Part of my adventures with the University of Canberra has included visiting two places dedicated to telling the narrative of the Peranakan ethnic group. It was an interesting comparison between the two methods of displaying the culture and history of the group.
Peranakan in Malay means ‘local born’, but in Singapore the word is used to describe the family and descendants of Chinese immigrants who married local Malay women. It’s an incredible cultural heritage, where the culture of both the Chinese and Malay blending together fairly harmoniously. To add to that blend, the Peranakan combined other facets of cultures that they appreciated into the mix. This resulted in a specific (almost eclectic) style and a different way of thinking compared to other ethnic groups.
The two locations that we visited to explore this culture was The Intan and Baba House. Both are houses, and both present the history of Peranakans in slightly different ways (although the core narrative is very similar). I’m glad that we visited both, because I feel like the two fleshed out the history quite well.
The Intan is owned and operated by a Peranakan descendant, Alvin Yapp. Alvin started collecting Peranakan artefacts and antiques from a young age, wanting to connect to and learn about his culture. The house belongs to him and the collection is entirely brought to life via the stories he tells. Downstairs, we were given tea and cakes that were made for us by his mother. Alvin is a very talented interpreter, and after giving us a briefing on how his collection and research started, he allowed us to pick his brains. What is Peranakan? Are people still Peranakan? What role does religion play in the culture? What is this thingy over here? It was great having a guide which allowed for just being curious. Upstairs is where all the very shiny and interesting things live, and I was bedazzled by the sheer number of Peranakan beaded shoes (a skill that now quite rare). The house is not exactly a museum, and it’s not exactly a heritage house, it somehow manages to straddle the two aspects well. It certainly is an impressive collection, and it is was wonderful to be given access to it so warmly.
Baba House is different entirely. Owned and operated by NUS university, it is very much both a heritage house and a museum combined (and also kind of separated out). Level 1 and 2 of the house are frozen in time in the year 1926, considered academically to the be the peak of Peranakan culture. The 3rd floor is a very impressive museum, in a surprisingly small space. The house is being restored/conserved by university students and academics, and I was surprised to hear that at least 40% of the furniture was from the original family that owned the house (which I thought was pretty impressive considering the house was empty when they took over the site). I picked the curators brain for a while on how choices were made about what was being added to the space, and I will be happily applying some of those thought processes when I get home again. I really loved the museum up the top of the house as well, talk about fitting something really diverse into a small space!
Peranakan culture is incredibly interesting, I’m so glad that we have spent this time learning about it. I had no idea that it existed before this trip was scheduled and I feel like it is a really fascinating example of multiculturalism. I really hope next time I am in Singapore the Peranakan Museum will be open again, so that I can have another view point added to my experiences.
Please note: For both locations, photography was severely limited, so I’m very sorry about the lack of substance in these images. I will say, in my very laid back vernacular though - the embroidery/beadwork at the Intan, and the language diagram in Baba House, are very awesome. Also, if you click on the photos, the full size will come up, which means Alvins head will come back into existence.
(Before I get fully started, please be aware that the photos below do have graphic representations of violence)
Yesterday, I travelled through the 10 courts of hell and survived to tell the tale. Welcome to Haw Par Villa, probably one of my absolute highlights from my trip so far! The cultural park is one of the most fascinating places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.
Situated in Pasir Panjang, the parks origin story starts with Tiger Balm. What is Tiger Balm? Tiger Balm is an ointment you can buy in most countries that is rubbed onto sore joints and muscles to relieve pain. Two brothers, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, inherited and grew their fathers apothecary shop, which led to the eventual success of Tiger Balm. The park was a built in 1937 as a gift from Boon Haw to Boon Par, and was originally called Tiger Balm Gardens. The brothers had a deep appreciation of Chinese mythology and lore, and created the gardens around a lavish villa they would live in. Boon Haw’s personal motto was “That which is derived from society, should be returned to society”, the park became part of that vision.
So what are you seeing in the photos below? It’s a combination of things: Chinese mythology, folk law, Confucian philosophy and a surprising number of turtles. The park contains over 1,000 statues, many of which are organised into dioramas that explore a certain park of the topic. Quite a few of the dioramas explain the scene (the panels for the Journey to the West were my favourites), but some are just left to the imagination to those who are unaware of the origin stories. The section covering the Ten Courts of Hell had very good signage, and I am disappointed that I am probably going to at least a couple of levels unless I up my game slightly. Apparently the park was used in the past by parents to educate children on why good behaviour is important.
What a wonderful cultural landscape! So many parks are pleasant to view, with a lovely wander through some flowering plants and probably a gazebo somewhere. A place to relax. Not this park, this park will invade your brain with stories, histories and a curiosity to work out exactly why those duck people sculptures are looking so angry. It’s colourful and loud and completely in your face. It shoves Chinese culture right into your personal space and leaves you with the impression that there is so much more to explore. This place is absolutely something to celebrate - if not from a place of faith, then from awe at incredible story building. Even from a place outside of faith, I can see how it can also be seen as a place of reflection. In particular, the area where you can try laying down in a coffin, certain makes you consider your own mortality. It has a rich history of how it was constructed and developed over the years, which is also well worth diving into.
It’s interesting that cultural or theme parks have not made it into many heritage lists so far. I think that people see them as being frivolous or designed to only make money, but these places do reflect culture and society. Places like Disney World, are deeply ingrained into our perception of what it is to be in a state of wonder or disconnected from reality and placed into stories. Are we just too serious and grown up to consider these places special?
Or maybe it’s simply that these parks may not want that heritage status anyway. After all, a heritage listing can seriously restrict a places ability to adapt and change, which is exactly what stories do. Imagine the way that the story of the Journey to the West has changed. From the original writings, to the Monkey Magic of my childhood to the newly created New Zealand version from last year. Stories should be adaptable to include new generations of participants.
It’s sad to see so many of the sculptural pieces of Haw Par Villa suffering from the ravage of weather and years. If I were much braver, and able to work in Singapore, I would absolutely choose this as a location of infinite opportunity for development. If you are visiting Singapore, you should pop it onto your list of places to visit. Key tips - make sure you have a couple of spare dollar coins in your pocket to feed the many turtles and the EFTPOS facilities weren’t great when I was there (but the staff were lovely). They also run tours which I would have loved to experience
I had a *lot* of fun yesterday, doing a practice section of cultural mapping in Waterloo Street. It was colourful, and fascinating, and basically compiled a bunch of the things that I like about working in museums into one handy location. It’s the hunt for data and information, that puts together a picture. I’m gushing, but it’s wonderful.
Waterloo Street stretches from Rocher road to Bras Basah Road in downtown Singapore. Our cultural mapping session included the space between Albert Street and Bencoolen Link. The space includes two amazing temples, Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple and Sri Krishna Temple. The street in front of the temples is crowded with incense and flower sellers, fortune readers and massage tents. The next section up takes a hard right and is almost all retail or clothes and Knick-knacks.
I decided to follow the sounds of the street. A fair amount of cultural mapping is focused on intangible heritage, and as a personal note I tend to identify places with the way the sound first when remembering. Plus, if you took the sounds away from this street, it would lose a significant amount of it’s cultural feel.
As you enter the street from the Sri Krishna Temple, there is the sound of the bells being rung on the front door. This bell is an important part of the process of entering the temple space, as they believe that it will make them more receptive to the experience inside. The bell is also associated being polite, and asking permission of the gods to enter the temple.
Just outside this temple, and I admit that this is going to sound odd, but you will likely hear a bit of flesh slapping. This is the sound of the massage practitioners working on clients. The massage places are all professing to have special healing properties and have signs up explaining ‘energy’ flows in peoples bodies. You will also start to have people approach you, looking to sell either flowers of incense that can be used in the temples. They don’t ask incessantly, just politely once. I came across a man without a nose, and wearing a placard that said “Diesel causes cancer”, speaking loudly to anyone who would listen in Mandarin.
Outside the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, you will hear what is best described as the sound of shaking. The temple is devoted to Avalokitesvara, the Goddess of Mercy. Devotees believe that using fortune sticks (or divination) sticks will help to guide them. The process includes shaking a cylinder of these items, which when combined by the many others in the space performing the same ritual, creates a sound that can be easily heard on the street.
Moving down the street towards Bencoolen Link, shops have turned their music up to encourage visitation. Unlike China town, the music here is not sugary American pop, it’s chanting or religious in nature. All of it is in a language I can’t understand, but it is still quite effecting. The retail is mostly offerings, herbs, food and religious paraphernalia.
As you cross the Bencoolen Link, heading towards Albert Street, you reach more retail. Over here you will find people on megaphones selling clothes, knife sharpeners, and all manner of Knick-knacks. You will also be able to hear people bantering and bartering with stall keepers.
The street is incredible. It’s so full of sounds that you normally wouldn’t hear together in Australia. I have to go back before the end of my trip to actually try the divination stick ritual. I had a lot of fun here, and i can’t wait for the next session with Ngee Ann Polytechinic students.
I’ve headed over to Chinatown three times now, with the last visit to really try and narrow down what is was that felt different between it and Kampong Glam. In Kampong Glam, I really enjoyed the atmosphere, and felt immersed at times in a different culture. In Chinatown I was feeling... I think hustled might be the right word for it. There is a disconnect from what I feel is authentic.
Kampong Glam may have a lane which has gone to the trendy side, but it has streets that feel like locals may actually go to. Fabric stores that people might buy from. Streets that people might walk. It sounded right, which is an odd thing to say, but the noise of the space felt consistent with where my feet were planted.
Chinatown presents something vastly different. The heritage buildings might still be there, and I think that sometimes they might be in the right colours, but everything else feels somehow off. The stalls from the shops reach right into the street, with temporary structures covering the wares. Everyone is selling the exact same things: electronics, souvenirs or clothing. The clothing comes in three flavours - tourist, exotic or (weirdly) Himalayan chic hippy? The stalls all include music which is generally terrible (kind of my taste) 80’s and 90’s pop. It just feels dreadfully tourist-y and inauthentic in comparison to the enjoyment that I found in Kampong Glam. I should note, that once I moved out of the middle of the space, things did get better (mostly).
The Chinatown complex was incredible, with a wet section of the likes I have never seen before. So many prawns! But also turtle and frogs, which briefly made me consider going back to vegetarian. Their faces were so cute. Outside the centre is a gathering space where people were playing Chinese Chess. Across from the MRT station, I also found the People’s Park Center where I ate some fabulous duck rice, browsed through craft stores and gazed from the outside at a bookstore of used books all in Mandarin (I think). It felt authentic.
Which brings me to the complexity of the Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple. Firstly, the temple is flanked by more souvenir stores, which is probably a little unideal. The inside of the temple is unbelievable. The panels explaining the information are great. The museum is very new and very slick. It’s really worth the trip every upwards, and I honestly suggest just using the steps once you pass the first level. Right up the top of the temple is a beautiful garden, with a prayer wheel in the middle. It is truly beautiful. However, I wondered how the people within the temple, there to connect with their religion, felt about the million tourists who were coming through. Did they feel resentful of our presence? Did they feel like they were having an authentic moment? I don’t think I would enjoy being in that fish bowl, with everyone starting at me like I was a curiosity.
Chinatown is really interesting. Great for some cheap souvenirs (sooooo many pashminas). The Chinese Heritage Centre is awesome, and the Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple is pretty amazing. I feel like there is a bunch of work that could go into making it feel more authentic, but that might not actually be what the local businesses want (and maybe money is the big factor here). Authentic or not, it is certain a place with plenty of adventuring that can be had
Today the group had planned tours at the National Museum of Singapore, Battlebox and the Bicentennial Experience at Fort Canning. All three were quite fascinating and had slightly different takes on important national narratives.
The National Museum was incredibly beautiful. The building was completed in 1887 as the Raffles Library and Museum and has been extended and renovated sympathetically multiple times. The building has a combination of British neo-classical styling, with slicker recent renovations. There are some *huge* audio visuals used inside galleries. The interpretation of the collection is fascinating, and shies away from going into grim or gritty details. Instead, it focuses primarily on the successes and future of Singapore as a country.
I was particularly struck by this in the Growing Up gallery. The Growing Up gallery focuses on Singaporean history between the 1950’s-1960’s, a particularly complex time for Singapore, but the exhibition mainly focuses on the introduction of education and industry to the country. This isn’t unreasonable, it’s just a tad jarring for this little museum nerd who finds pulling out the raw and ugly truth invigorating. Lesson for today was that maybe a little bit of lightness and pride can actually go a long way.
As a side note, being deeply in love with children and public programs, I had been deeply disappointed in the lack of interactivity in the galleries. Then I found the activities section and my mind was blown. I was also highly skeptic although about a children's activity book that included 116 pages - but it totally works! Super impressed.
Battlebox was quite different. The Battlebox started it’s life as the Headquarters Malaya Command Operations Bunker. More popularly, many will know of the bunker as the location where Commonwealth forces decided to surrender to the Japanese forces during WW2. It’s not where the surrender was signed. The rooms generally do not include original artefacts, as most were lost either during or just after the conflict. It is certainly quite a somber location.
I felt that the story of Singapore was a little lost in the tour. The history of the bunker is explained in length, and the conflicts crescendo builds as films portray the swift advance of Japan down the coast. But story revolves around the commanders that were placed in power, and only briefly touches on the effect of the conflict on Singapore as a country. Primarily, and unsurprisingly I suppose, the story revolves around the bunker and the people within it.
Which leads me to our last adventure of the day, the Bicentennial Experience. It was certainly an incredible experience. I never thought I would stand in the rain, under an umbrella, in a building with a roof. Or that I would watch actors playing historical figures while balancing on a conveyor belt. The best word I could honestly use is ‘intense’.
I was struck as just how completely earnest the production was. The narrative is really a call to arms, asking Singaporeans to see values in certain traits and to aspire to continue growing in the future. It something that I don’t think would work in Australia. I was pretty impressed through that this Experience at least did peer into some of the unhappier aspects of history.
All three are telling a part of the Singaporean story. I would argue that both the Museum and the Bicentennial Experience are telling stories that they hope will become rallying calls towards shared ideals and goals as a society. I think that the way they are telling those stories could spend a bit more time filling in the gaps in history, and not shying away from the messier parts. It felt a bit sugary at times, but they were fantastic places to visit.
Just before Christmas, I had the pleasure of being invited along to a session at the Recycling Discovery Hub in Hume (a suburb of Canberra). The centre is normally only open to educational groups and special interest sessions, so I was super excited to go and check it out with a bunch of other enthusiastic museum and heritage educators.
The Recycling Discovery Hub is an ACT government project, led by Robbie Ladbrook. I was very lucky to have Robbie as my program leader during the Open Palaces Programme, and loved having a chance to see the project she has been working on in Australia. Opened in May 2018, the centre was created as a educational facility to enhance public understanding of how recycling and waste is processed.
The space is connected to the actual recycling centre and has a pretty incredible view over the inside of the plant. What can’t be seen easily is displayed on large TV screens - the cameras are able to be refocused on the topic of discussion for the presenter. It’s a small space, which at first glance seems too small to hold much information. I was blown away by exactly how much of the space is interactive and the sheer amount of information is conveyed in easily understandable chunks. I walked in thinking that I already knew a lot about recycling, and walked out thinking “You know nothing, Amanda” but completely invigorated to know keep learning.
When looking up information about the centre on the internet, what you will find a lot of information about the virtual reality interactive tour of the facility. Risk dictates that taking small people into the actual facility would be a terrible idea, so instead the tour is conducted via virtual reality. The experience included the participant sorting garbage, learning about the different symbols on plastic and driving forklifts. All very impressive and seemly enjoyable for the person driving the simulation.
In Robbie’s paper at Waste 2018, she mentions the importance of capturing imagination to tap into curiosity. As much as I love virtual reality, the rest of the centre totally tapped into my curiosity. The space is devided into areas which discuss different types of waste and what happens to them. Almost everything is touchable. There are samples of waste, examples of what waste is turned into, low tech versions of waste organisers, drawers to go through, things to open. It’s a tactile learners dream. I have added a large number of photos below with my absolute highlights.
Together with a great presentation, I left knowing far more then I did before entry. I found the experience engaging and highly enjoyable. I also think that the space would work for pretty much any demographic, which is an incredible feat by itself. I found myself at the end, not only wanting to be better at handling waste, but also inspired to find more ways in which to inspire curiosity in museums.
Waste 2018 - Building a better platform for community engagement (Robbie Ladbrook): https://www.coffswasteconference.com.au/QuickEventWebsitePortal/2018/waste/Agenda/AgendaItemDetail?id=48192932-2ece-a1a6-dd3e-39e0470f4b38
ACT PS News - Recycling won’t go to waste: https://psnews.com.au/2018/05/10/recycling-lessons-wont-go-to-waste/
Media moment demonstrating the space: https://twitter.com/actgovernment/status/994857228707430401?s=21
In October I had the pleasant experience of visiting the Goulburn Historic Waterworks to check out their annual Steampunk & Victoriana Fair. It was brilliant fun, and I will certainly be going along again!
The Waterworks is located next to the Wollondilly River, making it a very picturesque location. I can completely understand why so many events choose this location for a wide variety of shindigs. The official website explains that the pumping station was built in the 1880’s and provided Goulburn’s first reticulated water supply. The original Appleby Bro’s Beam engine is still maintained as a working piece of machinery. I was struck by how surprisingly quiet it was - somehow I has imagined that it would be as loud as the steam powered trains that I have seen. Beyond the original machine, there is a variety of other impressive devices that are somewhat meditative to watch in movement.
The museum space has a complicated past, much like many small museums. It has swung between fully privately funded, to council funding multiple times, but has somehow managed to survive quite solidly. There is a neat little education program available and the volunteers that I met onsite were very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The Steampunk & Victoriana Fair is an initiative by the Waterworks to raise funds and profile. The Steampunk & Victoriana Fair has been running since 2014, with an attendance of approximately 250 people in it’s first year. Attendance for 2018 was approximately 3000, which is a fairly good rate of growth for an annual event (I believe this would have been higher is not for the rain). Revenue is also raised by having themed retail stores and food vendors. Cleverly, the food vendors were hidden slightly around a corner, which meant that the steampunk atmosphere could be maintain a little more easily. Multiple competitions (costume, inventions etc) invite participants to join in the fun from early before the events date, keeping it fresh in the public’s mind.
Steampunk is a genre of fiction that imagines a 19th-century inspired world that is influenced by science fiction style elements. There are very few ‘rules’ on what this means exactly - but imagine, it you will, a Victorian Gentleman in a lovely outfit that also includes a fully steam powered mechanical arm, or a set of suitcases that follows along behind the owner using steam powered tank treads. It is an amalgamation of science fiction with steam powered 19th century ingenuity and fashion. As someone who enjoys textile arts and sewing, I was so inspired by the characterful costumes. Admittedly, I am certainly not looking to get involved in another hobby, but I thought the deliberate anachronistic nature of the costuming looked very enjoyable. There is a storytelling element that is very alluring to the whole business.
With that in mind, I think that as a revenue raising event, the Fair is a wonderful choice for the site. The volunteers onsite helped to explain how the actual technology worked and I did notice that people were stopping to read the historic panels. The atmosphere was fabulous, and the users of the site clearly cared for the space. A quick googling brings up plenty of news articles talking about the event, raising the profile and traffic of the Waterworks. It also promotes the historic buildings as a prime site for other private and public events. I love that it both celebrates a history that was, and will never be. I will absolutely be returning to visit again this year!
Beckford’s Tower was on our list for the Open Palaces Programme, scheduled for a hands on workshop with Dr Amy Frost. Beckford’s Tower is part of the Bath Preservation Trust, along with a number of other buildings that I visited during the educational program. Dr Amy Frost is the Senior Curator and led two of our workshops, and also demonstrated her wonderful abilities in stone masonry at the Bath Museum of Architecture.
Beckford’s Tower is an incredible building that was lovely to spend time in. To reach the tower itself there is a quick stroll through a surprisingly beautiful graveyard. I felt a little like I was wandering into the beginning of a fairy tale, and wondered whether a princess would let her hair down from the gold gilded peak of the tower. I managed to make it up most of the tower until my terror of enclosed spaces and heights won out. It was an incredible view though. I loved the curation within the building and thought it was just a marvellous place to study.
The building was constructed in the 1820s, commissioned by William Beckford, an English novelist. He had a deep passion for architecture and landscaping, with a love for the picturesque movement. His tower was built as a place of solitude and quiet, landscaped to mimic the concepts within the picturesque art pieces that he enjoyed. It included a vast pleasure garden that stretched between his home, located on Lansdowne Crescent, to the tower which is at the top of Lansdowne Hill.
With his death, the land was sold to a publican who used the area briefly as a beer garden in the early 1840s. It was repurchased by Beckford’s daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton, in 1848, who donated the building and land to the Walcot Parish, where it entered it’s second life as a graveyard. The tower was partly converted into a chapel to carry out funerals. Originally, Beckford had been buried in Bath Abbey Cemetery, but he was reinterred shortly after the towers transformation.
It’s third life started in the 1970’s, sold after being made redundant by the church. It had endured a catastrophic fire that had destroyed much of it’s contents in the 1930s. Privately purchased, the first intention was to renovate the building into two flats. The Beckford Tower Trust and museum were established in 1977 and it started it’s new life as a historical site. Bath Preservation Trust are now the primary caretakers of the building. As a side thought, if you ever want to stay the night it looks quite beautiful and is available through The Landmark Trust (link below).
The workshop at Beckford’s Tower was a hands on chance to create reports focussed on restoration and conservation of the building. There was a very pleasant 60 minutes of walking through sections and finding areas that we thought could use conservation. Dr Frost was brilliant, allowing us to come up with our own thoughts and I was pleasantly surprised that as a group we perhaps picked up on 50% of what we should have noticed. The other 50% included us madly taking down notes and asking a lot of questions. Dr Frost was incredibly enjoyable to listen to and wonderfully pragmatic about the limitations that are involved in small heritage sites without huge budgets.
The second part of the workshop included considering how to work on the interpretation of the landscaping, which has significantly changed since Beckford’s time. The area is complex, with management of the building being organised by Bath Preservation Trust, and the grounds managed by the Bath & North East Somerset Council. This style of situation in heritage sites is not unusual, but nevertheless awkward. I can imagine there must be a great deal of diplomacy and consultation being conducted behind the scenes. I did like the challenge of considering how you could interpret a site that can never go back to what it once was. Those bodies are happily buried for the rest of their existence. So how can you interpret something that is stubbornly no longer there?
My thoughts revolved around two concepts. One of my coworkers created a fantastic children’s activity that they called time telescopes. Using old photos printed on transparencies, they attached them to white PVC pipes. By looking through the pipe, you could overlay the picture with what now existed. This is a very low cost alternatives to the AR apps being used by multiple organisations, where an overlay of images can be created to call back to the past. However, there are not really any photos of the gardens during their existence. My idea was that an artistic interpretation could be designed, using paintings that were focussed on the written details of what was described in the garden, and painted in the picturesque style that Beckford loved. For a low cost option, large interpretation panels could be placed in the landscape allowing participants to look through the semi transparent window that had a view painted onto it. Alternatively you could design an app that painted those images onto the phone screen depending on where it picked a person standing. It was an enjoyable thing to image, and I think quite influenced by a video I had recently seen of Van Gogh’s Starry Night brought to life (I’ve popped a link in below).
Beckford’s Tower only opens on select dates during the year, so I recommend checking out their website. It’s well worth a visit!
Beckford’s Tower: http://beckfordstower.org.uk
Landmark Trust: Beckford’s Tower
3d VR version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night: Motion Magic
One of the stops that I had been extremely excited to see during the Open Palaces Programme was the Roman Baths. I ended up visiting twice, which I am so glad for, because there is no way I could have taken in the vast amount of information in one session.
If you are visiting the Roman Baths as a tourist, I would highly recommend going to the summer evening sessions. It’s a little quieter, and the location takes on a very different atmosphere once the glare of sunlight dims. Also, contrary to the descriptions of the taste of the water, I didn’t find it repulsive. Someone during the tour described it like ‘warm water, served through a sweaty sock’. I would describe it more like warm bore water inside a metal tin. It was odd, but not awful. As a museum enthusiast, be prepared to take a lot of notes. There is a whole lot to see and think about.
There are some significant differences between The Roman Baths and the vast number of heritage sites in Australia. Firstly, there seems to be an entire country of people visiting it everyday. The Roman Baths had a whopping 1.2million people visit it during the last financial year This is remarkably close to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, who stood at 1.12million during the previous financial year. The part that makes this particularly incredible, is that those 1.2million visitors are walking through and touching the ancient space. There are areas that are protected, but when you are walking on those ancient stones you are stepping on the real stones. There are places where you can put your hand on the building and almost feel the weight of the years behind it. I can’t image the work that must be achieved behind the scenes by a dedicated conservation team to make this possible. From all those people visiting and some brilliant retail/hospitality choices, The Roman Baths turns over a very tidy profit each year. It’s important to keep that in mind when looking at the incredible set up that exists there, I can imagine that a good amount of that is achievable because they sell themselves extremely well. I was also incredibly impressed that in their annual report, they reflect on the benefit that has reached the wider community through generated tourism revenue and employment.
The two fantastic take homes from the Roman Baths, for me, was the diversity of their audio guides and brilliant use of scrims. We had a workshop session with the Education Manager, Lindsay Braidley, who was entirely inspiring. Much of the workshop revolved around placing people back into the site, and their work on creating audio tours that felt personable. I also fell in love with the concept of the ‘Tripod of sustainability’ which includes Customers, Commercial, and Conservation. I will likely cover that much more in another blog post (most likely when I am day dreaming about working in Bath).
Audio guides and I, are not normally friends. I like strolling at my own pace, and being required to stand in front of an object while someone talks in my ear is not my idea of a good time. Generally I find them hugely irritating and kind of pretentious. The key is, that most guides are there to inform the visitor about details, and without a guide there is a good chance of missing information. So it was with a heavy heart that I picked up an audio guide and started winding through the ginormous crowds of people. The Roman Baths has gone out their way to match people with an interest through different programs. From memory the guides included children, adults, archeology, geology and (my personal favourite) the Bill Bryson tour. You are not locked in to hearing only one, you can key into which ever one interests you the most, giving me some power over what style of information that I wanted. The Bill Bryson one particular appealed to me, because it was really a bit like wandering around with a mate who liked to think about things, and was very accessible. The children’s audio guide was quite enjoyable, and included a variety of characters that kids could connect with. I found myself frequently tuning into a session, because they were so personable. The audio points are all over the place, and there are few spots which don’t include them. Audio guides were free with admission and available in a wide range of languages.
Scrims! I personally love the use of a good scrim, but not everyone does. A scrim is an incredibly thin piece of fabric, that is mostly see through, which you can either print or project an image onto. The reason that I love them so dearly is that you can very effectively create a scene where the current and the past bump up against each other. This is particularly useful in heritage locations when restoring a location to the vision of the past is not suitable or in interpreting areas which are difficult for a participant to imagine. The Roman Baths were using a large numbers of scrims with incredible results. Many of the rooms that are still being researched and used by archaeologists had scrims with projected scenes of everyday use in the space. The character actors were not often speaking (which is great for avoiding language or hearing barriers), but soundscapes created the atmosphere of noise that would have been heard within a busy location full of people. In some locations, scrims were used in conjunction with items that were placed around the area, further creating the illusion of the scene. It was an incredible experience and I found it very sympathetic to the spaces, and really felt like seeing the ruins and combining the scenes made the building extremely relatable.
The Roman Baths are well worth a visit for some wonderful cutting edge museum practice. They will soon be opening up a new area, which is highly exciting. I really recommend checking out their annual reports if you are in the museum business, because they are fascinating. They also have a wonderful website full of educational programs that can be downloaded and studied in detail. It was truly a wonderful experience.
My current challenge is to find some new and realistic food for our little cottage. We have a marvellous new artist working on items, and I can not wait to show you what she has been working on. However cabbages are proving very hard to find, if not outright illusive. Sadly, I do not think this fine example will fit in with the tone we are attempting to create...
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.