Our symposium Touching Past Lives explored the growing trend of immersive performance to engage audiences with local, regional and national heritage. We particularly looked at how sensorial and affective techniques are being utilized by the heritage industry through performative, digital, and participatory means. The symposium was interdisciplinary and international in scope. We had 22 speakers from the academic fields of Theatre Studies, Literature, Games Design, Sociology, Anthropology, History, Sound Design, as well as theatre artists and museum curators. Our speakers discussed heritage performance projects occurring in Scotland, England, Cornwall, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Australia (with academics from all of those. We had an additional 20 audience members made up of academics and a significant number of heritage industry curators from the Wallace Collection, the Black County Living Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and local county councils. We also received interest from a number of living history and archival collection curators to document and submit our research report to them, indicating a broad area of interest in our research, as well as a growing area of interest amongst the heritage industry in immersive techniques.
Our symposium interrogated the current affective and immersive turn in the heritage industry to facilitate individual and communal acts of remembering, engaging, emulating, re-visioning, and refuting the past. Heritage England in 2017 identified heritage as a key part of the UK 'brand' and central to the UK economy. With increasing innovations to both virtual and live immersive experience design, recent scholarship has emphasized the importance to examine the role of the senses in public response to heritage sites. Our symposium asked how immersive and interactive experiences embodying, engaging and mediating new narratives in cultural heritage performances, spaces and installations. Our speakers were a combination of practitioners, scholars, and members of heritage industry who explored both the practicalities of what the challenges, techniques, and diversity of techniques available in the field, as well as interrogating and challenging the meaning making and perceived benefits to audience engagement with history facilitated through immersive heritage performance.
The speakers explored a wide range of topics including artist reports and research on a number of Heritage Lottery Fund projects from Paston Footprints in Norfolk, the Black County Museum, the Cornwall Man Engine pilgrimage, the “man behind the glass” World War One centenary project in Belfast, the Burnley Lesbian Liberation commemoration, as well as a number of other projects including immersive audio projects at Alexandra Palace, Hoxton Hall, and the Thomas Hardy house; Smithfield Market’s sensorial relation to the cityscape; a “dark tourism” performance of colonial Australia, and a mixed reality digital heritage project of the 19th century North Atlantic cable project. Historian Victor Morgan looked at how to use immersive techniques in the university history classroom, while artist/scholar Roger Wooster interrogated the limits of immersive techniques for the documentation of historical archival material.