Using audio archives to create immersive experiences - Museums Association

Using audio archives to create immersive experiences

A case study from Cornwall Museums Partnership
Digital oral history
Magali Guastalegnanne
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Cornish Tales was created as part of a project by Cornwall Museums Partnership (CMP) to create a new way to explore the audio archives of Cornwall’s museums and archives. We worked in collaboration with Hi9, a tech company that is dedicated to making technology accessible for everyone.

It is an audio experience available on the Amazon Alexa app that enables users to listen to oral histories from the archives of St Ives Archive, PK Porthcurno, Kresen Kernow, and the Cornish Music Archive.

These stories have been curated into an immersive and interactive narrative where users can visit Memory Lane Tavern to hear songs, head to the bus stop for a journey through time to Porthcurno, St Ives or Redruth, or even jump to specific audio clips, with over 500 variations of the experience available.

Users can also navigate through the experience using just their voice, meaning that the experience has been designed to be as accessible as possible. Our aim was not to replicate the physical experience of visiting a museum, but create a new way of engaging with museums entirely.

Our three objectives for the project were:

  • To improve access to audio archives
  • To create a new way of curating audio archives through narrative storytelling and using voice
  • To improve the awareness and utility of AI within the museum sector
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The first step of the process was to go through the audio files and identify which ones could be used for the project. Overall, we edited 29 hours of audio into 180 clips for the experiences, the majority of which were not freely available to the public aside from being requested through the archives.

We had multiple meetings and follow-ups with our partners to understand what they wanted to showcase in particular. This also included a workshop with all of the partners to determine how oral history is currently used, what were the key focal points for them, and how they wanted to take the project forwards after its initial development.

We also engaged with EPIC Health, a project led by the University of Plymouth’s Centre for Health Technology that has provided more than 150 Amazon Echo smart speakers for care homes in Cornwall.  They have experience working with care homes and are leading research on the use of smart speakers for reminiscence work.

This is where the idea for adding music to the experience came from – as we know that singing with the smart speakers has been key for their success. For the experience our partner Hi9 created and developed a brand-new form of narration, including the idea of emotionally mapping the audio files in order to shape the journey the user could take.

Along the way we found that museums and archives are using their oral histories and audio archives very little, and even the digitised ones are not very accessible or well-promoted.

Moreover, these oral histories can be quite challenging to use as there are often different file types as well as differing quality. For instance, some of the audio archives had background noise and people talking over each other, which made them unusable.

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Additionally, copyright and permissions were a tricky issue for the project, in particular for inherited or legacy collections. Going forward, if we want to do more projects like this one, we need to look at developing copyright and accession forms that allow for these new uses of the archives.

Overall, the project cost approximately £26,000, so for those looking to do similar projects we recommend budgeting between £25,000 to £30,000.

The result of the project’s work has been the Minimum Viable Product (originally called Time Tours) which was then iterated upon and developed into Cornish Tales, which was launched across care homes in Cornwall and to a national market. This brand new way of curating audio archives has put these museums and archives at the forefront of working with smart speakers, as well as innovating the use of audio archives.

So far, we haven’t worked on the utilisation of what users have been saying about the experience, or our analysis of which audio files are proving most popular. This is a longer-term outcome which we are currently seeking to work further with the partners on. We’ve found that AI, smart speakers, and chatbots are severely underused within the sector generally and this has also become something we want to explore further, and address with future projects.

For organisations that are seeking to do something similar, our advice would be to bear in mind that with technology, especially when it is new or being used in a unique way, the time needed for development can often be longer than expected, so avoid working with tight deadlines.

If you are looking to target care homes in particular then bear in mind that this sector is often quite overstretched, which means the staff have less time to support feedback and project development than in many other sectors.

Magali Guastalegnanne is the marketing intern at Cornwall Museum Partnership

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