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Posts from — October 2009

“…And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.”

As read­ers may know, one of my sev­er­al activ­i­ties is audio pro­duc­tion, both voice-over work and the pro­duc­tion of com­plete pack­ages with voice, music, effects and so on.

Recent­ly many of these pro­duc­tions have been par­tic­u­lar­ly asso­ci­at­ed with edu­ca­tion­al pro­grammes, clients includ­ing the British Library and City of Sun­der­land Col­lege. Inter­est­ing­ly, all these projects have result­ed from meet­ing peo­ple in the vir­tu­al world of Sec­ond Life. (Par­tial­ly as a result, inci­den­tal­ly, I do not have a great deal of time for peo­ple who crit­i­cise me for “play­ing” in SL or try to con­vince me that noth­ing sig­nif­i­cant will come of it.)

I have a teach­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion myself, and I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the edu­ca­tion­al pos­si­bil­i­ties of vir­tu­al worlds: Sec­ond Life is by far the most pop­u­lar and wide­ly-used of the vir­tu­al worlds cur­rent­ly avail­able, although there is increas­ing activ­i­ty in “Open­Sim” vari­ants using essen­tial­ly the same technology.

Most recent­ly I was intro­duced to some of the staff of the First World War Poet­ry Dig­i­tal Archive, based at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford. They are on the point of launch­ing (on 2 Novem­ber) a new region in Sec­ond Life (named Frideswide after the patron saint of Oxford) which is home to a painstak­ing­ly-built envi­ron­ment designed to shed light on aspects of the life of sol­diers in the trench­es along the West­ern Front dur­ing the First World War. Stu­dents can vis­it the site and learn not only about the con­di­tions endured by infantry­men dur­ing the Great War but also hear poet­ry from the ‘War Poets’, along with inter­views and tutorials.

Here’s how they describe the installation:

This tour of a stylised ver­sion of the trench sys­tems in the West­ern Front has … two objectives:
• to show you the phys­i­cal con­text of the trench systems
• to expose items held in the First World War Poet­ry Dig­i­tal Archive in a three-dimen­sion­al environment

…This [is] not an attempt to give you a real­is­tic expe­ri­ence of what it was like to be on the West­ern Front. The phys­i­cal depra­va­tion, or the chance of seri­ous injury or death, can­not be repli­cat­ed, and this should always be remembered.

More impor­tant­ly per­haps, this is but one view of the War – and it would be safe to say this is a view open to dis­cus­sion. …we have pre­sent­ed rain-sod­den trench­es, infest­ed by rats, in gloomy sur­round­ings. But this was not always the case. The open­ing day of the Bat­tle of the Somme, for exam­ple, was a beau­ti­ful sum­mer’s morn­ing in stark con­trast to the depic­tions we often see of the mud­dy hell of Paaschendaele.

Chris Stephens, who has been instru­men­tal in putting the sim­u­la­tion togeth­er, com­mis­sioned me ini­tial­ly to pro­vide an audio ver­sion of an A‑level/U­ni­ver­si­ty-lev­el Tuto­r­i­al on “Remem­brance” along with four poems: Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wil­fred Owen, Does It Mat­ter? by Siegfried Sas­soon, plus Louse Hunt­ing and Dead Man’s Dump by Isaac Rosenberg.

I’ve now record­ed some addi­tion­al poet­ry read­ings – Repres­sion of War Expe­ri­ence, After­math, and On Pass­ing the New Menin Gate, all by Siegfried Sas­soon; plus 1916 Seen From 1921 and Can You Remem­ber by Edmund Blun­den – and an intro­duc­tion and epilogue.

These poems have a great deal to tell us about the feel­ings of their authors, and many of them are pow­er­ful­ly mov­ing. Dead Man’s Dump in par­tic­u­lar is full of vivid, detailed imagery.

The tuto­r­i­al, on the oth­er hand, encour­ages us to ask a num­ber of ques­tions about our con­cep­tion of what the Great War was like, and uncov­ers where much of our infor­ma­tion has come from. It also chal­lenges some of our assump­tions about the con­flict. At the time of writ­ing, there are only three vet­er­ans of the First World War left alive, so we rely increas­ing­ly on indi­rect sources.

In the Sec­ond Life rep­re­sen­ta­tion, you start off at an army camp and then pro­ceed to the trench­es via a float­ing bub­ble, dur­ing which you hear the intro­duc­tion to the installation.

Once at ground lev­el in the trench­es, you can walk around and vis­it dif­fer­ent aspects of the trench net­work. Along the way, images of sol­diers flick­er into view and you might hear an inter­view or a piece of poet­ry. The tuto­ri­als are accessed via a “HUD” (Head-Up Dis­play) enabling you to pro­ceed through the mate­r­i­al and exer­cis­es at your own pace. Addi­tion­al audio extracts are ini­ti­at­ed by click­ing on loud­speak­er symbols.

A scene from the University of Oxford's First World War re-creation in Second Life. The visitor is able to walk around in the trenches; the cubes with a loudspeaker symbol on them enable playback of audio material such as poetry readings and interviews. Photo courtesy of First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

A scene from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford’s First World War rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Sec­ond Life. The vis­i­tor is able to walk around in the trench­es and ulti­mate­ly climb a lad­der up on to the bat­tle­field itself; the cubes with a loud­speak­er sym­bol on them enable play­back of audio mate­r­i­al such as poet­ry read­ings and inter­views. The green-tinged cloud and float­ing text ahead are part of a sec­tion on the use of poi­son gas dur­ing the War. 

Over­all, the Sec­ond Life rep­re­sen­ta­tion is quite an intense and pow­er­ful expe­ri­ence, and I can imag­ine it will be a par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive edu­ca­tion­al tool.

The chal­lenge for an envi­ron­ment like this is that there is a fair­ly steep learn­ing curve before vis­i­tors can ful­ly expe­ri­ence what a vir­tu­al world like Sec­ond Life can offer – before you can expe­ri­ence an instal­la­tion like this you have to learn how to move around, acti­vate things and gen­er­al­ly oper­ate suc­cess­ful­ly in the envi­ron­ment. How­ev­er in this case you real­ly need to be able to do lit­tle more than walk around and click on objects, so most peo­ple will require no more than a few min­utes of train­ing to be able to get the most out of vir­tu­al re-cre­ations like this.

I wish the First World War Poet­ry Dig­i­tal Archive every suc­cess with this project and am very pleased to have been able to make a small con­tri­bu­tion to it. This instal­la­tion will also be fea­tured in the 10 Novem­ber edi­tion of the Design­ing Worlds show on Treet.TV.

*“…And each slow dusk a draw­ing down of blinds.” is the final line of Anthem for Doomed Youth by World War I poet Wil­fred Owen – one of the WWI poems I’ve record­ed for this project. Pho­tos cour­tesy of First World War Poet­ry Dig­i­tal Archive.

October 26, 2009   Comments Off on “…And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.”

Ironbridge Gorge Museums

Iron­bridge, near Telford in Shrop­shire, is right­ly regard­ed as one of the foun­da­tions of the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. Here in 1707, Abra­ham Dar­by per­fect­ed (and patent­ed) a method of smelt­ing iron ore using coke.

Pre­vi­ous­ly, the process required char­coal, which takes a great deal of time and effort to pro­duce, first grow­ing the trees (!), then burn­ing the wood under the right con­di­tions. As a result, the amount of iron that could be smelt­ed was lim­it­ed by the sup­ply of char­coal. The dis­cov­ery of a means of using coke – which is derived from coal – meant that iron could be pro­duced as quick­ly as the coal could be mined. This enabled the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion to take off.

In 1779 the great Iron Bridge across the Sev­ern, after which the town is named, was built by Abra­ham Dar­by III. It was the first cast-iron bridge in the world.

Today, the indus­try that char­ac­terised the area for hun­dreds of years is large­ly silent, but in its place is a col­lec­tion of near­ly a dozen dif­fer­ent muse­ums and attrac­tions that help us to under­stand our indus­tri­al her­itage. You can find out more about them here. In 1986 the Gorge was one of the first sev­en UK sites award­ed World Her­itage Site sta­tus by UNESCO.

The Museum of the Gorge is housed in a converted Gothic-style riverside warehouse, where goods where stored prior to shipping down the Severn.

The Muse­um of the Gorge is housed in a con­vert­ed Goth­ic-style river­side ware­house, where goods where stored pri­or to ship­ping down the Severn.

To see all the major loca­tions will take you more than a day, par­tic­u­lar­ly as a result of the exten­sive­ness of Blists Hill Vic­to­ri­an Town. How­ev­er, I sug­gest you start at the Muse­um of the Gorge, which boasts one of the most detailed dio­ra­mas I’ve ever seen, in this case of the stretch of the Sev­ern and the enor­mous col­lec­tion of indus­tri­al activ­i­ties car­ried out here from mediæ­val times onwards.

In addi­tion, you might like to take in the Coal­brook­dale Muse­um of Iron. How­ev­er the most exten­sive loca­tion to vis­it in the area is Blists Hill Vic­to­ri­an Town. Based around the site of an old brick works, the town con­sists of build­ings either restored, relo­cat­ed or spe­cial­ly built fol­low­ing detailed research.

You enter the town via a very impres­sive (and recent) audio­vi­su­al pre­sen­ta­tion which high­lights the region’s indus­tri­al her­itage, and then you’re on the main street, where the first build­ing is a Lloyds Bank. Here you can exchange mod­ern mon­ey for tra­di­tion­al pre-1971 £.s.d. that you can use to buy items in the shops on the site (they also take mod­ern mon­ey, unlike the Ken­twell Hall’s Tudor re-enact­ments, where beyond the “time tun­nel”, all trans­ac­tions have to be done with the tra­di­tion­al coinage).

Replica of Richard Trevithick's locally-built Pen-y-mar loco of 1809

Repli­ca of Richard Tre­vithick­’s local­ly-built Pen-y-Dar­ren loco­mo­tive of 1809

There are work­ing steam engines, includ­ing one used to raise and low­er a mine cage and a repli­ca of Richard Tre­vithick­’s 1802 Pen-y-Dar­ren loco­mo­tive. There are a cou­ple of very impres­sive beam engines orig­i­nal­ly used to blow air into blast fur­naces, but regret­tably these will nev­er steam again and are demon­strat­ed by dri­ving with an elec­tric motor.

The operator of the mineshaft winding gear steam engine

The oper­a­tor of the mine­shaft wind­ing gear steam engine

Cos­tumed staff are on hand to describe the busi­ness­es, shops and indus­try of the Vic­to­ri­an era and I was very tempt­ed to turn up in cos­tume – though I was not sure how they would react. Some places love you to do that, while oth­ers (notably Ken­twell) abhor it, as you might be mis­tak­en for staff and, not know­ing the back-sto­ry, might let them down (at Ken­twell the back-sto­ry is so detailed that this is a real pos­si­bil­i­ty). Beamish, I seem to recall, lets you turn up in cos­tume and they give you a spe­cial tag (suit­ably print­ed in let­ter­press fonts of the peri­od, pre­sum­ably in their print shop) to indi­cate that you’re a “Vis­i­tor”.

Indeed, the obvi­ous com­par­i­son with Blists Hill is Beamish, and there is appar­ent­ly a lit­tle rival­ry between the two sites, it was hint­ed, but in fact the two, while there is some obvi­ous over­lap, have some sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences – the mon­ey at Blists Hill and the trams at Beamish for exam­ple. At Blists Hill, you get around on foot or by horse-drawn wagon.

Blists Hill has a wide selec­tion of shops, some­times pro­duc­ing and sell­ing items; there are also some per­for­mances by a pair of actors who present hilar­i­ous excerpts from Shake­speare (with the help of the audi­ence) and there are music-hall songs in the pub from time to time.

I did not take a great deal of video, but here is one extract. Down the bot­tom of the town there’s a Vic­to­ri­an fun­fair, includ­ing a mer­ry-go-round, which orig­i­nal­ly, one pre­sumes, would have been dri­ven by a steam trac­tion engine. There’s a nice lit­tle Pell organ on this one, play­ing var­i­ous med­leys of tunes of the era, of which you can hear a sam­ple below.

Blists Hill Fair­ground Organ from Richard Elen on Vimeo.

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October 1, 2009   Comments Off on Ironbridge Gorge Museums