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A couple of weekends ago I headed off with a friend to try Historic Royal Palaces’ award winning tour, The Lost Palace. I was so impressed and excited by the experience, it spurred me into writing a blogpost which, as you can tell from this webpage, I don’t do very often. For information, we booked the adult only tour, which promised historically sourced ‘salacious’ content. It lived up to its promise, and there were more than a few raised eyebrows around.
Immersive and Interactive
I’m not going to write a step-by-step description of the ‘tour’ here, as I’d encourage you to go and try it for yourself, but in a nutshell, The Lost Palace is an immersive and interactive audio experience including real-time audio and haptic feedback and an (easily missed) live element. On arrival, you receive a set of high quality earphones and a wooden device to hold. This device is what you use to interact with the stories, and how you use it (and indeed how you use your body) during the experience, affects what you hear and feel. The tour starts and ends at the Banqueting House, but most of the stories and action takes place outside, as you are guided on a route around just a part of what was once the Palace of Whitehall.
Audio interpretation is a big draw for me and I feel it has been under-developed as an interpretive tool in the heritage sector. Granted, there are some not insignificant challenges involved in its application in heritage settings. A standard audio tour for example, can have the effect of cutting visitors off from each other, creating solo experiences from what could have been a group activity. Conversely ‘open’ audio in a gallery space can be intrusive, especially when multiple soundtracks leach into the same physical space. Putting these issues aside for the moment, for me the magic of audio lies in the freedom it grants the listener.
Apart from the obvious physical freedom it enables and often encourages, audio description is a powerful way for the listeners to be able to use their imagination and respond to given descriptions in their own way, which works brilliantly for something as patchy and uncertain as the historical record. This imaginative space is often closed down by image-based heritage interpretation, for even when accompanied by text full of uncertainties, a visualization has an air of finality about it, and the uncertainties are forgotten.
So, as a fan of audio interpretation I was excited to hear what The Lost Palace had to offer. Recorded using binaural technology to create a three-dimensional sound experience, the quality of the narration and soundscapes is remarkable. I was immersed in the story as soon as I put on the headphones on; the surrounding bustle of 21st century London simply faded into the background. Throughout the experience, the interplay between the narrator and a cast of historical characters has been carefully crafted and has a fluidity which helps to corral the separate stories together as a cohesive whole. Sound effects are superbly used, whether to indicate the beginning of a new story, or as a responsive element, and it is the latter that really brings this experience to life.
A Swish of a Sword
The handheld wooden device is an integral part of the experience, becoming in turn a radio antennae, a sword, a cockerel and the King’s beating heart. And it works brilliantly. The thoughtful use of existing mobile phone technology (with one or two tweaks) combined with well chosen stories, results in meaningful interactions, helping to place you squarely in each story and making you feel as if you are exploring it from the inside. My absolute favourite was the Frost Fair – I closed my eyes for this part and both physically and mentally wandered around the images in my head conjured up by the combination of the recorded and movement-responsive audio.
I felt these interactive elements served another purpose too, namely helping to negate the classic audio tour solo-in-a-group experience mentioned before. When you are wildly waving your arm around as you engage a sun-dial in a sword fight (yes, you read that right), and those around you are doing the same, you can’t help but catch someone’s eye and share a smile, or a wide-eyed sense of wonder.
Gove Free Zone
The narrative and stories of The Lost Palace did not follow a chronological approach, but rather seemed to have been cherry-picked to suit each location and audience type. While this resulted in a bit of ping-ponging back and forth through time, it did mean that each story unfolded in its historical location and was matched with meaningful, site-specific interaction. Gove would no doubt disagree with me here, but I feel that being a slave to chronology can sometimes translate into a straight-jacket for creative story-telling. And if like me, your grasp of this time period is a little sketchy, well this experience definitely sparked a desire to fill that knowledge gap. Now isn’t that the holy grail of good heritage interpretation – to fire the visitor’s imagination and curiosity and inspire him or her to find out more?
Pervasive and Persuasive
The overall experience was something akin to a pervasive game but not quite; it includes gamified elements, uses mobile technology such as geolocation, and enables a degree of user choice and influence over their audio experience. If I have a criticism to make, it is that I would have liked longer to explore the more free-flow elements of the tour – I missed out on some of the ‘Palace gossip’ and I could easily have spent twice as much time crunching around on the ice at the Frost Fair. I really hope that this is just a taste of what is to come with immersive heritage interpretation because personally, I don’t need any persuasion to want a whole lot more of it.
The Lost Palace is only on till 5th September 2017. If you are able to, go and try it for yourself. I truly recommend you grab the chance.