It’s ok, this is not a Scottish Independence Referendum blog post…
The National Trust for Scotland’s Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre opened in 2014, the 700th Anniversary of the battle itself. I was lucky enough to visit and get a behind-the-scenes tour for museum professionals with GEM Scotland and have put together some lessons I think we can all learn from this visitor experience.
The visitor centre comprises an immersive 3D digital experience, culminating in a group game led by a ‘Battlemaster’. Visitors are required to purchase a timed ticket for the experience, they can choose a ‘game’ or a ‘show’ ticket. Either type of visit starts around 30 minutes before the timed slot in the ‘prepare for battle’ area where your aim is to find out about the characters and weaponry of the time.
At your designated time, you move into the battle room for either your game or a show describing the events of 1314 narrated by academics Dr Fiona Watson & Dr Tony Pollard.
The game (or show) is followed by a short AV on the events immediately following the battle and then the opportunity to go outside to the Avenue, Rotunda and statue of Robert the Bruce.
The Objectives for the visitor centre project were: to create a world-class visitor experience, to bring the story to life, to provide a memorable learning experience and to make Bannockburn a must see!
The first word that came to my mind in relation to the experience is ‘brave’. I think there’s certainly no doubt that the experience is memorable and for me, it did bring the story to life. But it is NOT your ‘standard’ National Trust for Scotland visitor centre (whatever that is!), and it’s target audience does not have the same profile as the general NTS membership.
The first of my Bannockburn lessons is therefore ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time’. If you do something truly brave, and aim to provide something unique and targeted at a new audience, then you need to accept that some people will hate it.
The first people I knew who visited the Centre when it first opened and told me about it were a couple in their early 60s and they had hated it. I very much enjoyed it, but I can totally understand why they didn’t. For a start, there are the glasses…
For families and young people the glasses are fun. If you’re older, and wear glasses anyway, then the 3D glasses are trickier to get on with. The ‘prepare for battle’ room consists of enormous 3D projections on screens all around the room which you view with these glasses.
There are also some touchscreens to explore information about the weaponry, and some full-height characters which you can interact with using gesture-technology. A range of digital interfaces, which delight tech-savy young audiences while intimidating and confusing other visitors in equal measure. Finally, the game. For some visitors there will be nothing they can imagine worse than taking part in a group experience. Being asked publicly to make decisions and take turns in the battle can be either totally engaging or utterly terrifying depending on your level of extraversion or introversion.
So the whole experience is like ‘Marmite’ – you either love it or you hate it. The challenge is to find a way to let potential visitors know before they come whether it’s going to be something they want to spend their money visiting. Also, to communicate what there is to see and do if you do not want to take the digital experience (visiting the monument and statue and outside space for free).
The second lesson I think we can learn is about accepting human behaviour and working with it rather than against. The pre-booked time slots are a problem. People do not generally expect to have to book ahead to visit an NTS visitor centre. They do not visit websites ahead of their visit (in general) and the disappointment associated with turning people away after travelling to the site in peak season is probably going to lead to bad feeling towards the site. Personally I don’t think there’s any way to make people pre-book or visit the website, so I would probably hold back some tickets for walk-in sales, even if this results in some under-capacity slots.
At the GEM Scotland visit, and also in a presentation at a recent Museums Association event, we heard all about how the project was put together. The digitisation was done by the Digital Design Studio at Glasgow School of Art, working with a distinguished academic advisory panel. This process created amazingly accurate and academically robust digital visualisations of clothing and weaponry. These ‘digital assets’ are now a virtual collection of artefacts in the care of the NTS. The fighting scenes were created using motion capture and battle re-enactors again with the guidance of the academic advisory panel. This is really impressive work. The problem is, I only know about it because of attending industry events.
My third lesson from Bannockburn is – find a way to tell your own story. Even if I didn’t work in the field I would have been interested to know that the clothing and weaponry is historically accurate. In this age of video gaming and Hollywood films, the assumption I think is that historical accuracy is sacrificed for engagement and entertainment. When this is not the case, visitor experiences need to shout louder about the work they’ve done. My early 60s couple I mentioned earlier would have been engaged by knowing more about the historical accuracy of the digital images. This tendency to not tell the ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories sufficiently is something I see time and again in museums particularly, so much of the fascinating conservation or community engagement stories just don’t get told or given enough prominence.
Inside / Outside
After the digital experience, there is a door out towards the outdoor space which consists of an avenue of trees leading to the 1960s rotunda, flagpole and famous Robert the Bruce statue (all monuments to mark the spot where Bruce is thought to have raised his standard before the battle).
According to the original interpretation plan, the outside space is intended to be a place for “commemoration, reflection and inspiration”. It is free to visit the outside space and monuments, and since their refurbishment this has become a social space for the local community where dog walkers and families enjoy the parkland. Over the years, there have been instances of antisocial behaviour around the monument, but currently this seems to have abated, possibly due to engagement activities with the local community, which is great news.
These outside spaces are well done. I like the timeline, the poetry, the parkland… but there is a real jarring for me between the inside and outside spaces. I didn’t really feel that I was encouraged outside after my digital experience. And once outside there were no echos of the inside experience or shared design language.
My fourth lesson is – always think carefully about linking inside and outside spaces.
Overall I enjoyed my Bannockburn experience. I liked the game, and I would recommend it to families with children and to young people comfortable with digital experiences and technology. I think that NTS are to be commended for being so brave in their approach to this visitor centre. It is not like anything else, it is a unique experience and it will no doubt be memorable for all those who visit.
However, my fifth lesson is to think about preferred learning styles or Gardner’s multiple intelligences and provide something for people who like to read information, and have a thirst for ‘facts’, or people who just don’t get on with the digital approach. Happily, Bannockburn do have something that does just that. Currently hidden away on their dedicated learning website, the “Battlepedia” makes use of all the digital assets and allows you to explore the characters, weaponry, locations and armour associated with the battle. I just hope that in future they will find a way to make this software available within the visitor centre itself on browsable touchscreens. Ideally for those who turn up unprepared and are unable to get a timed slot for the game!