The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth holds a vast collection of information and artifacts of cultural significance to Wales and its communities. As well as offering reflection and understanding about the historical identity of welsh culture and people, its stories also provide a rich source of inspiration for creative content.
The Arts, Archives and Technology Project was a short action research based creative collaboration bringing together a cross disciplinary team of The National Library of Wales, Yello Brick, Artist Jorge Lizalde and technology partner Hoffi.
Together, they set out to explore how creative interpretation of the Library’s archive material could combine with digital technology to connect with audiences on an emotional and meaningful level.
To do this they looked to address some of the barriers to engaging with archived content and through cross-sector collaboration, rethink the way archive materials are presented, making subject matter more tangible and relevant to a broader audience.
In doing this, the team hoped to inspire thinking and innovation in the arts sector about how archived material and processes can be of huge value to a current, live body of work.
Existing approaches to digital archiving tend to present objects to an audience and allow them to speak for themselves. Instead, the team set out with the innovative idea of reinterpreting archive material creatively to inspire an immersive digital experience.
They wanted to explore how this experience could trigger an empathic response in a user, and whether the emotional impact of a personal interaction with the story behind the archive would breathe new life into it, making it live and current.
Over a short three month period, the team developed an experience around the Library’s archive on the Patagonian settlement of 1865. Using the themes present in the story of the settlers their idea focused directly on the human experience – mainly, the need for survival, the consequences of decision making and the development of culture.
The user would be cast in the role as colony leader Lewis Jones, and asked to make a number of decisions for his group of settlers, the consequences of which would either result in a thriving or non-existent colony. The aim was to evoke the emotional impact of the weight of responsibility and intensity of decision-making to convey an essence of the historic experience.
As part of the design process the team looked at the idea of re-appropriating archive content to use as a visual backdrop to the experience. Digitised pictures and documents were hacked from the archive and combined with simple sound effects to evoke a sense of place as well as time in history.
Hoffi worked on the site functionality, while the rest of the team worked with the Library staff, to draw out their knowledge to form a matrix of questions that mapped consequences, creating different interactions based on different decisions made by the user.
The process resulted in a prototype website experience, placing the user as protagonist in the Patagonian Settler story. The experience is both playful and informative, and takes a bold and innovative approach to presenting archive material as an empathically driven experience, delivered through a conceptual re-interpretation rather than presentation of the archived material itself.
Results of the testing phase were positive: the consensus agreed that the experience was valuable in creating a new form of engagement with archive content. It also highlighted the importance of the system’s capacity to connect the user’s curiosity and engagement in the action of the experience with the actual historical context and detail of the archive.
The partners only scratched the surface in terms of the emotional impact that the experience could deliver the user. The potential for a more complex and sophisticated system in terms of the consequence question matrix is clear, and its flexibility in tailoring its content to the needs of specific audiences, makes it broadly appealing and potentially useful across a wide audience demographic.
The use of the latest web technologies (HTML 5 Canvas) in the system’s construction has meant that the game pushes standard web browsers’ internal memory to their limits.
As a result, future versions would need to address this to avoid user frustration and negative impact. This will inform the future of the system as Yello Brick look to commercialise the product for use in creating experiences using pre-existing archive material held by other arts organisations, public bodies and private companies.
Key insights taken from the process were:
- Historical archives provide a rich seam of content for engaging audience experiences: taking a creative digital approach to using the stories that sit within the material can bring the archive to life and engage audiences in new ways.
- Evocative experiential storytelling will engage new audiences: Emotional responses from personal experience can connect audiences to historical fact in meaningful ways.
- Engaging audience empathy is a means to learn: Current learning styles and teaching don’t use emotion, just transmission of fact. Engaging people’s feelings is both a productive valuable means to learn and discover.
- Embrace and understand the differences when working cross-discipline: the creative team needed to develop a common creative language and a way of working that embraced the differences and strengths of the practices of those involved.
- Established relationships helped produce results in a short timeframe: The relationship between Yello Brick and Hoffi, the technology provider, was key to the speed of progress made in the projects compact three month lifespan.