Within the walls of York Gaol: Memory, Place and the Immersive Museum

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Archaeology


The work proposed here is a collaboration between York Museums Trust (YMT) and an interdisciplinary team of researchers based at the University of York's EPSRC funded Digital Creativity Labs that seeks to address the major challenges to implementation of immersive experiences for engagement with cultural heritage. We will design and implement an experimental mobile Virtual Reality (VR) experience for YMT-run York Castle Museum that blends immersive, collaborative and place-based storytelling with physical experiences of objects and built space.

Objects held by museums have the capacity to play an integral role in the formation of personal and communal identity. Through the objects in their care, regional social history museums help visitors to connect meaningfully to the experiences of past people and to develop greater attachments to place by means of personal reflection. Using a research-through-design methodology we will develop a VR experience to enrich and guide group explorations of the 18th Century York Castle Prison which is now YMT-managed York Castle Museum. The experimental exploration will reflect new curatorial priorities of York Castle Museum by finding ways to weave issues of contemporary social relevance including debt and detention into the interpretation of the prison. The VR experience will tell stories of the impact of debt on the lives of past York residents; an issue of great contemporary resonance. It will focus on relatable stories of everyday people evidenced in the archives and collections of YMT and not currently presented within existing interpretation at the Castle Museum.

Using VR, imagined memories of past residents of York prison based on existing archival research will be staged within the prison space. Flexible narrative structures will enable a single story to be explored and revealed through a variety of pathways through the space. Inspired by highly successful experiments during the development of VikingVR (http://www.york.ac.uk/vikingvr), the narrative structure of the VR will encourage people to share VR masks and to engage with and explore the prison space and objects around them, transforming the prison into a collaborative and highly social, mixed reality experience.

The design, implementation and evaluation of this proof of concept will enable the research team to begin to develop responses to three underlying research problems which are of relevance across the creative industries:

1) Underdeveloped narrative media for VR. The development of engaging narrative forms for VR has represented one of the main obstacles to the widespread acceptance of VR as a medium and has delayed its integration into the fabric of exhibition design.

2) Hardware does not exist to deploy these technologies within a museum setting. Current technologies are not robust enough for unattended or fully integrated museum use. They are not designed to offer the kinds of social, collaborative experiences which people expect and which museums want to deliver.

3) Inadequate curatorial strategies for VR. VR is a distinct medium with very specific affordances. Integrating this technology into the museum experience represents a major challenge which, if addressed could revolutionise the delivery of storytelling in a museum context.

The VR experience will be co-designed by a team of archaeology, digital heritage, interaction design and technology, and human computer interaction researchers working with museum staff and community representatives already engaged in the redevelopment of the Castle Museum. The proposed work will inform the ongoing development process for the Castle Museum, with the VR experience acting as a prototype for fully realised permanent digital immersive installations as part of the redevelopment of Castle Museum between 2018 and 2022. We will also use this research as an opportunity to build our collaboration and to further examine priorities for future funded research.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?

This research will have an impact in three major areas:

1. Museums & cultural heritage sector: This project will benefit museum curators, educators, and conservators by enabling experimentation with current strategies for digital commissioning and provide a new approach to digital resource creation that enables cultural and arts organisations to move beyond the constraints of exhibition-led research and development. The research will benefit galleries, museums, archives and libraries with collections by examining how higher education institutions can enable experimentation in the use of digital technologies by working with partners in cultural organisations. This can lead to innovation in service delivery and improve capacity within the sector to take part in commissioning of digital resources.

2. Residents of and visitors to York & the general public: The outputs will be of direct benefit to visitors and residents of York. This work will enable visitors to engage in a highly personal way with the past of the city and to provide insights into the complex links between our own lives and those of people in the past. By providing cutting-edge digital technology experiences via the museum visit, the relevance of heritage in a tourism context is improved. In addition to this, raising awareness of the heritage environment amongst local residents can contribute positively to shaping the urban landscape.

3. Creative industries and Digital media SMEs: Several digital-led arts and culture focused SMEs have emerged in recent years in the City of York, and there is therefore an emerging capacity to design digital resources for this sector. Current methodologies for tendering for digital work make implementation of experiences that are embedded into exhibitions problematic as digital resources tend to be designed away from the main exhibition plan. Our work will champion new forms of collaborative development which involve museum and design stakeholders throughout the project.

How will they benefit from this research?

1. We will improve access to digital technologies within the cultural heritage sector and create future opportunities for engagement with immersive technologies by: a) building digital skill regionally. We will foster an environment for a regional specialist network for digital resource creation. b) We will work with partners (including YMT community panel, creative industries SMEs, Guild of Media Arts, and Museum Development Yorkshire) to develop guidance on forming successful collaborative digital creativity projects, c) developing new curatorial strategies with digital. The work will be of great value to the creative and research sectors as an opportunity to develop new forms of media and technology for VR.

2. We will enable new experiences of heritage for visitors to YMT museums by: a) embedding YMT collections into city life. We will bring collections out of storage and tell stories about aspects of the history of the city that will enable people not currently engaging with cultural activities to relate personal situations to experiences in the past. This will be part of planned redevelopment work for the Castle Museum, b) building relationships between museum interpretation, community needs, and urban planning. We will work with the YMT community panel on prototype creation and evaluation.

3. We will support the development of new ways for creative industries to work with the cultural heritage sector by developing new strategies for digital commissioning. We will work with SMEs to identify design implications (theoretical and practical) and major challenges for digital commissioning. We will work with regional arts and culture organisations and SMEs throughout this project in order to plan their involvement in future funded research projects in this theme (see Pathways to Impact for more information).


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/R008701/1 01/01/2018 10/04/2018 £59,389
AH/R008701/2 Transfer AH/R008701/1 11/04/2018 30/11/2018 £46,135