XIX.5 September + October 2012
Page: 18
Digital Citation

Of turf fires, fine linen, and Porter cake

Luigina Ciolfi, Marc McLoughlin

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Living history museums are challenging environments to enhance with interactive technology. Their heritage is complex, usually including entire buildings, historical artifacts, and live performances, all within an outdoor site often landscaped to be part of the display. Visitors explore living history museums with an interest in immersive reconstructions of ways of life, people, and activities from times past.

At these sites, and at museums in general, visitors tend to play an active role; even in scenarios in which they are on the receiving end of content, visitors actively interpret, share, discuss, and appropriate the information and artifacts presented to them. But visitors can be encouraged to play an even more participatory role and be asked to provide comments, reactions, and even original contributions. Participation has increasingly become a concern of museums, and there is interest in understanding how even low-technology strategies for engagement can be used successfully to turn visitors into active contributors to heritage sites [1]. Through design, we must address fully the relationship that visitors establish with heritage, a rich dialogue in which people actively invest a site with their personal expectations, memories, and values, as well as their physical presence. Here, we present our project Reminisce at Bunratty Folk Park. We use it to discuss and emphasize the importance of understanding how visitors experience a heritage site and make it a "lived place."

back to top  The Museum as Lived Place: Bunratty Folk Park, Ireland

A concern for place experience, or how people connect to locations in ways that are personal and meaningful, is key when designing the augmentation of visitor activities at a heritage institution, especially one specifically trying to communicate authenticity and character through the physical environment and its fittings. The curatorial goal of living history museums is to provide reconstructions of everyday life in times past by showcasing material and engaging visitors through costumes and crafts. Living history museums offer a unique multisensory and immersive experience often not possible in enclosed museums that includes smell and taste as important ways of exploring what is on display. A living history museum showcasing a collection of 32 historic dwellings with period-appropriate fittings, Bunratty Folk Park is appreciated by many visitors for its authentic charm and for allowing the exploration of ways of life of Ireland's rural past. The park comprises farmhouses and craftsmen cottages (shown in Figure 1), a manor house, a fully reconstructed village street, and other environments, such as farmyards, gardens, and animal enclosures.

ins01.gif Figure 1. Craftsman cottage.

The information available to visitors about the buildings is not very extensive. It consists of a detailed map of the site handed out at the main entrance, on which the buildings and other features are marked with name, location within the park, and a very brief description. However, the physical environment of the museum is incredibly rich in terms of its character, the historical and cultural value of the displays, and its immersive sensory aspects, such as the food prepared on site according to traditional recipes, the textures of the different materials furnishing the buildings, and the smells of turf fires and of baking (see Figure 2).

ins02.gif Figure 2. Griddle bread baking on a turf fire.

Our project sought to design an interactive element that would be sensitively integrated within the visit and the locale, and that would facilitate participants interpreting the site more fully. With this intervention, we had to be mindful of how people experience the physical site, in order to not disrupt its identity and character. Underlying our design activities was a notion of place that sees the physical environment as a lived setting invested by multiple layers of experiential quality: physical, personal, social, and cultural [2]. The physical environment is treated in relation to how it facilitates bodily trajectories, visibility, and awareness, but also in terms of cultural specificity, social and community values, and personal meanings and values [3]. We make places of spaces we can physically sense, explore, and inhabit; we invest them with feelings and emotions because of the knowledge and memories they evoke; and we share them with others. In these places, we also leave visible traces of our presence through the wear and tear on objects we leave behind or the changes we make to the setting. These activities also shape places and influence the experience that others will have in the future.

back to top  Museum Materialities and Digital Augmentation

In the initial phase of our project, we conducted qualitative studies of visitor experiences at Bunratty Folk Park through observations, video diaries, informal interviews, and conversations that also involved staff. The goal of these studies was to understand how people visited the place physically, and more important, what about it they found particularly engaging and memorable. The design aim was therefore to bring forth those aspects of the place that could be further developed and supported by interactive technology, and subsequently build on such findings to guide our design. The theme that emerged most strongly from our investigation was the need that people expressed to link what they were seeing to a real-life scenario: Visitors see empty buildings and unused objects, and they find it hard to relate to the people who could have been living there in the past. Through a series of brainstorming sessions and design focus groups that involved previous visitors to the park, the themes of identification, reminiscence, and everyday life emerged and were used to inspire the development of scenarios. This creative design phase led to the development, deployment, and evaluation of the installation called Reminisce.

Through Reminisce, participants could augment their visit to a series of buildings with several auditory digital "memories" narrated by fictional characters associated with the sites, the Farmer of the Land and the Woman of the House. These "memories" took the form of brief audio snippets that could be downloaded and listened to through a mobile application at certain locations around a building and that were identified with QR codes (see Figure 3). Using a mobile phone, participants also had the opportunity to record in real time their impressions, comments, and reactions to what they saw and heard at each site, and to share them with other visitors. Each fictional character's memories could also be followed thanks to small, tangible tokens that visitors could collect as they moved around the park. The tangible tokens for each site consisted of different physical objects unique to that location, for example, a piece of turf for the mountain farmhouse, nuts and bolts for the cooper's forge, and so on, that acted as both a support for going from one building to the next and as "keys" to access further digital content. For example, in the schoolhouse, tokens could be used to interact with an interactive installation, the Schoolhouse Desk, to play back all of the recordings made by other visitors at each site. Placed on the desk were books with embedded RFID tags, each of them related to one of the characters from which visitors could collect memories. A book holder and a basket were also placed on the desk (see Figure 4). When one of the books was placed on the holder and one of the tangible tokens was placed inside the basket, the recordings left by other visitors in response to the characters were played back. These recordings were of the buildings in which the tangible token was collected.

ins03.gif Figure 3. QR code placed on the outside of a building.
ins04.gif Figure 4. The Interactive Desk in the schoolhouse.

Reminisce made available several interactive experiences that could be enjoyed either individually or in aggregate. Without having a rigid structure of content delivery imposed upon them, visitors could interact with the memories embedded in each building as if they were separate from one another or connect them by carrying the memories in the tokens from one building to the other. Additionally, Reminisce provided visitors means of scaffolding their own contributions rather than inundating them with prepackaged content. The use of small portions of evocative content in combination with portable tangible artifacts (i.e., the tokens) gave people interesting snapshots of information and also inspired them to respond with their own comments.

back to top  "Remininiscing" at Bunratty Folk Park

Data collected during the trial of Reminisce shows many cases of visitors actively using what they collected as a basis to discuss each building and leaving their own accounts and comments. For many, searching for memories and collecting them became integral to understanding what they encountered during their visit, so that leaving their own traces in each building became a natural complement (see Figure 5). Very often the memories of one fictional character guided the actual exploration of a building, highlighting aspects that otherwise might not have been apparent or would have conveyed very little meaning. For example, a memory recalling the special meaning of the fine linen that was handed down through generations for special occasions, such as christenings and weddings, pointed visitors to one of the cottage's bedrooms where the linen is displayed, giving that space a new significance for visitors. In other cases, the memories were used as commentary on how people lived in a particular setting. One such vignette sees a local family—a grandmother, her daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren—guessing the period in which people would have lived in one of the farmhouses (as this information is not given within the park). While exploring the house, they find a memory QR code placed at the turf box beside the fire. The granddaughter collects the memory by the Farmer of the Land, which involves bringing home the cut turf from the bog on the tractor and being welcomed by a feast. The family discusses the memory and all agree that the house must have been lived in until at least the 1950s, when tractors started replacing horse and cart on farms in Ireland. Then, sparked by the mention of the bog, the grandmother and daughter-in-law begin recollecting their own memories of going to the bog in very vivid terms, while the grandchildren record them on the phone:

ins05.gif Figure 5. Visitors identifying where to go next on the map after leaving a comment through the phone.

"Were you ever in a bog?"

"Yeah, years ago."

"I was too. I remember being in a bog and I remember taking off my shoes. And I have a picture of myself in the bog."

"Why did you take off your shoes?"

"Because they cut the turf, you remember, off the brow; and it was soft like moss."

"It was like a cushion."

" Yeah ... it was a lovely feeling. It was like walking on a soft mattress. It was wet. And the ooze would go up between your toes, remember that?"

"Oh, yeah."

"I used to love that walking, and then you used to have a slane [a spade for cutting turf]."

"For cutting down, then you lift it out and you foot the turf. Five and one across."

In another episode, the same family gathers around the freshly baked cake in the kitchen of the Loop Head House. The granddaughter notices the basket used to hold the tokens on the windowsill behind the table. She takes one and looks at it. There is an indication as to where another memory can be found and a souvenir recipe.

"I found the clue: 'Life in the mountains is difficult during the winter.'"

"So where do we go next, then?"

"Show me."

"Mountain farmhouse No. 5."

The souvenir itself is actually a recipe for the Porter Cake that they have just tasted in the house:

"Porter cake?"

"You should make that now when you go home ... You keep that now and make it; it's really nice and 'tis easy to make."

In this example, we see how the token's presence is noticed first as part of the exploration of the house; then it suggests to visitors where they can find more memories. Additionally, the token triggers a conversation around the souvenir itself and then around how the souvenir will lead to an activity to be performed at home. In examples such as this, the tangible tokens link the site to the sensory qualities just experienced by visitors in the house and create a connection from one building to the next and to what comes after the day at the museum. Often the sight of participants scanning QR codes, recording comments, or opening a token also led onlookers to strike up conversations. People were particularly interested in the content recorded by others; their stories, comments, and reflections provided different perspectives on what they encountered.

The prototypical nature of Reminisce did not allow for long-term testing, and not all visitor typologies that Bunratty Folk Park welcome could be involved in the trial. Another limitation of the system was that lone visitors had difficulties negotiating the different components without help, in particular with handling the tangible tokens and operating the mobile application at the same time. After seeing several of the houses, a visitor would have accumulated a number of souvenirs that then had to be carried around; this made operating the mobile application difficult without the help of another person (e.g., a family member or friend). Although lone visitors are a very small minority at the Folk Park, the system could be improved to address this limitation.

Despite these limits, the trial of Reminisce provided key insights on the challenges of designing for living history sites, particularly on the importance of complementing the materiality of the site and of supporting visitor experiences of it. More specifically, the design of Reminisce provided another layer of interactional possibilities to the activities that visitors perform in the museum, engendering active interaction with the site. The installation helped visitors make sense of their encounters with places in the museum as they connect to people's lives in times past, and often to their own experiences and understandings. It also encouraged the sharing of participants' own reflections, comments, and recollections, thus marking their physical presence in the museum with enhanced personal significance. Overall, place-sensitive design is useful for augmenting physical settings with a concern for how people experience them and shape them. Consideration of the material qualities of the environment and of personal memories and feelings, as well as the social interactions and the cultural understandings linked to a place, are a powerful frame for designing engaging interactive experiences in the physical world.

back to top  References

1. Russo, A. Great expectations: Sustaining participation in social media spaces. In Proc. of Museums and the Web 2009. D. Bearman and J. Trant, eds. Archives and Museums Informatics, Toronto, 2009.

2. Tuan, Y-F. Place and Space. University of Minnesota press, 1977.

3. Bannon, L., Benford, S., Bowers, J., and Heath C. Hybrid design creates innovative museum experiences. Comm. of the ACM 48, 3 (2005), 62–65.

back to top  Authors

Luigina Ciolfi is a lecturer and researcher at the Interaction Design Centre in the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, University of Limerick. Her research focuses on the design, development and evaluation of technologies to support human interaction within the physical world, based on an understanding of the relationship between people, activities, and their locales.

Marc McLoughlin is a recent Ph.D graduate from the Interaction Design Centre, University of Limerick. His research is concerned with the design and development of ubiquitous computing installations in public places (heritage sites, in particular). He is particularly interested in design practices that concentrate on visitors' activities and on how technology can best be shaped to support them.

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