English Heritage cares for more than 400 historic buildings, monuments and sites across England, from famous prehistoric and Roman sites, Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall to a Cold War Bunker and silver factory in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter.
Covid-19 had a dramatic effect on operations and affected every part of our work, from closing hundreds of sites to furloughing more than 85% of staff. To help make the most of our collection during lockdown, and to prioritise visitor experience during the phased reopening of interior and exterior spaces at sites, we created a new strand of work, which we’ve called Agile Interpretation.
Agile Interpretation is our new programme of visitor-focused, responsive, low-cost interpretative interventions, designed to support enriched visitor experiences at our sites. At first, it was a crisis management approach, but it quickly became an exciting way to think differently about interpretation, and now forms a key part of English Heritage’s ongoing approach.
How did it start?
The Agile Interpretation programme was established to address the closure of all English Heritage’s pay-to-enter sites. We wanted to ensure high-quality access to the national collection through digital-led initiatives in three areas – online historical content, support for free-to-enter sites (which remained open for a brief period as restrictions began) and home learning. At first, this involved creating new digital content, enhancing existing interpretation for more than 100 free-to-enter sites, and identifying new ways to support off-site learning.
However, we knew the biggest challenge would come when sites eventually reopened, as some areas would remain inaccessible, and key elements of a visit, including audioguides, guidebooks, play areas and interactives might be affected, if not withdrawn entirely. Above all, we knew that our plans would have to be flexible to respond to rapidly changing guidance.
On-site interpretation and Covid-19
Health and safety measures created an imperative to review everything about how visitors might visit a site. We wanted to address storytelling gaps at sites which, due to social distancing constraints, could only offer restricted access or limited interpretation this season. We identified two initiatives that would have the greatest short-term impact while potentially also having longer-term relevance – a dynamic approach to visitor routes, allowing us to accommodate either a relaxation or tightening of restrictions, and the transfer of all our audioguides to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD).
Yet, how to do that while also ensuring a coherent on-site narrative wasn’t clear. For example, because of their narrow corridors and single point of entry/exit, Dover Castle’s famous Cold War Tunnels, the staging post for the Dunkirk evacuation in the second world war, would need to remain closed even after the site reopened, putting a key part of the area’s history out of reach.
We had some exploratory conversations with architects at University College London specialising in “space syntax”, a spatial analysis approach that represents and compares the way people move through complex, interlinked spaces and complexes. It was fascinating and it showed us quickly that the structure of our visitor routes would need to be entirely rethought for more than 100 sites.
Creating dynamic visitor routes
Taking inspiration from the “space syntax” approach, we started to remodel how visitors would be able to move around sites, identifying areas where flow would need to be directed and areas where visitors could roam freely.
The modelling process highlighted “nodes”, locations where visitors make key decisions about their journey around a site, and helped us to focus on these spots for Agile Interpretation interventions. Cross-departmental teams worked together to map detailed information about the existing interpretation onto visitor routes. This information did double-duty as it fed into English Heritage’s operational reopening plans and also formed the basis for key decisions establishing the new Agile Interpretation.
Developing templates for panels
Agile Interpretation also included the creation of a new suite of seven panel templates with a QR code and simple text to indicate the type of content accessible by scanning the QR code.
The panels, Watch, Listen, Family Fun, Look Inside, Explore the Collection, and Find Out More, indicate the kind of content available, while maintaining a sense of discovery.
The QR code signs are low-cost and easily adaptable and can be easily swapped over as our audiences change throughout the season. They can also be moved around the site, enabling us to quickly adapt any visitor route changes.
A “Watch” panel at Audley End House located close to the currently closed Victorian kitchen, sends viewers to one of the popular Mrs Crocombe cooking demonstrations on YouTube. At Dover Castle’s Cold War Tunnels, Agile Interpretation panels direct visitors to new digital interpretation created for the 75th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation in May.
While the project certainly has its limitations, the approach allowed us to address some of the restrictions at more than 50 sites in time for their reopening in July and August.
Approach to audioguides
It was clear from the onset of Covid that using audioguide handsets might not be possible. We put in place a protocol to allow them to be distributed safely, but visitors might still feel apprehensive.
However, audio tours are an important component of on-site interpretation at more than 30 of the larger sites. At all but a few of these sites that already offer a “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) solution, audio tours are handheld units, with simple controls encouraging users to explore in a personalised way – the tours don’t enforce a specific route or sequence. At these sites, audioguide handsets are available for free and take-up is around 40-60%. Eliminating them would mean that a significant part of the visitor experience and site interpretation would be compromised. So, in April, we started to convert all audioguides to BYOD.
To ensure that the audioguide content remained as accessible as possible we decided to use a two-prong approach to empower visitors to choose an option that best suited their needs – either a native app (Podcatcher) or a Progressive Web App (PWA). Both provide written transcripts of the audio, but offer different options in relation to data usage.
The native app allows a user to pre-download an audio guide when purchasing a ticket, storing it locally on their phone. This means that guides can be pre-download while connected to a wifi network. For visitors who either forgot to pre-download a guide or only decided to use an audio guide once they’ve arrived on site, a QR code at the site’s entrance directs visitors to the PWA, which streams individual audioguide stops avoiding the need to download anything.
We’ve also been working closely with our handset provider to ensure that handsets can be made available as quickly as possible when they can be provided safely. However, even after handsets can be deployed, we have decided to maintain the three-prong approach to audioguides for as a way to maximise all the options for our visitors.
What started out as a way to ensure visitors could experience as much of our sites as possible in response to rapidly changing health guidance has quickly become a new and exciting stream of activity for English Heritage.
We’ve learned to be more flexible, to work more effectively across departments, and to be nimbler and more responsive. The Agile Interpretation programme has demonstrated the potential of small-scale, temporary, and low-cost measures that prioritise visitors, and empower staff to be experimental and playful.
Dominique Bouchard is the head of learning and interpretation at English Heritage