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Ghosts in the Garden

A collaboration between researchers, a museum and games creators is providing an inspirational guide to an important tourist attraction

Sydney Gardens in Bath is the site for a brand-new peek into the past, courtesy of the 'Ghosts in the Garden' project.

Instead of simply viewing the scenery at the old Georgian pleasure gardens, visitors can now see, hear, and interact with a number of ‘ghosts’ from the era there too – played by actors, of course, but all modelled as far as possible upon accurately researched 'real' people.

It's described as 'part game, part story, part immersive soundscape', accessed through a ‘Georgian Listening Device’ – a kind of telephone as conceived, perhaps, by Lewis Carroll - and it's all thanks to a collaboration between historian Steve Poole from the University of the West of England, the Holburne Museum (with whom he had been working for some time previously as an academic advisor), and real-world games creators Splash and Ripple, led by Rosie Fairchild, in her first project with an academic partner.

The funding for the project came from Research & Enterprise in Arts & Creative Technology (REACT), a partnership between four universities plus the Watershed arts and media centre in Bristol – one of four such Knowledge Exchange Hubs - which has £4m of AHRC funding over four years to promote collaborations between researchers and creative companies, and champion knowledge exchange, cultural experimentation and innovative digital technologies. Each project they funded under their first call issued last summer has delivered new ways to experience heritage attractions, through new kinds of social interaction enabled by multimedia technologies.

“When we first decide on a theme that we're going to fund the projects around, we run a series of events that we've called Ideas Labs, which brings anyone from an academic or a creative company background who's interested in exploring questions around that theme together,” says Jo Lansdowne, a producer at REACT. “One of the aims of those events is to introduce those people to each other and to get them discussing and thinking about where they might have areas of mutual interest.”

At the beginning of 2012, Poole and Fairchild met at one of those events, and began to discuss ideas for a project working with the Holburne Museum.

“As soon as Rosie and I both agreed we weren't going to make an audio guide, then the world opened up!” laughs Poole. “She said, 'We do games,' and I said, 'Oh, amazing - how do I fit in here?' I hadn't had a great deal of experience of working in games, so that challenge was fantastic.”

Poole provided the archival research needed to create the 'ghostly' characters, with Splash and Ripple handling the technology for the sound scape and the 'Georgian listening devices' presented to visitors to use as they go round the garden. Poole's favourite ‘ghost’ was William Bridle, a jailer at Somerset county prison, whom Poole already knew about through previous research. However, he discovered that Bridle later became a proprietor at Sydney Gardens, and his tenure there focused mostly on promoting its commercial success, adding a theatre, an aviary and spectacular acts to its entertainments.

“We always approached this as a three-hand partnership between Holburne Museum, myself as the UWE academic, and then Splash and Ripple as creative industry partners. We saw it as a triangular relationship throughout,” Poole continues. “At the same time, we worked very hard on working on what REACT is all about. It's a partnership, so we tried not to sit in our separate offices, it was all one another's ideas and enthusiasms all the time. It's a lovely funding stream from that point of view because it absolutely demands of you that that's how you work.”

REACT's role in this and other projects is as a funder and enabler. “I wasn't part of the team in a day-to-day way in terms of actually making the project happen,” says Lansdowne, “but my role was more supporting the partners in their relationship with each other, helping them out if they needed access to other resources or if they had particular questions that they needed some advice on, connecting them to people who would be interested and interesting for their project, meeting with them regularly to hear about their progress and just gently provoke and question them a bit to help them move in the right sort of direction.”

Of course, bringing together academics and creatives could have created problems, but for Ghosts in the Garden there were few issues.

“Although Steve and Rosie had quite different agendas and interests, they had enough in common and were excited enough by each other's skills and interests that they were able to have a really interesting creative tension,” recalls Lansdowne. “So sometimes they'd disagree but it never actually became difficult to manage. They'd always find a compromise. The Holburne Museum themselves were really good at stepping back from the process, and not getting more involved than they needed to be, and just letting Steve and Rosie experiment and take risks and come up with something.”

“I think whenever you get two people from quite different backgrounds working together, it's quite enriching and interesting,” says Fairchild.

Poole agrees, adding: “It's lovely being involved in a funded project where learning processes are as valuable to the project as the precision of the outcome. It's a creative thing. It's about process, it's about how you learn to work with creative people – and how creative people learn to work with stuffy old historians!”

One problem was the conflicting attitudes to bureaucracy, but REACT's involvement helped to negotiate that. “Steve is based at the University of the West of England, which is obviously a big, massive, bureaucratic organisation, and Splash and Ripple are a very small, new company, and so that's quite an imbalance in a way when you're doing things like negotiating contracts or making sure the company gets paid quickly, so that took quite a bit of careful negotiation, and wasn't as good as it could have been, but we got the project happening,” says Lansdowne.

The team have got some funding for a longer term installation at the Holburne and will then be looking for other, commercial, clients.

“The project hasn't stopped,” says Poole. “We felt all the time that we were working towards creating a prototype. That was hard enough in the three months on a limited budget, but we did it, and I'm really, really proud of what we did.”

For further information, please go to the Ghosts in the Garden project site.

Article by Carrie Dunn

Images by Greg Browning, Silicon 19 Media Ltd.

Image of the Box by Matt Davenport.

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