A fusion of themed entertainment and design, of theatre and museum: Richard Kemp, Heritage and Interpretation Manager with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, on how Stratford’s world class visitor attraction is bringing The Bard and his world to life.
When William Shakespeare was alive there were probably not many more than 5m people living in the UK. So, he’d probably be completely amazed to learn now that nearly six times this number of people (27m) have now been into the small room where he was born at The Shakespeare Birthplace trust.
by Richard Kemp (30th September 09)
Visitors have been coming in search of Shakespeare from only a very few years after his death in 1616. In fact, the person who bought the last house Shakespeare lived in was so sick of tourists in the 18th Century he chopped down the Mulberry Tree planted by the man himself and eventually the house too – tourists kept climbing over the wall to get cuttings and knocking on the poor man’s windows.
Tourists began coming in large and ever increasing numbers from 1847 onwards when The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was formed specifically to purchase Shakespeare’s first house in Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon involving, amongst others, Charles Dickens. But Stratford’s tourist numbers began to drop in the late 1990s after Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – a recreation of the original Globe playhouse for which Shakespeare wrote, plus a new visitor centre – opened in London. Stratford-upon-Avon was no longer the only place of pilgrimage for Shakespeare seekers. It was time to take a hard look at the ‘experience’ and ways in which it could be made more compelling, more competitive.
A new Trust director in 2007 and a new ‘World Class Stratford’ initiative led by the local District Council heralded new initiatives in the ways that Shakespeare, his house and his town were delivered. These included plans by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to create a new introduction to Shakespeare’s house, replacing the somewhat academic presentation that had been in place for almost two decades. I was brought on board as project manager to help reshape this visitor experience for the 21st century.
The Trust team began by conducting essential market research to learn why people visited: what were they looking for and what were they hoping to take away? From the answers came a whole series of soft objectives which from the outset were built into the DNA of the project to redevelop the centre. The Trust wished to see the fullest engagement in William Shakespeare and ensure that engagement was more than superficial.
The Trust hoped the new centre would:
• capture and convey the spirit and genius of the man
• show awareness of his global appeal
• reflect the quasi-religious motivations for a visit
• convey in simple terms the wealth of a huge (and nearby) Shakespearean library and archive that contains much of the evidence we have for Shakespeare and his life
• dynamically show as many of the objects associated with his life as possible and make them come alive and become sharply relevant
• be in-tune with contemporary standards of visitor attraction presentation, and even push new boundaries
• use the techniques of the theatre to tell the story
• be of a standard that Shakespeare would be proud of
• appeal to (and hold attention of) people of all ages, all levels of awareness (from tourists on a short-break coach party to academics at a conference on Shakespeare), and all cultures (and all languages)
• convey the veracity and scholarship that lie behind the house in the form of The Trust; and finally…
• enhance visitor emotions to ensure their visit lived up to very high expectations and would become the subject of recommendation to others
Hard objectives had to be defined too, such as the creation of better selling space for ticket office staff, a more attractive street presence, a way to increase the visitor’s perceived value for the money, a way to elongate stay, and a way to moderate the flow of visitors through the tiny, fragile wooden house. All of these would assist in maximising the profitability of the new centre and would be important in convincing our ever-supportive Advantage West Midlands (AWM – this area’s regional development agency) to part-fund the project
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Charles Dickens and the early fathers of the Trust were aware that what drew people to Henley Street was part of a wave of literary pilgrimage that started in the late Georgian period with the location of Chaucer’s tomb in ‘Poet’s Corner’ in Westminster Abbey.
Those making such secular pilgrimages were apparently drawn to feel the invisible powers that resided in objects and places closely associated with the people concerned. Perhaps this was in the hope that, like a religious pilgrimage, some of the power (or ‘Vertus’) would rub off or transmit through close proximity to the spot where it all started, or better still through touching the ‘very building’. The motivation thus was to feel in part the power of the person, to understand them, to experience spaces that they experienced and thereby experience the person.
The new centre’s primary objective, therefore, was to re-connect visitors emotionally with Shakespeare. History was seen primarily in terms of providing part of Shakespeare’s context. As a relic of history, the house simply does not have any intrinsic properties beyond its most famous son. It’s a bog-standard and very ordinary 16th Century timber house, very heavily restored by Victorians, and, in terms of a structure, just like thousands of others in the UK. Shakespeare is not primarily viewed as a historical personality: the Trust would contend he has arguably more importance today than to his own era. He is certainly a global brand with an enduring following now very much larger than in his own lifetime.
Visitor emotions as a driver to project design and project management
A ‘visitor emotion index’ was devised to analyse the existing attraction and help set goals for the redevelopment, taking into account the juxtaposition of feelings, approach, buildings, décor and content. We found that while the visitor would arrive with great anticipation and a sense of excitement in Henley Street, finding how to get into the house, paying for a ticket and the introductory experience that followed were uneven and generally anticlimactic. The visitor was not given sufficient advance information to know what to expect, or why they were being directed away from the object of their pilgrimage. The modern (1980s) visitor centre building into which they were directed was at odds with the guest’s desire to rapidly see and feel the actual house in which the great writer lived, and to be quickly immersed in Shakespeare’s life, times and work. In terms of the actual displays, real and replica objects were indistinguishable, and the themes and thread that linked the wordy displays were complex – or at least not obvious – to a casual visitor.
Overall it was felt to be un-worthy of a man with Shakespeare’s capacity for telling a good story and by the time visitors reached the garden – the real beginning of the visit to the House – their mood had changed from one of initial excitement to one of antipathy.
Due to the constraints of the modern shell in which the new introduction was to be housed (and the realities of the budget), some of these negatives were unavoidable. In formulating design objectives it was concluded that the fundamental role of the newly configured Visitor Centre was to counter these negatives and to rapidly re-engage the visitor – restoring emotional levels in the quickest possible time, and sending people into the garden with excitement and anticipation. We wrote in our brief:
We must make visitors breathe differently, even increase their heart rates, and the VC must send each visitor into the garden with a spring not a shuffle.
We can prepare them and then encourage and facilitate. This may be achieved by removing distractions, creating a comfortable environment, provide space to think and time to appreciate the enormity of being there as well as a level of preparation in the VC.
The key transfer between The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and each visitor in the house (the ‘take-home message’) should be that of a very special ‘sense of place’.
We must prepare each visitor to the house and remind them that this is:
• the house that he lived in
• the garden that he played in (albeit changed)
• the timbers are the same one’s he saw
• the spaces are those which he experienced
• doors are ones he went through
• the windows are ones he looked through
• the views those he saw (albeit changed in some respects)
• he climbed those very stairs and
• he went into that dark cellar
• Visitors can touch and walk upon timbers touched and walked upon by him
This way the House becomes unique, as it should be, and the man will emerge.
Using the vision to guide procurement, design and build
The thinking enshrined above formed the central element of the project brief and had a major effect on all the following:
• The scoring system used in selecting a successful design and build company to deliver the project. Contractors were scored on ‘empathy’, and their match to the brief in terms of theatricality and emotion management all of which were given a weighted score compared with other factors.
• The methodology devised for monitoring the progress of the soft elements of the project, (audiovisual content, script, theatricality of presentation, music, film footage).
• The source of all content (internal Trust Shakespearian scholars were used, in preference to historians or museum specialists).
• The physical design in terms of visitor throughput (limited), design of door open systems (seamless, dramatic, theatrical), use of space (dramatic), lighting (theatrical), sound systems (high quality, surround-sound), projection equipment (wide screen, hi-definition and immersive) were all intended to maximise on emotional engagement.
What did we create?
The thing we created has no known noun – it’s a genuine hybrid – a cross between a theatre and a museum. So a new term ‘The Museatre’ was coined. Five zones were created that each gave a four-minute, integrated sound, light, object-rich, film-based, surround-sound experience. Each started with a prologue and then shared a portion of Shakespeare’s story – his early life in Stratford, his arrival and influence in London, his global legacy, and finally a hall of fame to reflect those who have had most effect in interpreting Shakespeare. It’s essentially a dark walk with bells on. Doors gently, magically even mysteriously slide open between zones. It deliberately sets out to evoke a range of emotions in the visitor – to make them feel sad, then happy, to make them laugh, feel inspired and proud. To this end, it was narrated by the great Shakespeareans Patrick Stewart and Juliette Stevenson, and the script was written and the narration directed by The Trust’s Head of Learning, Dr Paul Edmondson – himself a Shakespearean with a reputation for communicating the man’s importance and relevance in today’s world.
Early showings of the ‘show’ (as it is now called) were favourable. The earliest visitors were in fact a group of 8-year-olds from a local school, drafted in for a photo-call. The author went through with them in trepidation – will they like it, will it work, will they yawn?
The relief was palpable as smiles erupted on the young visitors’ faces as Bernard Levin’s ‘Quoting Shakespeare’ lines were heard in the ‘global legacy’ zone reminded us all that calling some-one a ‘blinking idiot’ is literally quoting Shakespeare!!
The ‘Life, Love and Legacy’ exhibit and its new associated ticketing area (also designed to maximise, or at least calm the emotions) were completed in 11 months from a standing start (in early May 2008 there was no budget, no funding, no agreed brief, no contractor and no design). However, it opened on time (on 3rd April 2009), on budget.
This enhanced the Trust’s reputation as a professional outfit able to deliver its promises and prompting Advantage West Midlands to issue the following comment:
“Advantage West Midlands as a substantial funding partner in this project have found the whole idea of the improved Visitor Centre from concept to completion to have been extremely well thought through and managed bringing it in on a tight timescale and to budget. Richard Kemp’s ‘worry index’, an interesting variation on a risk register, proved extremely helpful in project monitoring as did the open and approachable nature of the whole team at the Birthplace Trust.”
Positive comments from the attractions industry press also helped put the early icing on the cake.
Several months on, we are contemplating a detailed analysis of the visitor book to look at comments before and after the opening of ‘Life, Love & Legacy’ and are contemplating scoring between 1 and 10 for emotion. We suggest that no comment will get a score of 1 (at least they’d felt the motivation to sign the book), whilst a comment like “I nearly cried” will achieve a score of 8, and “I cried” a score of 9, “good” gets a score of 4, “excellent” and “amazing” a score of 7. Whilst all such terms are subjective and personal, the same factors will pertain before and after the opening, so one can judge that this will be a fair tool to use. We expect to see the average emotion score before opening Life, Love & Legacy increase after opening and (assuming it increased) will be able to objectively quantify an increase in visitor emotion.
Other things that had been more difficult to quantify such as ‘value for money perceptions’ are easier to measure now, as are ‘likelihood to recommend a visit to others’ recorded objectively using visitor exit research. These measures are now all increasing and since the opening of Life, Love & Legacy for example ‘poor value for money’ scores (always around 4%-5% and increasing) have fallen right back.
But money talks and the killer measure of ‘visitor revenues to date’ probably says most of all – the attraction showed 17% up on the equivalent Easter to June period in 2008.
We conclude that both the hard and all-important soft project objectives have been met. The project was certainly on time, it was certainly on budget and (subject to the analysis of the visitor’s book) it seems to have achieved a higher level of emotional engagement than previously.
Shakespeare would have been proud – we hope so at least.
Images Courtesy of Sarner Ltd (from Top)
Zone 3 – Folio
Zone 2 – View of Tree within Space
Zone 5 – Hall of Fame
Reception Area looking through to Zone 1
Zone 3 – Globe Fire
Richard kemp has been interpreting the heritage to audiences for 30 years He began with site tours of his archaeological excavations in Tours and realised he could make dry and dusty information come alive to people who had little background knowledge. After digging and publishing sites in York he went sideways to develop the Jorvik Viking centre in 2001 and from there to two stately homes. He is now the Heritage and Interpretation Manager with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, working on new ways to present their huge and diverse assets. He also operates Visitor Attraction Consultants, offering his lateral and creative way of looking at the heritage to those developing their own visitor offers in the heritage sector.