The Lost Palace: Technology Helps Recapture Lost Tales of Britain’s Past

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Friday, January 22nd, 2016

Diagram of the original Whitehall Palace

Digital storytelling platforms are being used in an innovative new project to help bring history to life. Last year, Historic Royal Palaces released a brief that invited the public to help them imagine ways that storytelling and technology could come together and help tell the story of Whitehall Palace. The project received 89 submissions and selected five to develop into full experience prototypes.

It’s important to understand a bit about the history of Whitehall Palace to put the project into context. The commissioning organization, Historic Royal Palaces, is an independent charity that oversees six royal palaces. One of the properties in their care, Whitehall Palace, was home to some of the most important dramas in British history.

As Historic Royal Palaces outlines, “Whitehall was once the largest palace in Europe; comprising 1,500-plus rooms over 23 acres – larger than Versailles or the Vatican. It was the main residence of British monarchs from the 1530s until it was destroyed by fire in 1698. Numerous nation-changing events happened within its walls; the execution of Charles I; births, deaths and marriages of Henry VIII; Stuart mistresses (and male ‘favourites’); the first performance of Othello; the collection of art by Rubens, Michelangelo, Holbein, Raphael and Da Vinci; and many more. Whitehall’s status as the seat of political power today is directly linked to these origins of royal power.”

Banqueting House, Whitehall

Unfortunately for modern history buffs, the palace burned down 300 years ago and just one part called Banqueting House remains. As modern curators of this historic space, it’s challenging to bring those tales alive. However, digital storytelling devices may help. Beginning next year, guests will receive a device when they purchase their tickets that will help put them in the middle of historic events as they unfold.

In an interview with Museums and Heritage Advisor, the Lost Palace Project’s manager Tim Powell said the project’s goals are straightforward: “They are to tell the incredible stories of Whitehall Palace’s colourful history where they happened; to improve the visitor experience at Banqueting House; to increase visitor numbers by creating a new and unique visitor offer that appeals to new and existing audiences alike; and to illuminate the link between today’s political ‘corridors of power’ and the site’s past royal power.”

Whitehall's surviving components

The project emphasized storytelling to help bring elements of history to life; the technology is primarily a facilitator, rather than the flashy focus. Ultimately, the team behind the Lost Palace project selected five winners to develop their prototypes. Each delivers a unique experience. Heart of a King guides visitors in the steps of Charles I’s final walk before his execution, using the heartbeat of Charles himself as a guide; when the guests reach the execution site, the heart stops beating with a startling finality.

The East Wind is a collaborative storytelling experience that shares content via SMS. Participants choose a character to play in the Glorious Revolution and work together as the history unfolds. The Spy Room and the Popish Plot shares stories and content with visitors before they arrive at Whitehall Palace, to help them understand the historical context when they are on the grounds. To Please the Eyes and Ears focuses on The Lost Palace’s performance past, transporting guests from cock fighting events to Shakespearean premieres. Finally, Oranges and Petticoats is an interactive game that lets participants explore scandal among Charles II’s mistresses.

The team looked at the project as a digital R&D exercise and ultimately chose two prototype developers to create the final guest experience. The teams behind the Heart of the King and to Please the Eye were selected to work together. The final experience won’t be a blend of their prototypes, but instead integrate their unique strengths to something new. A customized technology platform is being developed to host the experience; and the museums have been proactively testing the experience with their audience in preparation for the grand opening next summer. The focus has been on sensory engagement, a strong sense of story and putting participants into the action.

The Lost Palace isn’t the only way to virtually experience the homes of Britain’s monarchs. Plans for the Lost Palace exhibit come on the heels of an announcement that Google Expeditions has released its first VR tour of Buckingham Palace. The Google Expeditions Pioneer Program aims to create VR tours of 150 of the world’s most important landmarks. While the focus is on helping educators transport students to these locations virtually, anyone can access the Buckingham Palace preview content with a Google Cardboard-compatible headset and phone. Right now, most of the content of the program is private to schools around the world that have been selected to serve as beta testers. Each expedition is narrated by a knowledgeable guide.

The Lost Palace project – and to a lesser extent Google’s Buckingham Palace tour – have important lessons for historical attractions. Technology can facilitate a new level of access. History can come to life, rather than being a rote recitation of facts or a guided experience. Sensory engagement and participant’s immersion are two key factors to success. We’re looking forward to seeing the final Lost Palace product and following its influence on museum experiences in the years ahead.

Images and video sourced courtesy of Wikipedia, HRP.Org.UK, and Youtube

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