Our Guide to Immersive Storytelling in Museums

Immersive storytelling is an exciting and memorable way to bring history to life but it can be a daunting challenge. We share some tips for getting it right.

Bringing the past to life is one of the most memorable and exciting ways of interpreting history. And with all the immersive tech now available, helping visitors to feel, smell and breathe the air of historical events is more and more possible.

Binaural audio – with the right concept, script and actors – can trick the brain into believing you have time travelled and are experiencing a new reality – even though the sights around you haven’t changed. Virtual reality can take you anywhere, to be anything, moving through time and space. Haptics bring an extra sensory dimension, smells can be hugely evocative and all of it can be combined to create spine-chillingly powerful effects.

It’s a very exciting prospect. But perhaps a little overwhelming.

There are so many possibilities and so much choice of kit it’s easy to be blinded by the tech and lose sight of what it is you want to achieve and what suits your space.

There are four key mantras that we at PastPorte tend to work by – and live by. They work for us. And we think they’ll work for you too.

1. Keep it simple.

Rarely is the success of your immersive experience going to depend on how much you’ve spent on the kit, how many microphones you’ve used, how many speakers you’ve plugged up or how many projectors you’ve got going.

It can be hard to stick to keeping it simple. Especially when seduced by constant tech innovations.

One of Pastporte’s most successful installations used just two simple resonant speakers, purchased in a domestic high street store, loaded with a pared-back atmospheric soundscape.

Also we try and use silence. Lots of it. The brain gets overstimulated with a constant assault from sophisticated, exciting sounds and starts to regard them as normal. Binaural audio works best if it’s a constant surprise. But to achieve that, the brain almost needs to have forgotten what it sounds like. So, in any story, we build in sections that are silent or low key to create contrast and keep up the surprises. We think that makes an experience more immersive.

2. If there’s something to see, keep your visitors eyes up.

Encouraging visitors to look at a screen and use a multi-media guide is great if there’s nothing to see at your attraction.

But most museums and attractions are all about feasting your eyes on what’s around you – aren’t they? So why would you want to distract from that by asking your visitors to look away from your visual treats and instead, get their eye candy from a screen (especially for kids when their parents are likely to feel they’re too screen-dependent already) ?

If there’s something to look at, let them look at it but augment their experience in other ways. Here too binaural audio can build your experience into a full immersive, time-travelling wonder. Especially if it’s the right audio.

3. Build on your strengths.

Make your artefacts the centre of your immersive story. Turning an artefact into an interactive, immersive exhibit is a neat trick – one we’ve regularly used at PastPorte. Using a gorgeous, if knackered, bellows camera, installed headphones and an AV screen, we transported viewers to Antarctica, 1915. The leather bellows (with associated musty smell), mahogany and brass housing all started to do our work for us – before the viewer had even begun our immersive time travel experience.

A visual, tangible object that can tee up the brain for what is to come adds extra impact. And the added bonus of using an artefact that already feels part of the period and is appropriate in the setting means the whole experience is more integrated yet also more surprising.

4. Content is king.

Whatever approach you choose, and however you choose to deliver it, it’s the content that will make your experience stand out. However great the tech set-up, if the content doesn’t tell the story well, no-one will remember your experience.

Spend time devising the right story and the right approach to telling that story, and constantly review both as you develop the experience. It can be easy to lose sight of the most important thing in amongst the glitz of all that fabulous, shiny kit.

But it’s the content that will live on when the latest tech fashions have come and gone.

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