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Calvium has collaborated with the University of Exeter on the thriving Hidden Cities project for over a decade. Dr. David Rosenthal is a historian at the University of Exeter and the co-founder and trail director of Hidden Cities.

In this interview David describes how place-based digital storytelling can transform streets into a stage, and transport audiences to a different era. He also shares his thoughts on how digital technologies have changed storytelling over time, how he sees this field developing, and offers his top recommendations to future locative storytellers.

Photos and job titles of David and Jo

You have been working at the intersection of history, storytelling and locative digital media for a number of years. What initially piqued your interest and what motivates you nowadays?

I’m an urban social historian of early modern Italy by training and one of things I’m interested in is what people do in public space and the interactions they have, the kinds of groups they form, the places they go to and how they behave and move around. Both in an everyday way and also at certain special or unusual occasions, such as a procession, or an uprising, or some other event.

Fabrizio Nevola, Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Exeter,  asked me to collaborate with him back in 2013. He had an idea: if you’re interested in space, movement, people and buildings, doing something with geolocated mobile media seems like a no-brainer. Very few other historians, and almost no other historians of the early modern world, were thinking about how to do history on your phone. That’s how we got Hidden Cities going, starting in Italy with the Hidden Florence mobile app.

What motivates me is the question of how, along with the specialists with whom I collaborate, do I present a fragment of a past world, hooked to place, in a compelling way? I want somebody opening the app on their phone to be intrigued, entranced even, so they keep going from site to site around the location. I think social historians do what they do partly because they enjoy telling stories in the first place, and for me this also comes out of my former life as a journalist.

Has using digital technologies changed the way you see storytelling and audience experiences?

Completely. Telling a story on a page is totally different to the way you tell it in physical space with audio and images. With Hidden Cities, there’s always a historic map georeferenced to a modern street map, and there’s usually a critically fictionalised historical character telling a story at a site we take the user to.  So the storytelling is designed to encourage the audience to experience a kind of time bending, a sense of dialogue between past and present, the past and present of the space they are in and the social and cultural worlds that give that space meaning.

HiddenCities app - historic and modern maps of same area

In the wider field of digital place-based storytelling, have you seen a change over time?

It’s hard to track clear linear change over time, apart from the affordances of the tech – from early GPS to downloadable phone apps. It’s an emergent field and there are several models out there. I wrote a chapter about public history and mobile media for a volume about Hidden Cities, which came out last year, and I realised how we’d used elements from several different kinds of apps. Models like first-person and third-person storytelling. Linear or non-linear narratives across a route, combining audio, images and text at each site.

But there were also some fascinating experiments in gamification from the early days of GPS – so clunky GPS gear in a backpack – that are still to be properly followed up. Back in 2005 HP Labs did Riot! 1831 in Bristol using a kind of sandbox game model. Another example is Ghosts in the Garden in Bath from 2012. To be honest, we’ve only scratched the surface of AR gaming, at least in the history arena.

Read more in Hidden Cities: Urban Space, Geolocated Apps and Public History in Early Modern Europe.

Calvium’s Dr Jo Morrison contributed chapter two, discussing the technical development of the project.

Which organisations do you feel are currently doing the most exciting and impactful work regarding locative media and digital storytelling? 

In the UK, I’d struggle to find an organisation more innovative than Calvium in this field. The Lost Palace for example was a great experiment using bespoke mobile media to tell stories, especially in bringing to life a vanished piece of urban fabric, in that instance in London. In mobile media art installations, I don’t think anybody should go past the kinds of things that Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have been doing for many years and continue to develop.

In history, probably one of the best and biggest is Cleveland Historical, which also developed a platform called Curatescape that’s used in about 30 cities around the world. Cleveland makes historical trails with pictures and text. But they also do interesting stuff with audio. They have one trail, for example, called African Americans in Cleveland, where users can go to a bar that was massive in the US jazz circuit in the mid 20th century and hear testimonies from people who attended and played there. I also like Soundtrails, an Australian app that looks to bring to the surface the experience of indigenous people. It  uses mainly oral testimony to piece together superb situated documentaries. Exciting in a different way is an app like Clio where people can add their own trails on a fairly basic platform.

There are of course plenty of app-ified versions of basic guidebooks, but a few of these are quite inventive – for example a recent UK app called Window Seater which tells you what’s passing by outside your window when you’re on the train.

Topographical map with dotted path leading through blue rectangles, with location pins
Soundtrails – map of the Coombadjha Walk, in Washpool National Park, New South Wales
What does best practice look like?

I’d say one element of best practice in AR is to not get too carried away with the idea of immersion. There is an immersive element to AR, and that can be interesting and fun to play with. But what’s equally interesting is how you bring to the surface, or work with, what is actually a liminal experience. It’s that difference between the sense of place as it’s experienced now, and the other worlds that were once there, the memories of place, the experiences of other people in other moments.

Sometimes this otherness is thrown at you when the built fabric has radically changed, but often change is more subtle, it’s more about the changing nature of the sidewalk ballet, to borrow a phrase from Jane Jacobs, than the fabric itself. One other element is to be clear about why I am asking someone to stand at a site on what might be a wet Tuesday afternoon. How am I clearly making that something you can’t get without leaving the house. And, a related point, what’s the public history agenda? Very often for Hidden Cities that’s got to do with stories and lives that are not in the foreground when you think of a city’s monumental heritage.

How do you see this field developing? What themes are emerging?

I can see two at least. The first is the development of more gamified storytelling. AR gaming in general is still quite an undeveloped area, despite the massive take up of a few games such as Pokemon Go. Gamification in its many forms is going to be something that makes locative storytelling a more compelling experience for more people.

The other thing is 3D AR. For example, going past a site in which the building no longer exists and being able to use your smartphone to recreate it. You can do this now of course, but it will become more commonplace and also more integrated with audio storytelling.

Woman holding up a tablet inside an exhibition gallery, a 3D church shows on the screen of the tablet.
Hidden Florence 3D – an altarpiece can be seen in situ on a tablet, giving a sense of how it would have looked in its original location.
Turning to the telling of stories – what are the top recommendations you have for future locative storytellers, who are seeking to bring heritage or more general tales to the public realm?

Never underestimate users: they’re media savvy and they want stories that are meaningful and complex.

Think of public space as a theatre. If someone has got a mobile phone in their hand and you’re telling them a story, you’re transforming that space for that person into a stage.

Think about the positioning of the user and how you want to make them feel and think about a place. Then work out how to best use the technology you have to do that.

What opportunities do you see for digital innovation in relationship building between specialists (e.g. academics like yourself), communities (and visitors) and places?

Digital mobile media really is a relationship builder. It’s a tool that can take specialist research and translate it into something public and accessible. So it’s a way to build relationships with museums, heritage and community groups that also have an interest in the places you want to go, the objects you want to associate with these places, and the stories you want to tell.  There’s a great deal of room to explore co-production.

What can we expect from the Hidden Cities apps this year?

We have four new cities coming out – Copenhagen, Tours, Landshut and Venice. At the same time we’re developing how we do narrative drama in the street. For Hidden Venice, one of the trails is a true crime story that unfolds in 1730, where the user accompanies a cop trying to solve a case of serial sexual harassment in the city’s churches.

We also have a new trail coming for Hidden Valencia on the Spanish Civil War, our first 20th century trail. In this story we aim to entangle the user in a kind of thriller set in 1937, a game of cat and mouse featuring two characters, on one side an undercover Francoist, on the other a republican cop.

Depending on how we’re placed to develop the tech, in future these kinds of urban history adventures might become more gamified, with narrative and directional branching, as well as other possibilities using more interactive mapping.

Contact us to learn more about how the Place Experience Platform can bring the stories of your place to life and enrich the visitor experience.