A Collection of Small Choices: technology and theatre merge in ground-breaking visitor experience

Hoxton Hall in London’s East End is a beautiful example of a salon music hall, built in 1863 and following extensive restoration, it recently re-opened with a pioneering heritage interpretation approach writes Hannah Bruce

The free visitor experience represents the performance traditions of the building as much as the historical, and creates an immersive, emotional and personal encounter for each visitor. Hoxton Hall is a place that embodies performance, resistance, and community. It has continually changed use over time, and although originally built as a rowdy east end music hall for the “humbler classes”, it was transformed by the Victorian abstinence movement (specifically the Blue Ribbon Army). It became a refuge for street children and child prostitutes through the Girls Guild for Good Life, provided bomb shelters for WWI Zeppelin raids and the Blitz in WWII, and later became a Quaker-led community centre championing the advent of modern social work. A true chameleon of a building.

The visitor experience had to reflect this diverse history, but still provide a personal encounter. How to tell multiple histories in different ways? How to enable each visitor to animate the building according to their personal interests? How to invite each visitor’s memory, sensation and emotion into the picture? The project developed a new methodology, incorporating techniques from theatre and performance, alongside the creative use of technology. The result is entitled:  “A Collection of Small Choices”, and is an unaccompanied journey that invites visitors to explore the building, using either their own everyday technology (phones and tablets) or borrowed devices and headphones. Mischievous and ghostly by turns, this is not a traditional heritage tour. It is a journey which immerses visitors in the discovery of past worlds, but also subtly invites visitors to contemplate their own view of history (and their own place within it).

A Collection of Small Choices is an unaccompanied journey that invites visitors to explore the building using either their own everyday technology such as phones and tablets

Although the technology is cutting edge, the aim is to make it invisible rather than flaunt it. The creative team were able to explore the technological potential thanks to a research grant from the University of York. The magic lies in walking into a stairwell and hearing a character run down the stairs after you, or peeking through a keyhole to observe adapted Tilley lamps flicker into life and illuminate archival objects. The distinction between what is real and what is imagined becomes blurred. It starts to feel as if the building responds to each visitor’s presence, and the visitor becomes the main character in their own exploration. It’s perhaps like being in a one-person audience-less show, or doing a one-person re-enactment (and it’s also been described as an audible psycho-journey).

Three key factors influenced the interpretation approach:

The first was the building’s tradition of performance. Hoxton Hall and HLF took the brave decision to invite artists with experience of making theatre and live performance to pitch ideas for the visitor experience [Hannah Bruce & Company were selected]. The experience for visitors needed to be atmospheric and feel performative (but without using live performers or requiring ushers).

This “ghost life” of Hoxton Hall not only animates the building, but allows visitors to look around on their own, without a critical over-informed real companion breathing down their neck

Hannah Bruce

A second factor was the incorporation of artifacts and stories from Hoxton Hall’s archive – a 150 year-old collection of documents, photos, artifacts, music and ephemera, now housed at Hackney Archives.

Finally, perhaps the most critical influence was the desire to create an atmospheric, personal, and emotive experience for visitors. The aim was to use subtle theatrical tools to build a unique relationship between the visitor and the historical themes. How does it feel to be an outsider? What is it like to feel trapped in life? Each visitor is encouraged to draw upon their own emotions and memories in relation to the historical references.

The resulting visitor experience is managed through a bespoke app called SmallChoices. Visitors download the app to their own smartphone or tablet, or borrow a pre-prepared device. As they move through the building wearing headphones, they are “guided” by characters (some of whom are earnest in their desire to guide, but playfully untrustworthy). If visitors correctly navigate one of several routes, the app will recognise Bluetooth, low energy (BLE) beacons installed throughout the building. As visitors pass each beacon in a specific order, the app builds up a picture of where they are, and what route they are on, playing the appropriate soundfiles, and triggering particular lighting effects in different areas. This allows visitors to travel at their own pace, and the artistic lighting effects only respond to people using SmallChoices.

Atmosphere is created with props such as Tilley lamps flickering into life as visitors enter a stairwell

This neat bundle enables three technological solutions:

1) a system that accommodates a basic level of visitor choice, and allows the visitor to travel at their own pace

2) delivery of immersive sound that inflects the visitor’s other senses, rather than replacing them (the screen-free nature of the experience focuses the visitor’s attention on their surroundings and thoughts, rather than the technology)

3) a system that enables a solo experience, without the visitor being escorted

The way SmallChoices uses BLE beacon technology is highly innovative in a heritage context, but importantly, it only achieves its power because the technology is used alongside so many other nuanced elements. The combination of high quality sound, immersive technology, and theatrical techniques, is what generates the imaginative depth of the experience.

Low energy (BLE) beacons were installed throughout the building

One example is the high quality sound recordings, including original compositions and binaural sound (which is often described as 3D sound). Using headphones, binaural sound imitates the way our ears naturally hear the world, and can have a dramatic immersive effect. For example, many visitors are amazed when the person they hear behind them turns out to be fictional. This “ghost life” of Hoxton Hall not only animates the building, but allows visitors to look around on their own, without a critical over-informed real companion breathing down their neck. There is also an unusual level of (planned) ‘permission’ granted to visitors. They are invited to enter roped off areas, and explore backstage. Although this invitation to ‘explore’ is subtly controlled via the audio, the result is to give individual visitors a real sense of agency and autonomy.

The creative team was also inspired by Stuart Hall’s idea that an archive is “a conversation between the past and the present”. The SmallChoices technology allows a visitor to layer their own realtime contemporary experience on top of the imaginary world evoked around them. It’s a subtle collision of visitor and history in one space and time. The feedback has been overwhelming. The experience seems to fire visitors’ imaginations, sparking a fresh non-didactic engagement with history and place.

“A Collection of Small Choices” runs at Hoxton Hall until 2018. The experience is free, but it is essential to book a slot.

The project was commissioned by Hoxton Hall, created by Hannah Bruce and Company, and supported by the HLF, ACE and the University of York.