we are an independent charity, we look after the six unoccupied royal palaces, so it’s the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, Kew, the Banqueting House, and Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland.

Kew Palace is where George III spent his latter days in the madness caused by what you bastards did to him, so … and you’ve got a photo, a photo, a painting of him upstairs just to rub salt into the wounds.

So we’re an independent charity, we receive no funding from the State or the Crown, we raise all of our own money and we think that gives us our kind of independence financially and creatively which we really cherish.

Our cause, and, yes, I do know the cause, MA, it’s to help everyone explore the stories of how monarchs and people have shaped society in some of the greatest palaces ever built and we tell … we tell the stories of a thousand years of history.

I work within the creative programming and interpretation team, we are the Creative Directors of the visitor experience for those four million people and we work by a couple of principles, so we look after people when they’re onsite, when they’ve come in through the door. The principles are the power of history where it happened. When you are stood in those steps, in those footsteps where these events happen there’s a real … there’s an alchemy, there’s a magic to it that you don’t get anywhere else, it sends … it makes the hairs on your neck stand on end.

We want people to sense history, it’s not an academic intellectual exercise it can be a visceral one. We want people to choose their own adventure, we want to give them choice in their experience, we want to turn things inside out so they see upstairs, downstairs, they see the way we conserve it and the way it was then, and we also want to do tradition with a twist, we’re not shy of using the very best in contemporary makers and craftspeople and artists to complement the work of the palaces past.

We now do creative programming we call as well which is actively commissioning live performance artists as part of the visitor offer. And culturally I think the way we see ourselves is between a museum and a theatre. We have stuff but the stuff we had was made for that wall, it’s completely site specific and context is everything.

And I was at a drinks thing organised by MA at Museum of London and there was a young Google engineer there and I was telling him about all the … I was trying to come up with the most incredible things I could think of, so we wanted a gigapixel that moved and tracked the ceiling and all the rest, and I said is this possible and he looked at me like I was from a different age and said ‘everything is possible.’

So my question always is how do you do anything when everything is possible. And the problem with palaces is this is that they are places of experience not knowledge. You don’t find out about Henry … you don’t come to a palace to find out about Henry VIII you go to Wikipedia, but what we can do is provide experiences that people will never forget with people they love, all on their own, you know, a range of experiences that are completely unique.

People come to a palace to travel back in time, they come to escape the real world, and they come because it is an experience that is other than their normal lives.

And when we ask them what we should do digitally they say one thing, no screens, don’t put screens in the historic environment, it will break … it will break the spell.

So our challenge really is to use the magical powers of technology, the wonderful ways they can tell stories without losing the thing that makes us unique, so we need to make the interface between the technology and the visitors invisible. So the challenge is the invisible interface.

And one way … skeuomorphism is a phrase I talk a lot about which is the use of old design features in new design, that’s very simply put. You don’t need wood panelling on a car, and iBooks does not need to put your digital books on a picture of a bookshelf, but it kind of hides the interface, there’s a comfort to that, a familiarity, so this is one of the things we’re looking at to create this potential invisible interface. In pure design terms it’s quite bad but I think it might be appropriate for our work.

And the problem with people in palaces, this is kind of an uninclusive [sic] picture but I’m very proud of it, and it’s very beautiful, and I don’t think we should be ashamed of like, you know, the core audiences we have as well as trying to bring new people in, so that’s a …

There’s one sentence that always sounds a claxon when I hear it and this is when people say visitors will download an app onto their smartphone because I don’t think they do unless you give them a completely overriding reason to do that thing. And I’m not an app hater, I just think sometimes we expect behaviours of others that we don’t do ourselves.

And the challenge I always give to people when we talk is that have you ever seen a commuter on a train, on a tube, on a bus, whatever, using an app that was created by a cultural organisation on their commute because I certainly haven’t.

And also another point that we’ve heard already is never assume they’re like us, they are not like us, our visitors, we’re a unique bunch the people who work in the cultural world.

What we want is people to encounter the people of the past. One of the ways we do that is with live interpretation at all of our palaces, and these are professional actors, they are scripted, they are directed, they perform stories in the places they happened. There’s a whole lot of research behind it.

Now when people talk about new technology the assumption is often that we will do virtual reality, or augmented reality, or any of these kind of buzzwords, but this is the Tower of London in second life, nothing to do with me, someone … this is just … someone has made this, nothing to do with the organisation, and there’s definitely a place for all of this stuff, but from my point of view can you have a day out in CGI model, can you sell tickets to this thing, is this going to facilitate those magical moments that you really want to create, and I’m not so sure yet.

And to really connect with the past you have to empathise with its characters, people are fascinated about where characters from the past, where they … I’ve written down rude words, don’t know how appropriate it is, where they shit, sleep, and shag, they connect them with themselves but then the stories we have to tell are of royals who also acted like gods. Now once you know where they did those things you have that universal human connection to them, and you can understand the history from a personal perspective.

And it allows you in those places when you’ve made that connection to cast a new perspective on the world you live in based on the experiences of people in the past. That’s what we think anyway, that’s what we think the power potential is.

I have no empathy with this monster. There’s a phrase called uncanny valley which I love which is the closer robotics and artificial intelligence and all of these things get to reproducing human physicality, and movements, and speech, and all this thing, the more freaked out we are by it, and it’s the uncanny valley. And it’s not been bridged yet. So I’m not saying we should never look at these technologies, I’m just saying they’re things to watch, maybe, rather than to adopt just because they’re new because I think they would undermine what we’ve got.

We also need to be very, very careful of past collaborators, you know, these palaces were made by the greatest artists and artisans that have ever existed which is a lot of pressure. We must not be boring. It’s very easy to make the crappest thing a kid’s ever done on an iPad, in fact if it’s not Angry Birds it’s nothing, and there is no inherent wow to giving a piece of technology to someone, those days are long gone.

And also we need to be careful of new competition, if we’re making games we’re now competing with a market that’s completely different from our old competitors, we’re now competing with the games market who can spend 500 million pounds on Destiny, 500 million pounds.

But palaces are a place where innovation is nothing new. And this is the [tunla] armour of Henry VIII, and in the 1960s NASA came to the Tower of London to study this suit of armour made 500 years ago because … and they used it in the design of the spacesuits for the first space missions, so … it’s kind of just a story really, it doesn’t mean any[thing].

And so rather than thinking that we know best in this brave new digital world we should ask the industry, and what we should do is we should invite our creative partners to learn with us. We shouldn’t just buy what they’ve done before but we should set them a challenge to meet the things we’ve always dreamed of.

Palaces are places of performance, there is a grand theatre and spectacle of court, they were built to be full of people, they were built for people to wear their finery, for the best people, for this challenge of meeting the king, and they are actually … they become authentic when they are full of people.

This is the court masks which were a particular type of theatre made for the royals and aristocrats, and it was mental, this is actually a set design picture. You had cherubs winched down from the ceiling, you had stagecraft to make waves, and … but, you know, it was a story about how the king restored order to the savages so it was always the same story. That was the start of it.

But I think this is a great time to be doing this because the physical is now digital and it now enables people to interact with spaces and each other in ways we’ve never been able to do before. And this is what we’ve got, we have people, and spaces, and amazing stories. And this is a still from The Shadowing, a project winner of the Playable City Award which is run from the Watershed Pervasive Media studio in Bristol, my hometown. Check out what they do because I think it’s really incredible.

So how do we make digital decisions? What should we do? I think we should only do things that look like super powers, we should only do what we’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t ever. We should only do … we shouldn’t worry about being [bleeding] edge, and the challenge for us I think is to be impossibly analogue, and we don’t need to change our organisations missions I don’t think, we just need to work out how we can use the new tools to fulfil them in new ways. And the change that’s needed is working with new people in new ways and then technology becomes a consequence rather than a decision you make. So in summary create meaning for people, don’t be boring, be digitally palatial, and only do the impossible. Easy, right?

So this is The Lost Palace, this is the project which we’re trying to put all this into practice. This is … behind that wrap there is Banqueting House and it is the best room in London. The entire ceiling is painted by Peter Paul Reubens and it’s nice to come and visit that room, but as a visitor experience it isn’t great because it is just one room of what was the biggest palace in Europe, Whitehall Palace, which was 1500 rooms … 1500 rooms, 26 acres, it stretched from Trafalgar Square to Big Ben, from the … from Buckingham Palace down to the Thames, and it was completely destroyed by fire 300 years ago apart from the Banqueting House.

So this project is about recreating the Lost Palace, and the history that happened in this place was just … it’s just sensational, it was a key location for the Tudor soap opera, Henry VII died there, he married Anne Boleyn there, he married Jane Seymour there, there was fabulous jousts, bear baiting, there was a theatre for the court where Shakespeare performed Othello for the first time. It was a place of revolution, it was where Charles I was executed, the only time we’ve ever killed a king, it was a place of grand ceremony and on and on and on.

I’ll tell you my favourite story though which is Samuel Pepys, a diarist, who was kind of key to understanding a lot of English history, and he writes in his diaries about seeing lady Castlemaine who was Charles II’s mistress, seeing her underwear hanging out to dry in the privy garden of the palace and writing ‘and seeing it did me much good.’

So nobody knows, English people really don’t know about this history and they don’t know this building was here, neither do the millions of tourists that walk from Big Ben to Trafalgar Square every year, and so this is just an early mapping of the historic palace onto the contemporary streets and rather delightfully the chambers of those Tudor mistresses where all this scandal happened are now in the Ministry of Defence, so the question we ask the Generals ‘is there a mistress in your office?’

And Whitehall now is referred to as the corridors of power, they are blank, austere, unwelcoming buildings, they are government, they are the Cabinet office, they are 10 Downing Street, this is the 10 Downing Street cat, and if you’ve read any of the news stories about David Cameron in the last few weeks I’d imagine it’s been taken into care.

So the Lost Palace project, our objectives are to tell these stories as history where it happened for the first time, it’s to augment and contextualise the Banqueting House visit, it’s to claim Whitehall as a public historical space, and it’s to make a statement about our digital ambitions, and those are that we want people using technology to sense history, to encounter characters, and we want to make it a place where history is performed and participated in.

So what did we do? We knew that to achieve this we were going to have to work in new ways, and this was completely new for us, it’s the first time we’ve done it as an organisation, we ran an open call for prototypes and we targeted it at artists and the creative industries.

The conditions, or the criteria for the open call, were that the proposals had to be collaborations between artists and technologists, it had to be what we considered a new combination of content and technology, and it must make people engage with the stories, not to the technology. But the kind of deal we did was that each one was an experiment, it should be ambitious enough to be able to go wrong.

We ran … the brief for this project was viewed over 3000 times online, we ran a series of open days for people who were interested, and we had over a 100 organisations, and creatives, and artists came in and that resulted in 90 full proposals which was a lot more than we expected and a lot of work going through them all but how fantastic to have more than you ever hoped.

And then we developed five of them, so five out of all the proposals were given a grant of £10,000 to make this into a working prototype that we could test with real audiences, with members of the public. And how … the kind of criteria that I always used as to whether this was going to have been a good thing was are we being proposed ideas that we could never have come up with ourselves.

So if I can just introduce them to you, this is the enemy within, so these are the five prototypes we made, the Enemy Within made by Story Things and Antony Owen, and this delivers a story through episodes, most of which happen before the visit, they use mental magic and suggestion techniques with the intention of giving people an experience when they’re on site through suggestion and all of this stuff that they believe they’re witnessing an event in history.

This is an East Wind made by Pan Studio, it uses the minimum barrier of technology which is just text message, and each player in the game … so each player is a character, a historically accurate character, and by playing the game as a group they enact an episode of history.

This is Oranges and Petticoats, this is choose your own adventure but embodied. You make choices by moving, physically moving, into different parts of the Lost Palace, do you want to follow this character or this character, so you don’t touch a phone at any point because it’s all tracked through GPS. It’s incredibly rude, this is just for adults, and some of the stories we tell in here are genuinely quite shocking. We didn’t test it on kids, it’s all right.

This is To Please the Eyes and Ears by Uninvited Guests and Lewis Gibson, and this uses binaural sounds to recreate the Cockpit theatre which is where Shakespeare performed. Binaural sound is just incredible if you’ve not experienced it before, it gives you a 360 perspective and it really feels like people are walking behind you and whispering in your ears, and we wanted to use that to try and see how much a sense of architectural space we could create just with sound alone. And you actually become Desdemona so you actually have to speak lines as Desdemona in this performance.

And this is the final one, the Heart of a King made by Chomko and Rosier and it’s a haptic object, that is the object, and it beats with a human heartbeat, and as you turn it round the heartbeat’s strongest in one direction, and if you always follow the direction where the heart beats strongest it guides you on the last walk Charles I made before he was executed. And when you find the place of his execution it stops.

And throughout the environment we told the story through kind of disruptions, interventions into the streets and then we tested them all. So we had 90 groups recruited via social media, and we really wanted our visitors to help shape this thing, but also we really didn’t want to make something that they weren’t going to want to do in the end. You know, it works very much both ways. But we had a glorious summer of testing, it was sunny, we had a sunny summer, it was fantastic, of just watching families, watching people doing stuff, watching people using these things.

So in the last few minutes I’m just going to run through what we think we’ve learnt from it. In general, I am so glad that we know what we know now rather than finding it out just before we launch next year. So much went wrong and so much was learnt that we could improve on that it seems to have validated itself already.

But working with developers I’m very passionate about treating these partners well. We need them as much as they need us, so the proposal was minimum effort, we paid them for their time and for their development and we had a really progressive IPR and copyright agreement where they kept the IPR but it was licensed to us in perpetuity, so we weren’t trying to buy anyone’s genius ideas for £10,000.

The biggest learning was about getting the balance right between creating content and experimenting with technology, and this is what we got wrong. What … and I think you need to ask yourself what do you want to test, is it user experience, is it technology, is it content, is it location, because you can’t do them all in the first tests. And making content eats all your time. We know we can write scripts so we don’t need to do that in a prototype I don’t think, because if you’re asking the public to test it there is a very big difference between a minimum viable product and a minimum viable visitor experience and if you don’t … if you’re inviting the public in they don’t view it as a prototype, they view it as a thing that they’re doing.

I’m just going to fly through this because I’m talking for too long.

Looking for the testers was really important as well, how do you get the most useful results, the instinct is to really look after them and hold their hands all the way through it but that’s not a fair test because that’s not what they do as visitors. But also never underestimate people’s willingness to help you out with this stuff, and think about how you reward them. So the people who came to test this, she actually had a great time, she is enjoying … this is enjoyment, she’s connecting, and the people who came and tested with us we are giving the first … they’re going to be there at first launch event so that was the kind of deal that we gave.

But I just want to say a point about being … we’re very sure that we want to be customer focused and not customer led, we absolutely want to bring our audiences to find out what they expect but we trust ourselves and our partners to deliver more than their expectations after that, but involving them for this step was absolutely crucial.

This is an enormous number of iPads put into one plug socket. Developers have to be on site when they’re doing this stuff, it’s completely site specific, but heritage buildings are not fab labs, you can do very, very little in them, and this is a trust … this is our workshop and it was a trestle table in the functions kitchen, and every time they had a wedding or anything we always got chucked out so it wasn’t great.

Working with curators, this is a genuine email.

How do you work with curators on this stuff, you know, fastidious academic research versus agile sprints are very difficult to get those working together, so we kind of created a suite of materials and stories that were the suggested ones that people used for the prototypes and we tried to guide people towards those, they didn’t all of course.

And then but I think the most important thing was to agree with your curators a kind of acceptable degree of accuracy for prototyping. We can allow a few things to slip because this isn’t a public product yet and we can always revisit it.

Locations were an absolute nightmare, every morning in the testing [unintelligible 00:25:27] come out of Westminster tube and go what has gone wrong today, so during the weeks we were testing we had multiple protest marches, we had fun runs, we had marching bands, we had a lightning strike which meant a chimney collapsed in one of the areas we were working in. This is where Brits go to protest against the system and their democratic right to protest trampled all over my democratic right to prototype.

But most locations are like this, and this may be the most serious one which is permissions. Whitehall is the most security sensitive area of the UK, I have thought I had worked hard to communicate the right things to the right people about what we were doing, but that didn’t stop two of our developers being detained by armed police under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and we have a duty of care to these people and it’s terrible that it happened to them but it’s unthinkable for it to have happened with our public, with our family audiences that we were bringing in to test just a few days later.

And Brits are really unused to seeing guns, and it’s profoundly shocking, and it really changes behaviour, and there are a lot of guns in this area. The only thing I have learnt is that you have got to get out there in order to find out if anyone has a problem with you being out there, and they, as soon as you cause trouble then you find out who you should have been talking to in the first place.

But I found that they don’t seek to give permission, they just seek to have enough information to avoid surprises which is good, and you get great cop jokes when they know what you’re doing, so the running gag was still not found it yet, mate, for the Lost Palace.

So what next? Oh, well that’s the scene of the crime. What next for us? Well what is success, is it a prototype that could be launched, is it an approach that works, is it finding great people to work with, I didn’t really know that was going to be question and actually you have got two choices, you can expand the prototypes or you can wipe the table and use that approach again with the people you want to do it with.

So we are asking two of the developers to work in collaboration to develop the visitor offer for next summer, launch is Summer 2016, and they are the makers of the beating heart and the binaural sound, so they will be combined into one visitor offer.

But it won’t be those things, it’ll be completely new based on their work and their approach to stuff. And the public, we will make sure that we involve them at the right time which isn’t testing technology actually, we don’t need to put content into something to find out if the GPS works but we can bring … so I’ve got three phases of testing basically, one which is agile technology testing, and then there is scratch testing which is a kind of actual public version with scripts and content that we will involve people in, and then there’s just the serration of that towards launch.

And I think that’s probably all I want to say because I’ve got two minutes’ left, so I’ll hopefully see some of you in Dublin next year. Don’t just Dublin by [Fion] either, I can see him [unintelligible 00:28:40].

But thank you very much for your time and there’s a minute, two minutes … Are there any questions?

Audience: I’m Tamara Biggs, I’m at the Chicago History Museum and I have over the course of my 15 years there often suggested the kind of open call that you did and nobody ever lets me do it because they say it takes too much time, it’s too messy. So I’m just curious about if that was true?

Tim: No. Not really. I mean I think it was really exciting, I think what you have to do is once you commit to it you’ve got to follow it through, like if you say that we’re inviting the creative community to share their ideas then you do have to … you know, we had to make five and then there was, you know, quite a lot of responsibility to use some of those to develop further. But it proves itself quite quickly I think. I don’t … I mean it was … I don’t think we’d ever make five again, I think that’s too many, but it was an extraordinary period of learning so convincing people is … is … I think … we do … this will be the way we do projects in the future, we’re already developing two more open calls actually throughout the organisation, and not just digital either, for actual … for static interpretation as well. It’s just really exciting the potential of working with new people. I don’t know if that answers the question actually, but … I think try it, just … that’s all I can say is persuade someone to do it.

And it might … I don’t know, it might not work but it has for us. But it’s quite an established … you know, it’s quite an established model within the creative industry so it must work for … for them.

Audience: Hi, more of a question about … well not a specific question to answer but a question like could you do this, like I couldn’t Tweet some of your one-liners fast enough but I think like … like Martin Luther I think you need to come up with these Ten Commandments and staple them to the door. You said minimally viable product is not the same as minimally viable user experience, you said only build what … you know, what is impossible, or only build the things you always wanted to build anyway but couldn’t. I mean like maybe you’ve blogged this somewhere but like I want those bullet points so I can put it up on my wall.

Tim: Yeah, I didn’t think it would go down well if I was an Englishman telling an American audience some commandments, but …

Audience:        We welcome it.

Tim: Yeah, gladly, I mean I don’t … I don’t blog actually but maybe we should. Maybe we should. There is the which we’ve been infrequently tracking the progress of this, but ok, I will, maybe I will say that I will, don’t [fret on it].

It is saying time’s up, but …

Audience: Oh, sorry.

Tim: No, I …

Audience: I have a small question; how did you get this project funded because £50,000 only for development is quite … for me it seems like quite a lot. So is it like … how do you get this funded? Yeah.

Tim: We raise our own money, so we have … we have reserves. Yeah, we … there’s no funding stream for this, it’s the organisation’s money so it’s actually part of … Banqueting House is undergoing a five-year redevelopment plan so it’s actually part of a … it’s linked … it’s a digital element of a capital project which was funded by the organisation, but ring-fenced for this, so … yeah. I don’t have any tricks with that, I’ve never worked in an organisation that has to apply for funding actually, so … but £50,000 I think is … I’d much rather have paid £50,000 and know what we know now than paid the full budget and it not have worked, do you know what I mean? It’s kind of getting your risk in early, let’s make mistakes quickly now rather than find out just as we’re bringing the public in.

That’s it, isn’t it? Thank you very much.

How can you create meaningful experiences of history in a building no longer exists? That was the question Tim Powell from Historic Royal Palaces asked at our first North American Museum Conference MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2015, taking delegates behind the scenes of his R&D project The Lost Palace.

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