Memoryscapes: re-imagining place through immersive and participatory experiences that re-contextualise memory assets

Lead Research Organisation: Northumbria University
Department Name: Fac of Engineering and Environment


Advances in immersive technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality enable the creation of experiences that can bring the past to life in new ways and in new places. Sights, sounds and even smells from the past can be recreated to help people understand the world around us as it was or might be. Our project will explore how such technologies might be used to address two key challenges:

First, organisations such as museums, galleries and archives have amassed large and important collections which preserve insights into our histories. Where possible these are accessible online and in museums, but these assets are frequently de-contextualised, displayed away from their original place of use or creation, and with limited interpretation. This restricts how much can be understood about them and how many people can access them. We want to explore ways in which our histories can be re-contextualised through immersive experiences so they can be understood within the places they originated.

Second, urban redevelopments are frequently accused of erasing pasts, creating bland spaces with little connection to the locale and therefore limiting broad engagement with place. We will explore the ways in which immersive experiences can overcome these criticisms by providing ways to explore the historical narrative of that place. Rather than erasing history, bringing it to life through projections, soundscapes, smells and stories.

Imagine watching a projection of Stevenson's Rocket flying along a railway track as you stand on a bridge; listening to the sounds of a shipyard as you walk along a riverside; or using a tablet to peer through layers of a building to see its occupants from 300 years ago. But we want to do more than this, we want to explore the ways in which people can add their own histories into these experiences. Perhaps enabling someone to upload photographs of family members who worked in that shipyard, or lived in that building. Or adding a previously unheard story of relative who helped inspire a major invention, or who went to see an event unfold. In this way we hope untold histories can be added to the grand narratives of the past. Making accessible the everyday stories which don't make it into museums, but which are no less valuable.

Planned Impact

We identify two main sets of impact from this project:

1. Development of new interdisciplinary partnerships with the capacity to take advantage of future opportunities for research and innovation

Through a series of iterative workshops we will draw together individuals and organisations from four key areas:

- memory-based organisations (museums, galleries, archives, National Parks, wildlife organisations, stately homes and other heritage organisations)
- the immersive industry (companies working in the field of virtual and augmented reality, and virtual city modelling)
- 'place-makers' (public and private sector planners, property developers, construction companies, architects, chartered surveys)
- academics (working across STEM, arts, humanities and social sciences )

We will come together to explore two key challenges. First, how multi-sensory immersive experiences can be developed to increase access to, and generate dialogue about memory assets through their dre-contextualisation out of museums into the public realm. Second, in so doing, to explore ways to reimagine and reinvigorate public spaces by utilising memory assets in immersive experiences.

This iterative, solutions-oriented partnership approach is designed to build strong working relationships through repeated interaction as we develop a an understanding of how to meet our key challenges and produce prototype ideas for testing. These interdisciplinary partnerships will be fostered after the project through existing Partnership Agreements (e.g. between Northumbria University and Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums), Northumbria University's 'Digital Living' research cluster, and the University's research and business development services. These partnerships will be designed to last beyond the immediate project and will form the basis of future collaborations and research and development opportunities.

2. Learning in the immersive field

Our framework for developing immersive and participatory memoryscapes will provide memory-based organisations, the immersive industry, 'place-makers' and academics a robust foundation of knowledge and experience, best practice guidelines and prototyped ideas to improve their own practice and develop relationships across these four areas of work. We will seek to embed key findings and approaches into undergraduate, postgraduate and CPD courses related to urban development. We will disseminate findings widely through existing networks of partners and a broad range of channels including through industry newsletters; via conferences/industry events; through the press; and international academic journals and conferences.

Developing ways to open up the collections of archives, museums and galleries will help enhance the way memory assets are accessed and understood. The participatory approach will also demonstrate how accessibility can become about sharing too. This has the potential for huge impact both within and outside museums and galleries. We envisage these developments could feed into the ways place-makers develop and implement ideas for regeneration in historically rich areas.


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