Tag Archives: digital heritage

Imagining Charlotte Bronte

I recently visited the Brontë Museum in Haworth. It was fascinating and I will be returning. The whole place was a mixture of real and unreal.

There were rooms made up to look as they would have done based on diaries and accounts of the time when Charlotte Brontë was living. In some cases original wallpapers were revealed beneath the plaster or paintwork and their colours had been restored to give visitors a sense of their original effect. Objects, such as crockery and utensils, were arranged throughout the house and were sometimes the originals and sometimes those that would have been like the originals. These objects almost give the rooms the effect of being in use – in a frozen-in-time Mary Celeste museum kind of way.

Charlotte Brontë’s dress at the Brontë Parsonage Museum (Source: Brontë.org.uk)

Charlotte Brontë’s dress at the Brontë Parsonage Museum (Source: Bronte.org.uk)

In what we might consider to be the main room, Charlotte Brontë’s bedroom, there are glass cabinets set up in a museum-like style. Unlike some of the other rooms, it is not simulated as a bedroom, but instead works as a mash-up of museum and authentic wallpaper styled room. Various artefacts are on display. In the centre and standing in a glass case looms a dress of Charlotte’s. Without a mannequin it hovers as a reminder that the occupant has long since departed. Nearby, shoes embroidered using her dead sister’s hair sit in one case, along with a nightcap with glow-in-the-dark embroidery. Of course back in the 19th century, before the EU and its suffocating legislation, radioactive nightcaps used to be all the rage in England. Following recent political developments I suppose the British are free to reclaim their lost heritage and wear radium infused clothing any time they want. Fancy.

Nestled among notebooks also is a pair of Charlotte Brontë’s glasses. I crouched down low to look through the display case and therefore through the lenses of her reading glasses “directly”. I felt it significant to look through her glasses because it was something that she would have done herself. Even though I was looking through them backwards I felt as though I could almost be looking through them into Charlotte Brontë’s eyes. It is a romantic notion, but this is the closest I am likely to get.

The interior of the house was full of rich visuality, but the view out from the windows was also emotive. Beyond the garden, looking out towards the front of the house, the adjacent churchyard can be seen with impressive trees towering above rows of gravestones. There is little about this that feels fake. The town and churchyard are real places with real people living in our modern world. If you ignore the throngs of visitors being taken on guided tours, you might even be able to engage in peaceful contemplation.

All of the artefacts and the house itself raise many questions about the role of women, craft and history. The tangibility of everything is thought provoking and it is for this reason that I mentioned the museum to one of my students during a tutorial recently. I told them about the sister’s-hair-embroidered shoe, noting its link to their own research. “I have some photographs of the embroidered shoe,” I explained.

I looked on my phone, but I couldn’t find them anywhere.

After the student left I looked more carefully through my phone album. There was nothing. Then I recalled that photography is not allowed in the museum and my memories of this came flooding back. I had not taken any photos. Now I remembered that this was a relief in many ways. I didn’t have to worry about capturing anything. Instead, I could focus on seeing the museum and its exhibits and in many respects this felt liberating.

What is interesting about recounting the museum to a student was my assumption that I had taken photographs. It would appear that for me museums are so closely associated with the performance of photography that it has become interchangeable with my own mind’s eye. I didn’t take any photographs, but I perceived my own eyeball-only visual memories to be photography.

This makes me think of two ways in which digital photography features in my life. First of all, photographing objects and events has become so commonplace for me that it has become a default action that is integral to the performance of my life; from obsessively capturing every waking (and sleeping) moment of my children to my experience of, and my performance at, heritage sites and museums. As visitors we do perform at heritage sites and more recently the introduction of digital photography, especially the ease of its application through smartphones, has influenced this performance. Sharing those photos is easy, too, and so the museum visit is extended beyond the museum walls – this is perhaps no different to how traditional photography (or even just talking about a museum visit) extends the visit, but the effect is more instant. The integration with our lives is perhaps more fluid.

Secondly, this integration has become so effective that digital imagery appears to have become privileged in my own mind over my own mental imagery.

When speaking to the student and recalling Charlotte Brontë’s craftwork, the images that were conjured within my own mind were those created purely from my own body interacting and sensing the museum and its objects – direct phenomenological engagement with the museum. I visualised the museum objects without the mediation of technology. But when I recalled my visit, my assumption was that instead of remembering the actual objects I was in fact remembering digital images of the objects stored on my phone, or of the phone screen images while I was taking photographs. So confident am I in my own intentions to capture the imagery of my life that I was sure I had taken a photograph. More than this, even a non-existent photographic performance has somehow become more reliable to me than my own visual memory.

Perhaps this is not a problem, but I feel that it has implications for the reality of my experience – it has made me question what it is that I value from an experience. If my mind is referring to the digital capture as the reliable account of a museum visit then it seems that my mind is constructing a simulacrum of that visit – my mind is using the ‘unreal’ to create the ‘real’. A perfect example of Baudrillard’s ‘precession of the simulacrum’ where the ‘fake’ is coming before the ‘real’ thing and informing our interpretation of the real thing. It has made me consider practising greater mindfulness in the future if only because it felt liberating not to take photographs.

But of course the role of the digital image in this way is not much different from the role of the objects that we may find in museums. The crockery and kitchen utensils at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, for example, or the replica wallpaper; all these things are as fake as the digital image. Indeed, what I was seeking when looking through Charlotte Brontë’s glasses was mediated through a complex network of socio-cultural and historical contexts. It was a fabrication of my own imagination, but compelling and authentic to me nonetheless.

Digital senses of space in the digital divide

I have been carrying out interviews to see what my research participants feel about the Digital Towneley website. These are just some thoughts about their feedback so far and some early analysis.

One participant who I have interviewed said that their experience of the site was just as a series of pictures of Towneley. They specifically responded to my question about sense of place and space to make clear that they did not experience any kind of “virtual experience”.

In contrast, others have so far indicated that a sense of geographical space is created for them in Digital Towneley, whether this is a ‘virtual space’ or at least an acceptable alternative for movement within the real-world park space. This has been mainly in relation to the map screen and this links for me to the way that de Certeau discusses viewing the city from above. The view is akin to a simulacrum, like Baudrillard’s ‘map’, because we do not understand a city by viewing it holistically but by experiencing it in person. Seeing the whole city from above is seeing a different object entirely. Kenderdine discusses the effects of the panorama and the georama in this sense and how it can allow viewers to feel as though they can “travel to distant lands, historic cities and imposing landscapes” (Kenderdine 2010, 308).  This is something which seems to be occurring (for some) with the map in Digital Towneley, since reactions and exclamations from the interviewed participants have implied senses of ‘travel’.

Map example from Digital Towneley with walking character in red.

Map example from Digital Towneley with walking character in red.

We might argue that these reactions are not exclusive to digital representations. After all, there is a tangible ‘real’ map in Towneley Hall foyer. This would also potentially have the effect of geographical omniscience or ‘travel’. However, the Digital Towneley map offers an interactivity (to an extent), represented both by the movement of the walking character and the hyperlink-like ability to see more about each location. This interactivity may offer a sense of embodiment felt by seeing the moving character walk across the map; the movement has been noted by several participants. It may also be that the ability to ‘move’ from the map to a specific location is a satisfying quality of the digital map – not only does it represent a place (like a sign on a conventional map) but it offers a ‘window’ through which to visit that place (which is admittedly another series of digital simulacra/signs).

But, as indicated above, for some the website just offered a series of images. There are different reactions to digital media. This has also been further highlighted so far by the reactions to the use of the website. The participants have varied in their levels of digital literacy and the physical contexts of the interviews have varied also. On top of this, the pretext for each interview has been very different. Some participants have looked through the website relatively thoroughly, while others have not even been able to access it. It is my aim through my choice and design of methodologies to address these contextual differences, but it seems clear to me at this stage that the evaluation of a digital phenomenon’s effect is as difficult as evaluating the effect of art or landscape. It is for this reason that largely commercial approaches to digital evaluation have (for me) fallen short of exploring the potential pitfalls and benefits of digital heritage development and impact.

It is no surprise that digital heritage will have varying effects on people owing to their various circumstances. One interesting thing so far (and of course my data is limited at this stage) is how digital literacy is not necessarily the main factor in terms of engagement with heritage memories or meanings using digital representations.


Kenderdine S. (2010) ‘Speaking in Rama: Panoramic Vision in Cultural Heritage Visualization’  in Cameron & Kenderdine (eds)  Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse

Does digital heritage curtail the multimodal ensemble?

Today I have been reading Jewitt (2013) and so learning about multimodality. Multimodal approaches are very relevant to my project because of the variety of ways in which we create meaning about heritage spaces. Multimodality refers to the many different modes we employ in the creation of meanings; e.g. spoken language, written text, image, gesture. Jewitt describes ‘multimodal ensembles’ which are the range of modes that an individual or group has access to. This is affected by their social context because this determines what modes are available or accessible.

The aim of my research project was to provide an environment in which the participants would feel comfortable using any mode they felt appropriate to express their understanding of the park. It is difficult to know if this was successful – perhaps something I can include as part of the next feedback sessions. Some visual media was offered and helped to determine the themes of Digital Towneley which is itself largely a visual media. However, various other modes may have been shortchanged. Visiting the park was an important aspect of this research because this involves many of the actions or performances which define the use of the park or the creation of its heritages. But does Digital Towneley do any of these modes justice?

Jewitt discusses the complex and intertwined nature of the modes within our ensembles and refers to Lemke, stating that it is the unique combination of these modes which can generate genuine creativity. Perhaps I am moving over old and tired ground here, but when I think about the multimodal ensembles of the participants in my research project I am anxious about their translation into a separate digital multimodal ensemble. The digitisation process, as we all know, can be very reductive. I think that this is something I am particularly aware of in the context of my research because I was individual who carried out the reduction.

However, the data created with the participants was initially reduced in what we might call a ‘traditional’ way through meaning condensation and thematic coding (among others). Effectively the same as digitisation. Fitting the data into the digital object, making it become Digital Towneley, was perhaps no different.

From a narrative point of view I am arguing in my thesis that the retelling of the participants’ stories in the context of Digital Towneley allows for the creation within the reader/consumer of their own perceptions and creations (Hawthorne 1997). I frequently return to Bourdieu’s habitus in this research. Our interactions with heritage spaces define our experiences while simultaneously being defined by them. Our multimodal ensembles seem to me very much related. It is their unique combination which allows for our unique perceptions, but the ensemble is transformed throughout. In this way the habitus, heritage and multimodal ensembles share a processual quality; there is no ultimate, just a lived experience of transformations and combinations (relativism alert!).

Jewitt’s article has allowed me to think about how I might gauge the impact of Digital Towneley (itself and the process of its creation) on the participants. Will their feedback during the final interviews indicate frustration at curtailment of their multimodal ensembles or might it indicate the discovery of new modes as new aspects of their ensembles?


Jewitt C. (2013) Multimodal methods for researching digital technologies in The SAGE Handbook of Digital Technology Research

Hawthorne J. (1997) Studying the Novel: an introduction (3rd Ed.)

Merleau-Ponty and digital heritage

I have been reading just a very little Merleau-Ponty and have found some resonance with my recent thoughts about digital media and heritage and culture. Merleau-Ponty talks about the issue of ‘attention’ and the supposition generally held that we have only to pay attention to our senses and the truth of our perception will be revealed. For him, intellectualisation of our senses implies objective understanding of them and this is a problem.

The problem is that we compartmentalise the senses as well as proceed from a biased standpoint – i.e. if we explore something in terms of visuality then we are bound to discover things from this point of view. Scientifically paying ‘attention’ to our vision suggests that we are able to grasp it fully and, what I am getting from Merleau-Ponty, that vision is a discrete and separate sense to any other. In fact our “sense of sight” may involve several things which we do not normally examine in detail; e.g. why do we not think of senses of brightness, colour, movement?

This reminds me of Wittgenstein insofar as we are limiting our potential for understanding our senses. Crudely put, by discussing our senses in terms of only 5 types (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell) we limit the language with which we aim to understand the senses. Merleau-Ponty’s comments remind me also of Grounded Theory, because the aim for him rather than paying ‘attention’ to our senses would appear to be to let sensual experiences speak for themselves. Just as Glaser and Straus aimed to avoid confirming the work of past scholars and develop new theory, so does Merleau-Ponty aim to avoid confirming sensual intellectualisation and explore what senses are before epistemological constructions.

This issue is relevant to digital heritage representation because digital media filters and reduces the terms with which we are able to explore cultural phenomena. Indeed, it crystallises phenomena into snapshots, whether passive or ‘interactive’. More importantly, of course, digital media still privileges sight and hearing over the other senses.

My data so far involves stories about Towneley Park which are all-encompassing experiences of space, presence and memory. It seems clear to me that coding my data is analogous to paying ‘attention’ to the senses, while the medium through which these data are expressed and interpreted further forces me to pay attention to the data from the perspective of, mostly, visuality and sound.

It is no surprise that digital representations of human body experiences may lose something in translation. However, if even the development of sophisticated virtual reality hardware and software is to be based on the premise of 5 separate senses, is digital representation fundamentally flawed because it may be built on a flawed intellectualisation of the human condition?

Digital Museum Fictions

I’ll give a spoiler alert for this post because, although I have no intention of giving away important plot elements, I am going to talk about Interstellar and I don’t want it to be ruined for anybody here!

I really enjoyed the film on many sci-fi levels, but I was surprised to come across a museumified house in the later part. The house was very much like a heritage centre with screens showing video interviews with contemporaries of the house and the era it was meant to represent. What I thought was interesting was that the portrayal of this house was so easily recognisable as a museum.

The house which formed the museum was recognisable as a 21st century house (in the film a late 21st century house, perhaps) although the museum was present in a 22nd century context. The intention may have been to demonstrate a particular museum style to a 22nd century audience. There are current examples of this, such as the Victorian gallery at Salford Museum and Art Gallery which attempts to display its artefacts and artworks as they would have been arranged in a Victorian context. This cabinet of curiosities approach is an interesting way of showing us how museums used to be, but it does run the risk of invoking all the power structures and biases of (in Salford’s case) the Victorian era; without adequate explanation, the visitor will find their engagement with the exhibition limited to a bygone representational context, preventing alternative perspectives on the artefacts or multiple interpretations.

The Interstellar house museum is surprisingly low-tech. Video screens are pretty commonplace today and of course there are a number of more sophisticated media options now available. If Christopher Nolan orchestrated that museum representation specifically then it would seem that his message is that museums will not use much in the way of digital technology in the next few decades. It seems more likely that the museum representation had less attention paid to it than the rest of the film  and, as such, perhaps we can say that perceptions of museums from outside the heritage industry are that museums are not actually very progressive. What does it mean if it seems realistic to a Holywood production team that museums of the future will not incorporate interactive screens, holograms of previous occupants or virtual tour guides?

On the other hand, there is much to be said for the phenomenological aspect of the museum in the film. The house is there to be experienced; walked through, smelled, heard, seen. Nonetheless this is quite traditional, with rope barriers reminiscent of National Trust houses. The interpretation, I feel, is closed and restricted by traditional museological approaches. The subjectivity of the video interviews on display seems to offer little when the subject matter of the house, and its significance to its previous owners, isn’t expressed or interpreted beyond simple display.

It seemed to me that the absence of digital media engagement was a signifier of how far we have yet to go for people to feel digital technology has a legitimate place in museums.

What do you think? Is it just a film?

Development and neglect

I have been neglecting my blog terribly, but it has been very difficult to justify to myself the time to spend on it in the face of getting PhD work done and family stuff.
Last week I presented on my research progress at the Leisure Studies Association conference at the University of the West of Scotland. The experience was very helpful and one of the questions made me think about the nature of my digital outcome. I was asked if the digital representation of Towneley Park would simply provide a carbon copy of the quiet contemplative appreciation of nature; will it simply reinforce already accepted and predominant perceptions of nature and crystallise them?

The first answer to this is that it wouldn’t matter if it did reproduce predominant perceptions because the important aspect is identifying what the participants feel about the park and exploring the success of its translation into digital media. However, it is already clear that what is important about the park is not static. The participants have been expressing so much about the park that is linked to the seasons, the cycles of their lives, to movement through the park or change in oneself by being in the park. The meanings of the park are not crystallisable because they are uses and they are processual and continual.

So, a recap to cover the absent blog entries.

The story-based nature of the interviews and the data collected so far was pointed out to me by my supervisors last month. Owing to this, I am now aiming to explore the data collected using an approach of narrative analysis. This should help me to analyse not only the interview contents, but also the use of the park space. So here there is narrative expressed through language (spoken and written/transcribed) (Fraser 2004; Schorch 2014 ) but also through the use of space and the use of the body (de Certeau 1984; Tilley 1994). The second stage of data collection is currently underway and involves me visiting the park with participants in order to collect phenomenological, or phenomenologically-prompted, data. Although all aspects of discussing the park are in my view part of knowing the park, it is this second data collection stage which holds a strong sense of “practice as research” for me.

Development of the digital representation has recently been influenced by the following things:

the narrative nature of the park meanings
commonly expressed notions of variety and choice within the park by the participants
thoughts about narrative and choice inspired by an independent game “The Stanley Parable”

These things have led me to consider incorporating aspects of game architectures into the representation of the park…

Gaming at Towneley on the light side

Gaming at Towneley on the light side

No, not with shotguns and coin collecting (at least not with this research project). Rather, I am hoping to incorporate some of the narrative techniques used in game structures which can help to create a sense of place or at least a sense of involvement. This part of my research is in the early stages and I am not aiming to construct anything especially complex, but I am hoping to be able to use a gaming framework to help tell and make accessible multiple Towneley Park stories

Digital Reminiscences

Duke Nukem 1 (image: dosgamesarchive.com)

Duke Nukem 1 (image: dosgamesarchive.com)

The fast developing festive season has been making me think of Duke Nukem. Duke Nukem is a computer game in which the player controls the eponymous character in his struggle to defeat Dr Proton. It is a simple platform game that was released in the early nineties which, as the long nights drew in at the end of a winter term, is when my best friend handed me a blue floppy disk with the first levels on it. I played the game a lot.

What has this got to do with heritage? Well, there are two aspects that I would like to talk about here.

Doom (image: dosgamesarchive.com)

Doom (image: dosgamesarchive.com)

Firstly, for me the memory of playing Duke Nukem includes my spatial awareness of the levels. As I explored the levels I learned where things were. The layout mapped itself out in my brain and I was aware of the larger space of the level even though the screen only showed a small section. A little later, I found a similar experience with the game Doom. Again, the levels were learned through exploration. Even though both games were linear such that their events were strictly scripted and therefore replicable, I found the sense of place and space to be realistic.

This, I think, is owing to the way in which we are allowed to explore the limits of the environment created in the games. I hesitate to use the word ‘freedom’ because games are very restricted environments for the player. However, in many ways these restrictions mirror the real world where we find many barriers, whether physical or social. By being allowed to manipulate the avatar (which is of course just a graphical representation of computer code) the human player is able to explore the extent of the environment and to learn the ‘shape’ of the virtual world they explore. Many games allow this sort of exploration, but there are others which do not. The Lucasarts adventure games were, for example, excellent stories which created convincing and hilarious senses of place, but they weren’t able to create senses of space because their worlds were constructed of separate scenes which did not always seem to link together in a logical way spatially. Similarly, I find this with films. While a film may create very effective emotional connections with characters or give the viewer a convincing sense of cultural place, a sense of space cannot be achieved to any great extent (even with 3D) because the viewer is not able to explore the limits of the world themselves.

In this way, I see that games have an important role to play in the expression of heritage and culture. Even if they are not really ‘interactive’, the effect of manipulating an avatar or similar is an effective way to simulate using spaces for the human player. A video played at a heritage centre or an interactive information screen of artefacts at a museum can be excellent ways of conveying information about various elements of culture. However, a game may allow the user to develop a sense of space and so explore the idea of more subjective aspects of history, culture and the environment. Such an approach may allow the player the chance to apply their own perspectives onto heritage and so help to widen the audience and perhaps democratise accessibility. Of course, there are still issues of representation, since some group or body will be responsible for the creation of any game world and this can bring along plenty of complex power issues.

The second element of gaming that I would like to talk briefly about is the socially constructed nature of the technology. I looked forward to playing computer games (and I still do, when I have the time). Being reminded of Duke Nukem and the time of year brought back memories of getting home from school with the light fading and settling safely and warmly in front of the family computer to zap some monsters. Even learning to use the computer at a software and a hardware level provided me with a positive learning experience. The computer and the role of computer games in my life are positive memories linked to a happy childhood. As such it seems likely to me that I have followed a course bound to result in a positive opinion of gaming technology.

Moreover, the content of the games were accessible to me because I fit neatly into the target demographic. While I could never completely identify with the macho alpha male characters, my own youthful ignorance meant that there was very little which excluded me from engaging with these games. The same may not be said for others for whom violence, androcentricism and sexism (among many other flaws) may have been offensive. On the one hand I feel that this is being addressed by some game developers and the wider accessibility of the independent games market, but on the other there are still serious issues for the games industry to tackle; not least of which the continuing (and in my view worsening) sexualised representation of women in games and gaming advertising campaigns which are akin to newspaper and magazine pornography.

These issues call into question the equalising nature of the digital environment. With a gaming industry hostile to women (again, among others) it seems unlikely that the public will broadly accept the use of games as a method to help develop heritage or historical meanings; for some there would always be a concern about the agenda of a gaming approach given the associations with the gaming industry. But perhaps the use of games in museums and heritage centres would somehow influence representation in gaming – certainly if it turned out to be popular.

Is this possible? What do you think about the role of games in heritage and history?