The Scottish Open Palace Programme

The Scottish Open Palace Programme (28th April – 17th May)

For my annual break this year, I chose an excursion that was less of a holiday and more of an educational tour. Although my brain did not get to relax, the change of scene to the lochs and castles of Scotland was very refreshing in itself. 

For those of you who have not heard of the Open Palace Programme here goes my attempt at an explanation: It is a programme designed to give heritage professionals a chance to truly experience how heritage, of all forms, is managed and functions, in a country very different to their own. It is targeted at people based beyond the UK and it works to forge wonderful relationships between the participants so they not only learn from the people running the course, but also from each other. 

My 2019 intake for the Scottish programme was 22 people strong, with one male and 21 females. The group meshed very quickly and despite the head cold that travelled through most of us we all continued to make the most of every presented opportunity. Every day involved a new place, or even two, with tours, tasks and feedback sessions. All sessions had a particular educational focus or desired feedback/discussion topic for us to consider as we explored each venue. (Hopefully, I can attach the digital programme itinerary to this blog so I do not have to list all locations for you).

Now, over 20 days of outstanding sites is a bit much to cover, so I have chosen to share my top three learning wise:

Alnwick Castle stood out to me from the day I saw its photograph in the booklet. This was for two reasons: firstly, it was the one that looked most like your typical childhood, make-believe castle, and secondly, it’s Hogwarts (which is pretty darn hard to beat within my generation of Potter fans). However, on the day we went to Alnwick Castle, no flying lessons were to be had due to the “typical Scottish weather”. Needless to say, this was truly one day that I was immensely grateful for both my hardy southland nature and the large black puffer jacket that I had lugged to the other side of the world. The focus for the day was on education programmes and, to help the education team out, we were to trial two programmes, one very new, and give feedback. So yay, we got to be adults at play, but…… playtime was outside, under shelter yes, but outside, in very cold, very wet conditions.  This couldn’t be altered either as, despite being a well-funded and organised castle, due to its nature as a home first and foremost, there was not a lot of available space, so there was no inside education room.

So, having stood through the storytelling Harry Hotspur experience we were already frozen before beginning activity two, the Fantasy Fortress castle building interactive, involving one of my worst nightmares, math. Combine that with constant cold and I can began to get quite grim. Thank heaven for our programme directors shouting us all hot beverages while we added and multiplied our way through our ideal fantasy castle, within budget. Massive praise to the Alnwick Castle education team though. Not only did they remain positive and judge the dynamics of the group incredibly well, but they are open to constructive feedback and, as a result, have created programmes which keep even me, doing my worst subject ever, amused and proud of my achievements.

Now when I say palace, most people think of Buckingham Palace. Falkland Palace, where we spent two days, is nothing of the sort. It was a hunting lodge of the Stuarts and, after a great fire and periods of neglect, large amounts of it are no longer standing. Rooms are tiny and have been rebuilt and restored to be lived in and not necessary true to the original. Despite all this, the team at Falkland have to tell the sites varied and layered history, without typical museum display techniques. They cannot add wall panels or plinths. They have to also control visitor flow and route, therefore, their main techniques used are tours and in room guides. The Falkland team knew their narrative telling and tours needed some work so they asked us to experience all three types of tours (Self-guided, small group guided and large group guided) and give informative constructive feedback.

Our first tour was a small group tour. We did all available rooms and one stop on the exterior of the palace. Then we were to be secret shoppers and self-tour the site. Then, on day two we divided into groups and pretended to be 100 people and experienced the large group tour, which included less rooms but much more of the grounds. It was quite astounding how difficult it was to gain any narrative about the site on a self-guided tour. If you entered a room without a guide there was little to no interpretation available. Also, if you entered a room mid explanation you had to decide to wait amongst the crowd and ask the room guide to start again or just look and move on. On the contrary, the large group tour, with more exterior inclusions and less internal rooms, generated a much simpler and more complete narrative. However, the success of the narrative coming across does all come down to the skill of the guide. On the large group tour one group had a guide who mainly spoke about their favourite things causing them to learn next to no relevant information; incredibly different to my groups’ experience. Before this site I had never even considered how much a guide or tour can influence your interpretation and takeaway of a site or space. The lesson of how great this can be will never leave me. It was wonderful though to be appreciated as a group of knowledgeable and intelligent heritage professionals and know that our feedback was actually going towards improvements on a site.

Finally, Holyrood Abbey is the Queens official residence in Scotland and one of the past homes of Mary Queen of Scots. It is beautiful but incredibly busy. They have already done wonderful things with their visitor route and flow management with their brand new audio guides that all visitors are expected to use. Usually audio guides bore me to tears, so when I heard we were testing audio guides for the site I was not very enthused. These guides however were incredible and really made me eat my own internal words. They are more accurately multimedia guides as they are on iPod touches with interactive videos, interviews, and activities. The team have clearly taken into account a typical visitors average attention span, language level and the variety of ways that people learn. The language on the guide is variable and there are captions on the screen for those who cannot listen. The images and videos on the screen add information to the room such as comparisons whilst pointing out to you essential things to note in each room. No content is longer than 2 minutes (that I noticed) and I managed to get around the whole house, playing the games and listening to the odd extra all without reaching my information fatigue point, which is simply quite remarkable!  Some of the games and interactives were things such as rubbing the tapestry to reveal its original colours or bringing the ruined cathedral to life with virtual reality. I personally feel Holyrood are leading the way in this field as they also have a children’s version to allow families to progress through at the same pace whilst keeping the children entertained at their level.  This is obviously the product of years of work, research and a lot of money meaning that it is a best practice example that is unachievable by many, but the lessons that museum professionals can learn from this visitor route and engagement technology application are vast. If possible, it is a must experience in my books.

To conclude, I leave you with my beauty pick and my quirky pick. Beauty wise Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute was unbeatable. Zodiac stained glass windows, marble pillars, crystal stars that screw into ceilings, immaculate gardens, and elaborate door hinges; absolutely no detail was spared. Quirk wise you can look no further than the Hill House designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Unfortunately, Mackintosh’s lack of research into his materials and focus solely on overall aesthetics, has left this architectural gem in quite some peril. A massive, first of its kind, conservation attempt to save the house and allow it to dry out gradually has been launched. Hill House is getting a roof built over its head that allows people to walk over the top and see it from many different, usually inaccessible, angles and views. It has mesh sides that allow it to breathe yet remain fairly visible whilst acting as an effective rain shield. Due to open to the public again soon it will be interesting to track the houses progress and how much attention this conservation effort attracts.

Well folks that was a lot of food for thought. Hopefully I haven’t lost you along the way. If there is one takeaway from my Scottish adventure I would say it is the power of the narrative and how much work goes into getting that across in many different types of heritage sites (also, in case you were wondering, I did try haggis and it was darn good!)

Bye bye for now.

Loren Baxter
Assistant Project Registrar