The English Literary Heritage Survey: Some Early Thoughts

bronte-parsonage-museum[1]The English Literary Heritage project has been conducting a survey for the past few months, and it is beginning to yield some interesting insight. What visitors to museums, archives and literary houses are telling us partly builds upon expectations but also reveals different priorities for both individuals and groups.

The emerging reasons for people to visit literary exhibitions and houses are not too surprising. The majority of people want to see more of a subject they already know something about, rather than learn something new. This is to be expected, as much of the draw of seeing manuscripts and other literary objects more often than not relies on an established relationship with a specific author’s work. More surprising, are the things that people value within the museum context.

dickens-museumWhile people like to see manuscripts and other objects, the information contained within them does not hold a special appeal. One respondent even goes so far as to specify that the actual writing on the manuscripts was ‘redundant’ as they already have a relationship with an author’s writing if they are to go to an exhibition. The tactile nature of literary heritage objects, in fact, seems to hold a powerful attraction to those who have responded to the survey. The thrill at being able to touch Dickens’s desk, to see an author’s handwriting, or even to walk in the rooms they once did seems the biggest appeal to museum-goers. The vast majority of people are able to imaginatively engage with the sense of place within literary houses specifically, gleaning fragments of an author’s experience and ultimately building a more human picture of the author.

Stratford_Shakespeare_1900Despite this more experiential and imaginative desire, manuscripts do appear to have a value for the museum-goer, particularly when coupled with a digital facsimile that enhances the experience. When asked about the technological enhancement of an exhibition in general, there were some surprising revelations. Theories about the benefits of ‘gamification’, or creating tasks such as digital puzzles and games, within the museum environment seem not to be a concern of the prospective visitor, with the vast majority of respondents ranking it the least important technical innovation after more traditional enhancements such as video and audio. This, along with responses to other questions, creates some uncertainty about the role of technology within the museum: are people who go to literary exhibitions more interested in traditional forms of technology as they already have some knowledge of them? Are they unsure about newer forms of technology, such as augmented reality and QR codes, because their uses are more difficult to imagine without more context?

These are all rather nebulous thoughts on the survey’s early responses. More data needs to be collected, and I encourage you to fill out the survey if you have not already. The aim is to continue this discussion, particularly at the forthcoming English Literary Heritage Conference, submissions for which are still open until the 28th February 2015.