Policy, practical and epistemological tensions of producing heritage-led immersive experiences

This post is based on a presentation I gave to the Culture, Media, Place research group at Solent University on 13th February, 2019. It is some very early thinking in relation to the Memoryscapes project of which I am a part.

Some of the slides are missing photos because of permissions, or a lack thereof. Some of the original slides have been cut to save space. Some of notes are very note-like, some are more polished because they come from previous presentations.

Part 1 - Introduction

Part 1 - Introduction

Thanks to Toby for the invite and thanks to you all for coming….

Today i want to introduce the memoryscapes project which is examining how digital landscapes of the past might be constructed, and second to report some of the early findings. In so doing i hope to highlight the importance of understanding how people working in heritage, planning, architecture and technology sectors approach the development of city-based digital landscapes of heritage …and what they can learn from each other.

Very work in progress… some is made up of presentations we’ve done as part of the project, some if part of a short paper i gave at a conference in August. The rambling, incoherent and speculative bits i’ve written in the last week!

Doing so reveals the contextual, practical and philosophical challenges and opportunities for different agents in their construction. I want to illustrate some of the collisions of definition and approach and how they might influence how histories can be told. Such clashes may provide challenges but also spur what Brown and Knopp call productive tensions that can be generative of innovative ideas as different sectors learn from each other.



I’m conscious that when i talk about this project, not everyone is aware of how immersive technology is defined. So here’s a screenshot from the wikipedia page.

we’ve been exploring how these technologies might be used to tell heritage driven narratives in cities.

…but as i’ll mention later, one of our key arguments is that non-digital technologies are really important too.

Part 2 - Context

Part 2 - Context

memoryscapes is funded by the AHRC-EPSRC’s immersive experiences stream. EPSRC and AHRC interesting in itself… EPSRC disappeared

This call came out in 2017: …quote

Ideas and partnerships for immersive experiences… so using immersive technologies…

two stages… audiences of the future took money


The immersive experiences call is part of a wider series of creative industries initiatives which represent a significant shift in the way cultural and creative policy is done, what it attempts to achieve and who it is for.

We’ve seen the creative industries clusters programme launched and awarded.

The aim…

The AHRC describe the programme as “ambitious research and development investment to establish up to eight Creative Research & Development (R&D) Partnerships within existing creative clusters across the UK.” Partnerships are expected to be consortia of universities, businesses and “other key partner organisations”. The funding is from the Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund which means there are strings attached. 

I went to one of the briefing sessions and it was fascinating. As Andrew Chitty (AHRC creative industries champion) put it, access to this money means fitting creative industries development into what government finds acceptable to spend industrial strategy challenge fund money on. To put it more explicitly: achieving medium to long term economic growth through research and development. Yes, that’s economic growth funding run through the AHRC, not the ESRC, and neither artistic value or audiences were mentioned at the briefing session. A potentially fascinating institutional shift - i'd love to know why the ESRC aren't involved.

…perhaps the AHRC are more willing to be steered by government goals..?

Chitty explained the R&D element is primarily about research for creative industries (rather than about or with them) by/through universities. This differentiates it from previous creative industries programmes such as Creative FUSE NE, Brighton FUSE and  knowledge exchange hubs - all of which which included elements of research about, with and for, creative sector. Knowledge exchange hubs focused primarily on SMEs, but there is an emphasis in the CICP programme on what were referred to as ‘large corporates’, ‘national partners’ and ‘big players’ (Google, Youtube and ITV were mentioned at various times). The reasoning is that larger companies can provide scale for SMEs, while the latter can more nimbly provide innovation and talent for the former. So this is economic growth led by key challenges faced by firms, harnessing HEI resources. My immediate thoughts were what’s going to stop larger corporations extracting all the value at the expense of SMEs? What role for freelancers who represent a major part of the sector? And what about third sector organisations?

Another example is the Beyond conference, organised by the AHRC’s Creative Economy Programme team and held in London last November.

As this quote from their website states, this is about R&D for the creative industries. It is about future making. 

I don’t know if anyone went, but the tickets were really expensive and that is an indication of who the conference was for. It was for businesses who could afford the ticket and to send staff to an event in London on a Tuesday.

To me this is significant for two reasons.

First, not many individuals or micro-SMEs can afford the loss of staff time or the ticket.

Second, the AHRC/UKRI explicitly states that it is interested in rebalancing the creative economy… but then again, David Cameron said he was interested in rebalancing the UK economy as a whole, and look how that has turned out! Anyway, there is an acknowledgement that the creative industries are too London and south east heavy. so the most obvious place to showcase the future of the creative industries, then, is London…

Audience of the Future

“a consortium of ESL - the world’s largest e-sports content producer - academics and innovators, which will develop a new platform that uses gameplay data to transform how remote audiences experience sports

…two new, multi-sensory, interactive worlds filled with dinosaurs and robots, in a project led by Factory 42 for London’s Natural History Museum and Science Museum

…a Royal Shakespeare Company project with 15 specialist organisations from theatre, music, video production, gaming and research, to stream live performances to people’s mobile phones and extended reality headsets”

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Not surprising as this has been the trajectory of the creative industries for a while now. But potentially a step change.

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Memoryscapes is funded by the AHRC-EPSRC’s immersive experiences stream. They have funded 32 projects with the aim of …quote

EPSRC involvement is telling

The funders wanted to provide time and resources to come up with ideas and partnerships - so not necessarily creating immersive experiences themselves, but working on ways they might be created through further funding. This is reflected in the timescale of projects which were capped at 9 months.

I’m one of six academics working on the memoryscapes project - we’re an interdisciplinary team taking in academic disciplines including architecture and urban modelling, english literature, computer science and human-computer interaction.

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Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums is a major regional museum, art gallery and archives service based in North East England who will serve as an exemplar of other heritage organisations who will benefit from our findings. They operate nine museums, support a further 55 and manage the region’s archives.  They manage internationally significant collections including roman heritage related to the nearby Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site, and industrial heritage which tells the story of the North East’s central role in the industrial revolution…

FaulknerBrowns are a multi-award winning architectural practice with over 50 years of experience working nationally and internationally. They have been tasked by Newcastle City Council to redevelop Newcastle’s main shopping area, Northumberland Street and its surrounds. So we used their master planning as a kind of live case study.


So as we developed the project we chatted with our partners and they identified a series of challenges that they face. In relation to  museums, TWAM highlighted that fact that most of their collections are ever seen.

Mendoza report - at least 200 million heritage things held by museums, archives and galleries in England and Wales but 90% is in storage 

Second, those that are on display are in museums, galleries and archives, and are decontextualised from their original purposes and the places they gained meaning. The net result is engagement with and interpretation of these heritages is limited.

Our focus is to explore ways to:

1. re-contextualise, increase access to, and create dialogue about heritages by bringing them out of the museum/gallery/archive and presenting them in new ways and in new locations

— accessibility and engagement agendas… getting people to engage with museums and galleries outside of them


headlines from national newspapers

2. reimagine and reinvigorate public spaces contributing to their character and identity

—declining high streets, and regeneration projects are often accused of erasing pasts, creating bland spaces with little connection to the locale and therefore limiting broad engagement with place beyond shopping.

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3. provide an opportunity for participatory responses to heritage, allowing users to respond, contributing and enhancing narratives through qualitative and quantitative collaborations.

— going beyond what Laura-Jane Smith calls the authorised heritage discourse. Histories made by experts that ignore lots of people and issues. So we’re interested in how people to respond to immersive experiences with personal histories, to highlight what they cherish as heritage, or perhaps uploading photos of family relating to events.


  • framework to help develop heritage-led immersive experiences

  • ideas and partnership to take forward for further funding

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Our underlying approach in the development of immersive and participatory memoryscapes is a commitment to avoid what Morozov calls ‘solutionism’ (2013). This is a kind of instrumental rationality which dominates technology-led solutions and recasts “all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self- evident processes that can be easily optimized if only the right algorithms are in place” (ibid: 24). This, ‘there’s an app for that’, approach is not only inefficient in the medium and long term, but doesn’t explore, and therefore cannot offer robust answers to, real world complex problems. This is especially important in relation to ideas of memory and place which are often highly contested, plural and political. Our approach will explicitly deal with these issues as we explore the challenges and opportunities in creating immersive and participatory memoryscapes. Indeed, we believe immersive experiences offer methodologies for not only increasing engagement with place and memory assets, but ways to gather, collate and disseminate a broader range of memories in participatory ways.


in terms of methodology…  we’ve focused on three areas: heritage, urban design, and digital tech 

we wanted to understand the context before working on ideas so undertook some desk-based research on the state of the art in each of the three fields and then did Interviews with people from each of these areas.

We also ran a big workshop to get people talking across professions, and to share opportunities and constraints. to create dialogue between people who probably don’t understand what one another do.

From there we designed a workshop where teams of participants use boxes of de-accessioned heritage to develop potential immersive experiences.

boxes of delight

Team chose thematic boxes and are then challenged to develop ideas for different places that have certain characteristics… such as being very noisy, or places which don’t get used very much, to parts of the city that don’t have much use other than as transitions from once place to another…

we also get them to think about how to develop experiences for different types of audiences and combinations of audiences.

To understand what we’ve been doing from a theoretical perspective we’ve been drawing on work from Brown and Knopp (2008). They provide a deeply honest and processual account of their work to solve the problems of finding and mapping sites of significance to gay and lesbian communities in Seattle, USA.

They detail the challenges faced when mobilising a series of potentially conflicting epistemologies, including queer theory and GIS. The ‘collisions’ between epistemologies, and the negotiations to construct the map, created a series of productive tensions for Brown and Knopp which included:
debate about whether to take a deductive or inductive approach; discussions on how to define significance, and for whom sites were significant; and issues relating the coding, quantification, and reliability of data gleaned from “memory, negotiation, trust, and serendipity” (Brown and Knopp, 2008, page 49). 

interdisciplinary team… language … has been productive

similar to us… recontexualising perhaps provides a way to partly address these issues.

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I’ve not fully thought through the underlying ontological and epistemological assumptions for the three groups we’ve been working with, but we’ve gleaned number of insights that provide clues to them that i want to go through now area by area…

Massive potential - all of history to draw from.

not just 90% Kept in stores. some not photographed, much not catalogued properly - “brown shoe”. Hidden stories creating partial histories

Funding cuts and policy demands - be more entrepreneurial 

Can technology help? Yes, and the heritage sector have done lots of work examining what can and can’t work, particularly museums and so they are well aware of the constraints.

IP - public organisations =/= publicly available assets (even photos of some painting have restrictive copyright

Sustainability - heritage preserve for next generation. Technology in museums doesn’t last long - breaks, becomes unsupported, people leave… from practical and philosophical perspective some curators are reluctant to invest time and money in something which might last very long. Goes against their ethos and practice.

what value does it add to historical narratives? learning reduced… lack of imagination suggested.

alternatives - stories and imagination. sound. costumes.

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see themselves as providing venues and have lots of exciting ideas. Desperate to do different things with city centres and high streets as more people shop online.

underlying this, as one might expect, are economic drivers - footfall, shoppers, extending day into night time economy… want attractions and very keen on immersive technologies but to help economic viability of shops and restaurants etc.

visually appealing.

Tangible - but in relation to the built environment. Transformation and enhancement through spectacle - stuff which looks great on the street. but tension between providing a canvas that can be used for lots of different activities for range of people, but placeless when not in use…. and built environment that 

Prefer to see screen based options and soundscapes. Plus using planting to create smell scapes and shape sounds

who pays? not a lot of money… advertising? Potential clash with heritage?

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industrial strategy - lots of support but focused on big IP. Film and TV, sporting events

time limited/reluctant - …to engage with project. …time to bid for things …to understand and overcome problems

some seems to reproduce solutionism in that digital immersive technologies are seen as just another platform on which to experience content. So many VR experiences are essentially the same… ‘oh hey, you can look around!’ Slowly starting to recognise the possibilities of using a range of immersive technologies to tell new stories in new ways.

but did come across the idea to “just VR it”

nuanced understanding of the practicalities - which platform? can different platforms speak to each other and in a way that is hidden from the audience?

content curation and maintenance?


mobile web not apps best - easier to access: nothing to download.

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two inter-related themes emerged. One relating to translations, the other to what counts as immersion.

There was a concern that too much is lost when you have to translate historical events into some other form. Laura Jane Smith’s book on Uses of heritage has highlighted the politics involved in the reproduction of partial heritage narratives to the detriment of working class, BAME, indigenous and intangible heritages. Things have improved a lot in the last decade or so, but there was a fear that new introducing new agents into the translation process would recreate such problems.

One way we’ve been thinking about this is to consider if immersive technology and immersive experiences are art or science? The head of a tech company said at an event “just give us the content, we have the technology”. There are a number of things worth unpacking with this comment. The first is the use of the term content. Historic narratives with all their complexity, contestations and politics is something to fill space on another platform. The plurality of idea about the past need to be understood if we’re to avoid recreating what Smith called the authorised heritage discourse.

Second, ‘just give us the content’ doesn’t fully acknowledge the difficulty in acknowledging and showing this complexity in an immersive experience. There are limits to eat can be show, just like a dot on Brown and Knopp’s map can’t represent the plurality of pasts, an AR app can only show you so much. This needs to be acknowledge more in the rhetoric about what immersive technology can do.

If we consider the motivations of those funding this field, funding and policy places the emphasis on tech, not art and this will influence the approaches used to represent pasts. Especially when making money is a key driver.

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i mentioned at the start the increasing emphasis on digital technologies and future making. With the focus on the latest innovative thing that will drive changes in consumer behaviour and revolutionise everything, often means we lose sight of what already works.

Working with heritage, though, kept us grounded and allowed us to think about what works well already in relation to immersive technologies.

The importance of tangible… as demonstrates in this contrast… Great Exhibition 

tangibility - came out in workshops

Tangible-ness of objects - for many children, digital technology is mundane - being allowed to touch and play with old stuff is fascinating

urban designers highlight role of non-digital - planting for smell and noise (reduction or things that rustle), actually moving through environments rather than virtually moving through them, live performers, 

Disembodied - Technology not there yet but getting better. Unfortunately there seems to be a push from some people to use it even when not suitable.

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as i say, early thoughts. Shown us how complex bringing together three professions is in the construction of digital landscapes… just getting people in the room is quite hard, but productive tensions do generate good ideas.

highlighted that immersive experiences can be generated and enhanced using non-digital technologies

how digital technologies can help overcome problems faced by heritage organisations but need to do so in such a way as to add value in the translation process.

as more time and money is poured into this field, we think it is important to problematise some of the rhetoric around what immersive experience can and might do, who they are for and how they are used.