For most people, heritage sites conjure up images of dust and dryness, rather than a picture of polished modern technology.
The two concepts are far from mutually exclusive. This is something I have always believed but was hammered home to me most recently when I began working at St Augustine’s Abbey with English Heritage. Rather than harp on about how excited I am for this opportunity (this can be implied) I wanted to instead segue into something else close to my heart: the place of technology in heritage.
Plenty of more qualified people have spoken at length about the subject. I merely wanted to shine a light on my own experiences watching visitors interact with the technology on offer at St Augustine’s Abbey.
In 2017, English Heritage launches its first virtual reality experience. It aimed to ‘rebuild’ St Augustine’s Abbey as it was in the 16th Century. Using Oculus Rift headsets, the virtual tour is not vast in itself but it shows the scale of the buildings that existed in the medieval heyday of the abbey, both inside and outside.
The project is part of a four-year collaboration with postgraduate students at the University of Kent and the room for expansion is really astounding. It is transferrable to so many important heritage sites, all of which suffer from the public hurdle of being viewed as ‘just’ ruins and difficult to visualise.
In my limited experience manning the front desk, more than one person has come in specifically to see the virtual tour. For those who have never experienced VR, the experience is striking. From my point of view, the reaction to it is heart-warming and every visitor comes away smiling.
It is not fool-proof. Usually visitors will need a word or two from me to explain how to navigate once the headsets are on. This applied to both young and old. I did have to physically stop a young man walking straight into a wall with the headset on last week, while I have also had to explain to an elderly gentleman that it was not like a video and he would need to control the experience himself. The main takeaway I want to take from this is that there is little to no difference between the time and enjoyment evident in those using the VR. It is not a gimmick for kids – it is a highly transferrable learning tool.
Technology is not there as a replacement for more physical forms of heritage, it is an additional, unique way of engaging with the history.
I, for one, am ready to see more experiences such as VR used to help people connect to the past.