1
Museum theatre & ‘live
interpretation’
The context: 2 decades of change in museums
– UK and worldwide
• Shift in focus from ‘curating’ to ‘audience’
• Education ...
from the Port Arthur Historic Site (19th cent. penal
colony in Tasmania) Visitor Information Brochure:
 ‘Frequently asked...
4
Museum theatre & ‘live
interpretation’
Some snapshots from USA, UK,
Australia – and Sweden
5
‘Living history’
Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
6
“Re-enactment” of an 18th cent. trial of witches
(Williamsburg)
7
Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts
1st person interpretation
8
9
10
3rd person – the Indian settlement outside the plantation
stockade
Sovereign Hill, Ballarat, Australia
11
12
13
The Young National Trust Theatre (theatre in education
programmes at country houses – until 2000)
14
The Victorian Schoolroom at Wigan Pier
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich,
London: The Gunner’s Tale
16
“This
Accursed
Thing”
Manchester
Museum
2007-8
The traders
barter over
slaves
17
18
“This
Accursed
Thing”
The slave
trader
confronts
his
audience
21
22
from the Port Arthur Historic Site (19th cent. penal
colony in Tasmania) Visitor Information Brochure:
 ‘Frequently asked...
PERFORMANCE, LEARNING AND
HERITAGE
- an investigation into the uses and impact of
performance as a medium of interpretatio...
Main research methods
• Longitudinal research: visitor groups observed,
interviewed and re-visited over a 12 month period
...
Research findings – a selection
1. IMPACT OF PERFORMANCE
 Performance has long term impact on audience
members – this can...
2. Learning through performance
 Well-designed & executed performance is among the most
powerful of interpretive techniqu...
3. Interactivity
 interaction and participation are hugely memorable
aspects of performances that aid (most) audience
mem...
4. Visitors and Audiences
 the quality of engagement and the extent of
the learning generated by performance
depends not ...
5. Institutional context
 Visitors are able to integrate their experience of
performance into the larger experience of th...
 The research has inevitably
generated more questions than we
began with. More research is
needed!
31
Key questions that might be asked when designing
performance events in museums or historic sites:
 How do we induct visit...
PERFORMANCE, LEARNING AND
HERITAGE
University of Manchester: Centre for Applied
Theatre Research
www.plh.manchester.ac.uk/
Engagement
• How do people respond to the site? The ‘eventness’ of
the performance? And their positioning as ‘audience’
(o...
• How do people respond to unsettling or
challenging experiences? Can they be alienating
rather than engaging?
• How is ch...
36
 I didn’t understand what motivated them [sailors
at Battle of Trafalgar] or that that allowed them
to have such a victor...
Charting Audience Response
39
• The holding up of... the manila ring. That was a really
powerful moment of concrete imagery, where they were
saying: thi...
Museum theatre and live interpretation - OpenArch Conference, Foteviken 2012
Museum theatre and live interpretation - OpenArch Conference, Foteviken 2012
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Museum theatre and live interpretation - OpenArch Conference, Foteviken 2012

  1. 1. 1 Museum theatre & ‘live interpretation’
  2. 2. The context: 2 decades of change in museums – UK and worldwide • Shift in focus from ‘curating’ to ‘audience’ • Education and ‘social inclusion’ now high on the agenda • the very purpose of a museum is being interrogated just as wider debates take place about “nationality”, “citizenship”, “heritage” (incl. “whose heritage?”) • many museum directors now see their galleries as sites for experiment, debate, and as bases from which to reach out into the community • Drama seen as 1 way of stimulating those debates - its fictionality highlighting the constructedness of many of the narratives the museums tell through their exhibits • But, a contested practice: e.g. drama fictionalises, diverts attention, can trivialise – and can be expensive…
  3. 3. from the Port Arthur Historic Site (19th cent. penal colony in Tasmania) Visitor Information Brochure:  ‘Frequently asked questions’: “Why don’t staff dress up in costume?  “Many visitors have enjoyed this style of presentation at other sites and say that they would welcome it at the Port Arthur Historic Site. But Port Arthur is a real place with a dark and difficult history. Dressing staff up in convict and other costumes could turn the experiences of those who were imprisoned here into light entertainment, which we do not think is appropriate.”
  4. 4. 4 Museum theatre & ‘live interpretation’ Some snapshots from USA, UK, Australia – and Sweden
  5. 5. 5 ‘Living history’ Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
  6. 6. 6 “Re-enactment” of an 18th cent. trial of witches (Williamsburg)
  7. 7. 7 Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts 1st person interpretation
  8. 8. 8
  9. 9. 9
  10. 10. 10 3rd person – the Indian settlement outside the plantation stockade
  11. 11. Sovereign Hill, Ballarat, Australia 11
  12. 12. 12
  13. 13. 13 The Young National Trust Theatre (theatre in education programmes at country houses – until 2000)
  14. 14. 14 The Victorian Schoolroom at Wigan Pier
  15. 15. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London: The Gunner’s Tale
  16. 16. 16 “This Accursed Thing” Manchester Museum 2007-8 The traders barter over slaves
  17. 17. 17
  18. 18. 18 “This Accursed Thing” The slave trader confronts his audience
  19. 19. 21
  20. 20. 22
  21. 21. from the Port Arthur Historic Site (19th cent. penal colony in Tasmania) Visitor Information Brochure:  ‘Frequently asked questions’: “Why don’t staff dress up in costume?  “Many visitors have enjoyed this style of presentation at other sites and say that they would welcome it at the Port Arthur Historic Site. But Port Arthur is a real place with a dark and difficult history. Dressing staff up in convict and other costumes could turn the experiences of those who were imprisoned here into light entertainment, which we do not think is appropriate.”
  22. 22. PERFORMANCE, LEARNING AND HERITAGE - an investigation into the uses and impact of performance as a medium of interpretation, learning and engagement in museums and at historic sites, 2005-2008 (funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council) University of Manchester: Centre for Applied Theatre Research www.plh.manchester.ac.uk/
  23. 23. Main research methods • Longitudinal research: visitor groups observed, interviewed and re-visited over a 12 month period for each case study, to test perception, engagement, recall, and learning outcomes • Focus groups and one-to-one interviews – of range of visitor types (school groups, family groups, independent visitors); and actors, education officers, policy makers • Comparative case study research • Action Research and Experimental Research (related to the commissioned performance) • Questionnaire surveys • Video and stills-camera recordings • complemented by a broader mapping of developments in museum theatre practice in the UK and abroad
  24. 24. Research findings – a selection 1. IMPACT OF PERFORMANCE  Performance has long term impact on audience members – this can be for positive or negative reasons however.  When performance is offered as part of a museum experience, it is more frequently mentioned in the narratives of visitors than other aspects of their visits, especially over the longer term. Memory is often aided by recall of the performance’s immediate surrounds (the site as ‘set’) and artefacts (often seen as ‘props’). More could be made of these links.  There is no one-size-fits-all style or method of performance. There are innumerable ways in which performance can be employed by institutions. But visitor response is more appreciative when there is a clear alignment of the goals of the site with a suitable method of performance .
  25. 25. 2. Learning through performance  Well-designed & executed performance is among the most powerful of interpretive techniques & can enhance the visitor’s appreciation and critical understanding of the subject matter.  It has been used to great effect in dealing with challenging and difficult content within heritage environments. It is especially effective for instigating, framing and hosting debate and dialogue, and can give people a new-found appreciation of the complexity of the heritage.  Performance can give voice to, and celebrate, the experiences of marginalised individuals or communities excluded from the grander narratives of conventional history.
  26. 26. 3. Interactivity  interaction and participation are hugely memorable aspects of performances that aid (most) audience members’ recall of facts, sites and artefacts. They can also greatly enhance people’s understanding of the heritage, their emotional response to it, and their desire to repeat the experience (i.e. re-visit)  The experience is usually enhanced by • some form of induction and de-briefing as a way of introducing and closing the performance (without closing down the questions raised) • incorporation of moments of genuine challenge within the performance  “un-settlement” • tacit permission to opt in and out at any point.
  27. 27. 4. Visitors and Audiences  the quality of engagement and the extent of the learning generated by performance depends not just on the novelty of the experience, nor just on the quality of the performance itself, nor the volume of information conveyed, but, at least as much, on the way the experience is framed.  There are complex and ongoing transitions that take place, from visitor to ‘audience’, to participant and to ‘learner’, and back again, in museum performance. How do we facilitate these transitions?
  28. 28. 5. Institutional context  Visitors are able to integrate their experience of performance into the larger experience of their visit if the connections to sites/collections/artefacts are made explicit. This not only aids recall of the performance itself, but of the other encounters had on site also. This is often not well facilitated by museum management.  sustainability and publicity are major issues not being suitably addressed by a majority of sites under observation. Lack of adequate publicity sends a negative signal to visitors about the worth of the activity as perceived by the institution.
  29. 29.  The research has inevitably generated more questions than we began with. More research is needed! 31
  30. 30. Key questions that might be asked when designing performance events in museums or historic sites:  How do we induct visitors into the performance event (and the ‘rules of the game’ - the ‘contract’)? How do we ‘frame’ the event (re-enactment, story-telling, etc)?  What are the moments of inspiration/surprise/ revelation (the ‘wow’ factor)?  What are the points at which the audience/their preconceptions are unsettled, or challenged? And how is this managed?  How/when do we ensure opportunities to exercise choice – to opt in or out of the ‘contract’ – and agency?  How do we ensure opportunities to ‘de-brief’ & to make connections with the rest of the site/the exhibitions/subject matter?  What place does empathy have in the process? – how important is it to induce empathic engagement with characters in the piece? – if it is, how do we ensure that it enlarges rather than narrows understandings?
  31. 31. PERFORMANCE, LEARNING AND HERITAGE University of Manchester: Centre for Applied Theatre Research www.plh.manchester.ac.uk/
  32. 32. Engagement • How do people respond to the site? The ‘eventness’ of the performance? And their positioning as ‘audience’ (or participant)? • As a result of performance, do they exert an increased sense of ownership over the spaces, the institutions and the stories on offer? • How do they respond to opportunities for debate and dialogue? Does this translate into thinking and talking about current issues? • How do people recognise and respond to the ‘rules’ of interaction? How do these differ by type of interaction? • Does interaction help with the retention of information and/or increase understanding
  33. 33. • How do people respond to unsettling or challenging experiences? Can they be alienating rather than engaging? • How is choice about how and when to interact articulated? Who controls the interaction? Who decides when it ends? • Do people show evidence of increased empathetic engagement with the history they are being presented with? • What can observations and footage tell us about the physicality of engagement ‘in the moment’?
  34. 34. 36
  35. 35.  I didn’t understand what motivated them [sailors at Battle of Trafalgar] or that that allowed them to have such a victory, if such a thing is a victory in war. I didn’t understand that, I didn’t consider that. I certainly do now. [NMM_I_PP2_60]  Often it is kind of a curiosity element that you are seeing something tangible about what you know already. [NMM_I_PP2_59]  I think the things that I gained from the exhibition or the enthusiasm to gain something from the exhibition was spurred by the theatre piece. [NMM_I_PP2_60]
  36. 36. Charting Audience Response
  37. 37. 39
  38. 38. • The holding up of... the manila ring. That was a really powerful moment of concrete imagery, where they were saying: this is the life of a person, and this is what a person was worth. [MM_I_PP1_73] • Before the play I couldn’t understand why people did it [slavery], but once we had that scene where we asked him [the slave trader] questions and he gave answers, you start to understand why they did it. It was still wrong, but you understood the motives behind it; they weren’t just cold hearted. They actually had reasons for doing it and stuff. INT: And do you think that that’s important... Yeah, ‘cause if you’re trying to persuade someone against it, then if you use the other person’s arguments, then it makes your arguments stronger. So that’s good. [MM_S_PP2_154]
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