New takes on the traditional guided tour: Can you help evaluate our York Minster prototype?

Seeking a handful of volunteers to test our new EMOTIVE facilitated tour of the York Minster…

York Minster evaluation - 31 May 2019
Can you join? Seeking volunteers to evaluate our facilitated ’emotive’ group tour of the York Minster on Friday 31 May 2019. (Photo by Katrina Gargett)

Our EMOTIVE team here in York (led by Katrina Gargett and supported by the incomparable Vivi Katifori and Vassilis Kourtis in Athens) has spent the past year conceiving of alternative visions for the typical guided tour of cultural sites. Guided tours are arguably one of the most ubiquitous offerings of the tourist industry. Many folks will have direct experience of being steered around sites in groups, sometimes paying attention to their guide’s spiel, and sometimes drifting off and losing touch with the expert narrative that is spoken at them.

While there are a growing number of alternatives to this traditional approach to guided tourism, it is surprising how rare experimentation with group tours seems to be. As Katrina’s research has shown, these tours offer unprecedented opportunities for cultural sites to directly communicate with people, to bring together strangers who might otherwise not have interacted, and to create constructive conversations and relationships between them.

Supported by the astonishing York Minster (one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in northern Europe), we have developed a new take on the guided tour, and we would like to ask for your help.

Specifically, we are conducting an evaluation of our ‘EMOTIVE tour’ at the Minster on Friday, 31 May, from 2.30pm. We’ve tested the tour with multiple groups off-site (in settings staged to simulate the Minster), and we’ve used these tests to improve the experience. Now we seek a small number of volunteers who are willing to do the tour inside the Minster itself and to provide constructive feedback on it.

Volunteers should be:

(1) 18 years or older and interested to participate in a research project focused on experimenting with guided tours, part of the wider European-funded EMOTIVE Project.

(2) willing to meet new people, share something about yourself, and explore ideas together about the Minster. Ideally, you are not employed in the heritage, museums, or tourism sector.

(3) open to discussing heartfelt topics including health, spirituality, love, wellbeing, justice, rights, and other human values and beliefs. You should be keen and ready to speak respectfully with others about these emotive topics.

(4) willing to read aloud, or to read aloud for others who might not feel confident in doing so, and comfortable reading at a basic-to-intermediate level (11-12 year old reading confidence).

(5) able to spare 3.5 hours of time on Friday 31 May, from 2.30-6pm. The first 1.5 hours will consist of the tour at York Minster, and then you will walk or taxi over from the Minster to nearby King’s Manor for a constructive discussion of your experiences. We will provide refreshments!

(6) willing to allow your tour of the experience to be audio-recorded and photographed, as well as your discussion session at King’s Manor after the tour. These records will then be analysed and used to improve the design and development of the next version of the tour. You can choose to anonymise your records so that you are not identifiable.

If you are interested to participate, or know of someone who might be, please can you contact me by email before Wednesday 29 May. 

Thank you for spreading the word and supporting our efforts to broaden the ways that we think about – and connect to – the past.

Bot of conviction: transforming our conversations about the past

Can a chatbot enable us to change our conceptions about the past, to be critically reflective, to take action on the world today?

Provoking questions - would you bury someone you care about under your bed?
An example of a question posed by our Bot of Conviction to provoke conversation about the human past. For more info, download our CHI 2019 paper

After two years of development, I’m really excited to announce that our co-authored paper (co-authored by a majority female team, no less!) for CHI 2019 has been published and was presented by the incredible Maria Roussou in Glasgow yesterday. The full-text of the paper is freely downloadable from the ACM Digital Library. And especially excitingly, our EMOTIVE communications collaborator Karolina Badzmierowska from NOHO, made this little teaser video to briefly introduce you to the concept behind the project, and to pique your interest.

With all this available online, I’ll just say here that we’ve been inspired by the work of Mark SampleShawn Graham, and others, and thus have experimented with means to provoke people (in constructive fashion) to question and act responsibly on their values, beliefs and prejudices. I’ve long been interested in the power of dialogue to bring people together – and to offer the means by which change can be articulated and enacted – and I continue to be surprised at the relative lack of engagement with genuine dialogue between human beings in relation to heritage (here dialogue is understood as distinctly different from discussion, focused on two or more individuals actively and explicitly sharing experiences, challenging presumptions, and exploring others’ perspectives in order to build alliances and democracy).

We have various publications forthcoming on the topic of dialogue where we review some of the fabulous work of the US National Park Service, the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, and of scholars like Nicole Deufel. Hence I won’t get into the details here, but in projects spearheaded by Angeliki Tzouganatou, Sierra McKinney, Sophia Mirashrafi and Katrina Gargett, we’ve been able to explore dialogical interventions with heritage in various ways (at heritage sites, in classrooms, at home using your own devices), creating a solid foundation for us to provide recommendations and guidance for others wishing to explore facilitated dialogue in their own work.

Our Bot of Conviction, which we fondly call ChatÇat, is one of the first case studies that we launched to explore how a simple rules-based bot might be designed to foster challenging – but productive – forms of communication and reflection. We’ve been lucky to have had incredible support from my colleagues at Çatalhöyük, and to be able to draw on the rich archaeological finds from the site –  which have collectively allowed us to seed our bot with complex questions around common human concerns: death, privacy, equality, power, and more.

We hope you might browse our work, provide us with constructive comments, and stay tuned for further publications on these topics. Happy reading!

PLEASE CITE AS: Roussou, M., Perry, S., Katifori, A., Vassos, S., Tzouganatou, A., McKinney, S. (2019) Transformation through Provocation? Designing a ‘Bot of Conviction’ to Challenge Conceptions and Evoke Critical Reflection. In CHI ’19 Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Glasgow, Scotland, 4-9 May. New York: ACM. Paper No. 627.

Download our CHI 2019 paper from https://saraperry.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/roussou_et_al_2019_chipaper627.pdf
Download our CHI 2019 paper from https://saraperry.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/roussou_et_al_2019_chipaper627.pdf

The heartache of fieldwork: The many vagaries of my practice

Our 2015 team, clockwise from left: Ali, Ozgur, Laia, Katrina, Andy, Jenna, me, & missing Angeliki, Gamze and Ian. Photo by Jason Q.
Our stellar 2015 team, clockwise from left: Ali, Ozgur, Laia, Katrina, Andy, Jenna, me, & missing Angeliki, Gamze and Ian. Photo by Jason Q.

I write this post from the site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, where me and my team have been working for nearly four weeks this summer in our capacity as interpreters of the archaeological record for visiting audiences. We are responsible for all of Çatalhöyük’s on-site interpretation—the signage, maps, guidebooks, brochures, Visitor’s Centre displays, and presentation of the replica house. We evaluate visitor experience; we’ve been developing mobile applications and experimenting with more embodied, sensual engagements with the archaeological record; and this year we’re redesigning the Çatalhöyük website, and have initiated a short-term social media plan (see the site’s Facebook and Twitter feeds; we’re running them until Monday).

Kerrie and Gozde preparing materials for the Visitor's Centre in 2014. Photo by me.
Kerrie and Gozde preparing materials for the Visitor’s Centre in 2014. Photo by me.

Most readers of this blog will know that I’ve been working at Çatalhöyük for seven (!) years now. It’s been a major influencing factor on my career trajectory and my personal development, so much so that I think it’s difficult to articulate the profound impact it has had on who I am. I don’t think I’m unique in feeling such—indeed, given that I am on site for just a few weeks per year, as opposed to 2 months or more like many of the rest of the team, I would imagine (indeed, I know) that others have been impacted on a deeper level. For me, personally, I would describe the experience as a seesaw of emotions—from deep awe to real heartache, from rapture to exasperation. Moreover, I’ve worked at the site through very turbulent times, across a period of massive change in the longstanding team, and I first came to the project as a student, unknown, with little experience, and wholly intimidated by Çatalhöyük’s legacy. My entire professional orbit has thus been set in place during my time here.

I would say that I’m regularly filled with reverence when I walk around the site. The phenomenal thinkers that you have the opportunity to interact with, and the intellectual landscape of the research programme here, are unparalleled. But more so, the archaeology itself—the art, the burials, the stacks of interwoven homes, the view down 20+ metres of excavated earth, spanning more than a 1000 years of continuous human occupation—is breathtaking. And if you’re ever on the verge of becoming complacent about these things, then you need only give a tour of the site to visitors. Through them – people who’ve travelled across the world to get to this remote part of Turkey – it’s easy to see Çatalhöyük anew, full of wonderment and countless questions about the intriguing nature of social and material practice in the past. It’s inspiring and hopeful – it reminds you of everything that archaeology (and life more generally) has the capacity to be: a powerful connector of individuals at a local and a global level; a trigger for curiosity across space and time; a prompt for consideration about the future (see the fabulous Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage project for another stimulating example); a provocateur of critical questions about what it means to be human, about all that we share among us, and about how humanity differs—sometimes nearly incomprehensibly—both at any given moment and between generations. By this account, archaeology, at its best, can be a transcendent practice, creating a space for diversity, for self-reflection, for marvel, beauty, cooperation, change, critique and forethought.

This is why it’s an irony to me that, on a human level, I’ve found the fieldwork at Çatalhöyük very challenging. These challenges play out both intellectually (see below) and emotionally. In terms of the latter, it seems ludicrous to suggest that one can be lonely whilst constantly (and inescapably) surrounded by 100s of specialists and other site staff. And yet, if you’re not attached to a well-established group, and if you don’t spend the full field season on site, you become a bit of a free-floater, searching for companionship amidst a crowd that has already solidified its relationships. I would say I’m one of those floaters, trying to bond with others, but often thwarted because of my affinity for close, private friendships, which are hard to establish or maintain with so many people around. As a consequence, one’s confidence seems regularly on the verge of collapse, and a feeling of isolation—compounded by the fact that we are already relatively physically isolated—immediately sets in and affects day-to-day existence. My experience on other field projects has not been as acute as on this one, I presume because of their smaller scale.

On the other hand, since I moved to York and have been able to bring my own students with me and simultaneously work closely with many Turkish tourism undergrads, I’ve managed to make some of the strongest bonds ever. Over my period at Çatalhöyük, I’ve been involved in the training of dozens of students, and I’ve watched their careers bloom, seen them move on to incredible life adventures, and been galvanised by who they are and who they’re becoming. These have been amongst the most satisfying of fieldwork experiences for me, at the same time as I struggle with the sadness of letting go of them and learning to rebuild myself with a new team every year. It’s that instability—that ongoing reassembling of oneself in the wake of the loss of what’s effectively your family, and hence having few or no close confidantes on a persistent basis on site—which takes the most toll on my spirit.

Intellectually, working here has always been demanding. I’ve given several conference papers on this topic, and I’m writing up two articles on the subject right now, but my teams have been attempting, since 2009, to implement and evaluate a reflexive method for heritage interpretation, using Çatalhöyük as the primary case study. One would assume this would be the perfect location for such research, yet it has been a constant struggle here not only to have heritage interpretation recognised as an actual epistemologically-productive investigative endeavour (see more on this here), but to be granted access, resources, time, support and true consideration for our ‘slow’ philosophy (akin to Caraher’s work), our bespoke approach, and our multivocal paradigm. Shahina Farid’s brilliant critique (her whole chapter seems to be freely available on Google Books – please read it because it’s a must-know piece on the realities of reflexive practice) gets at many of the issues we face – although she speaks specifically from the point of view of excavation practice. In many ways, I feel the whole field of heritage studies compounds our problems, because so much of it amounts to little more than caustic criticism with scarcely any concern for the practicalities of everyday, on-site labour, expectation management or resourcing. Duncan Light (2015:192) touches on these matters in his review of Russell Staiff’s (2014) fascinating book Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation: Enchanting the Past-Future when he writes:

But while Re-imagining heritage interpretation is a forensic critique of current practice, Staiff offers little in the way of a road map to interpreters about how they could do things differently (beyond pointing to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Australia as a possible model). Indeed, the author rather sidesteps the issue by stating that this book is not a heritage interpretation manual.

Anyone who has worked at a site which aims to impact upon tens of thousands of visitors per year, on a miniscule budget, with a tiny timeframe for execution, modest (or few) technical resources, and a small or fleeting staff, knows just how difficult it is to be true to one’s philosophical ideals—to be experimental, vulnerable, and critically demanding—while staying accountable and achieving the required deliverables. It is in negotiating these dimensions, and understanding how they fold together and can come into compromise, that I think the most productive (albeit arduous) heritage practice emerges.

Ibrahim, Ian, Sian and Flo handmaking an interactive exhibit for on-site display in 2013. Photo by me.
Ibrahim, Ian, Sian and Flo handmaking an interactive exhibit for on-site display in 2013. Photo by me.

Despite such challenges, I’m confident that at Çatalhöyük we’ve put in place a meaningful, replicable model for heritage interpretation which is true to the always momentary, fluid and flexible motto of the site. We’ve used a similar approach in our fieldschools in York, and I’ve increasingly been running short-term PhD courses internationally (I’ll be at the University of Oslo in September to lead students through 2 days of app development, and I was in Paris in April as part of the terrific DialPast programme) where I teach hands-on critical heritage interpretation.

Also, in September I will be taking up the reins of a new and incredible project—in Egypt. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to work in Egypt, and more than this, it’s been made possible by the receipt of my first major academic grant, which buys me out of some of my academic post and gives me the freedom to expand my practice, to learn from others, and to continue to bridge the gap between archaeological theory and method, reflecting on the real-world intricacies of heritage interpretation via a series of site-based fieldschools in Egypt over the next two years. As I wrap up one field season here at Catal, then, and prepare for new horizons beginning in September, I’m feeling heartened. This is due in no small part to my girlfriends Michelle, Laia and Sophie who’ve taken me under their wings while here at Çatalhöyük for the past four weeks and given me strength in the face of many challenges; to Ian K. who arrived a few days ago and has energised us all; and to my amazing students and team who’ve exceeded all expectations and have become lifelong friends.

Thank you so much for your support – including all of you who read this blog from afar and have been generous over the years with your kind words, constructive critique, and belief in the power of archaeology to craft a better present and future.