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How do we help young people engage with historical fiction?


The answer might be by allowing them to explore the work on their own terms by placing it in an experimental mixed-reality environment, according to researchers behind a remarkable new project at the V&A, Immersive Dickens.

The project, which is aimed specifically at 15-18-year olds studying his work as part of the GCSE and A-Level school curriculum, aims to find new ways to bring together digital technology, performance and curatorial practice to give young people a sense of creative agency when encountering a historical object.

To do this, it will pull together the curatorial, theatrical, design and technological expertise from the V&A, as well as Punchdrunk Enrichment theatre company and creative technology studio, The Workers.

“We’re hoping that through this project we will identify new methodologies to forge new creative practice, within the museum and beyond, and we’ll be consolidating our findings in a case study and toolkit for others to understand, experiment with and exploit immersive technologies to create new experiences,” says Kati Price, Head of Digital Media and Publishing at the V&A.

“We’re hoping it will help shape and drive innovation in this area, with our peers in the creative and tech industries.”

Project organisers say that they have deliberately chosen a tricky object and a demanding audience.

“Our target group of 15-18 year olds are digital natives who have high expectations of what constitutes a genuinely immersive and captivating experience,” says Kati Price. “And the Dickens manuscript is fragile; it can’t be handled or viewed in full, and is not immediately impactful.”

Charles Dickens’s manuscripts are full of complex handwritten revisions – and aren’t that legible, either. But they are the best evidence we have of the creative process of one of the UK’s most important and renowned authors, whose work has continuing relevance for young people today.

Dickens was an observer of urban material culture and life in a period of rapid technological innovation and widespread financial insecurity; a writer who explored themes that still resonate today,”

says Kati Price, Head of Digital Media and Publishing at the V&A

“We’ve had a series of workshops and are now pulling together a range of creative ideas for our first prototype. It’s going well, though perhaps a little slower than we anticipated. We’ve allowed more time to get to know one another as partners, which is important with this kind of project, before diving into the prototyping.”

Kati Price did her MA in Design History at the V&A and Royal College of Art in 1999 and she says that it's exciting to be back at the museum and to be incorporating academic research into her day-to-day role.

“It’s great to be able to draw on the research expertise of the V&A itself, and on my own practical experience of working with content and technology to bring the V&A’s collections to life through digital,” she says.

“As a project team, we recognize the cultural and economic value of content and user-led immersive experience design, and we’ll be actively engaging with creative industry peers to make sure the project is supported, publicized and diffused.”

Immersive Dickens will be consolidating its process of iterative design prototyping and user research into a case study and preliminary toolkit that Price hopes can be used as a training device and stimulus for practitioners working in heritage interpretation, education, youth theatre and interaction design.

“We’re hoping this project has the potential to become a model for new, participatory modes of display curation,” she says.

“It’s the 150th anniversary of Dickens’s death in 2020, and we’re hoping that this project will have a life beyond the prototyping phase, perhaps a display, or event during the anniversary year, either at the V&A or elsewhere.”

Read the abstract of this research on the Gateways to Research website.

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