We don’t tend to think of museums as hotbeds of innovation. But lots of Cornish attractions are using the latest virtual and augmented reality technologies to bring history to life.
That’s thanks in large part to the work of Amy Shakespeare, innovation manager and wAVE project manager at the Cornwall Museums Partnership.
We spoke to Amy about how she's bringing immersive technologies into Cornish museums - and how a passion for heritage led her to explore new technologies for storytelling and accessibility.
Amy, can you tell us a bit about the Cornwall Museums Partnership?
CMP is a charity that aims to create positive social change with museums. We support all of the museums in Cornwall: there are over 70 in total, and you're never more than eight miles from one!
We run lots of projects, including the wAVE project that I manage. It’s a partnership with Falmouth Games Academy and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly LEP, and our aim is to attract a younger audience into five museums and increase the visitor economy in the museum’s local area.
We do that by working with the museums to create immersive experiences using virtual reality, augmented reality and apps.
It’s funded by the Coastal Communities Fund, so all of the museums are coastal: Bude, Looe, St Agnes, Porthcurno and the Isles of Scilly.
What kind of experiences have you created?
At the Castle Heritage Centre in Bude, we’ve created a VR experience using LIDAR data and drone footage. It lets you experience what it was like to sail into the Bude Canal in 1900.
You put on a VR headset, and steer with a real ship’s wheel. You see the landscape as it was in 1900, and you can feel how difficult it was to navigate into the canal.
At the Old Guildhall Museum in Looe, we’re working on an AR project. The museum will have a 3D model of Looe Island, and when you hold an iPad or tablet up to it, it’ll tell you about the history of the island and how it would have looked.
You can place items on the island – like a monastery, or tin ingots – and it'll change the story as you're looking at it.
What does your role involve?
wAVE is a two-year project, and I oversee the whole thing. I work with the university and the LEP to make sure we stay on time and on budget.
I also manage the relationship with the museums, making sure they follow a user-centred design process. Museums people don’t tend to have a tech background, so it’s been a big learning curve for them.
Excitingly, I'm now taking on a new role as CMP’s innovation manager, which means I'll be looking for other ways that museums can use technology to tell their stories.
What got you interested in the tech side of heritage?
I love museums and heritage, and I'm passionate about finding new ways for people to engage with what we do. But until recently the most advanced technology we had was touchscreen, and we were late getting that. It was quite frustrating because I wanted us to be more innovative as a sector.
Then I worked on the VISTA-AR project with Exeter University and it really opened my eyes to the way technology can help us make our experiences much better.
Once you've got your head into that mindset, you’re always thinking about new possibilities!
Amy worked on the VISTA-AR project, which brings AR to historical sites including Exeter Cathedral and Botallack Mine
What do you find most rewarding about the wAVE project?
wAVE was aimed at millennials and Gen Zs, and it does appeal to those audiences. But the thing that blows me away is when older people come in and are a bit nervous about the technology. Then they put on the headset and you hear them say ‘wow’. We hear that word so much, and it’s so rewarding.
"It blows me away when older people come in and are a bit nervous of the technology. Then they put on the headset and you hear them say 'wow'. We hear that word so much, and it's so rewarding."
Now we’re thinking about how we can take museums out to people's houses, and use technology to help people who are isolated for whatever reason to engage with their own heritage. I find that really exciting.
Can you give an example of how technology can do that?
We’ve just been awarded a small grant from the Esme Fairbairn Collections Fund to work on a new project that will allow access to audio archives via smart speakers and smartphones in the home.
It’s partly for people in care homes, people who are blind or partially sighted, or those who can't leave their home. They'll be able to navigate the audio archive using their voice. It’s just one of the ways that tech can help museums reach out to people, rather than people coming to them.
When you were young, did you think you might work in a role like this?
I realised when I was at university that I wanted to work in the museums and heritage sector. But immersive technology was still in its infancy, so there was no role like mine then.
I remember we had a talk at school and they said that for many of us, the jobs we’d end up doing didn’t exist yet. And that’s been really true for me!
"We had a talk at school and they said that for many of us, the jobs we’d end up doing didn’t exist yet. And that’s been really true for me!"
What advice do you have for girls who’d love a job like yours one day?
I think it’s about following things that you're passionate about. People told me I should take a science A-level, but I didn’t enjoy science – so I chose things I did enjoy, like history and music. It made studying easier and more enjoyable than if I’d picked something I would have struggled with.
And put yourself out there as early as you can, by volunteering at a museum or getting in touch with people and finding out about different roles. Most people don't realise there’s a role like mine – I know I didn't! So try to find out what types of job there are, and see which ones you’d enjoy doing.
What can parents can do to make girls aware there are roles like yours?
If you go to a museum or heritage site, and you see a VR game or a digital interactive, be aware that people have made that.
Lots of people think the only job in a museum is curator. But actually there are a whole host of exciting roles behind the scenes – from the technical work of creating the game, to managing the project and marketing the game. So just try to be aware of that as much as possible.