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Bringing History Into the Future

child using virtual reality headset


Male killer whales ‘more likely to DIE if they are not centre of social group’ screamed the headline in the Daily Express. I did check, and it really was a fact from a recent scientific paper about Orcas. Like killer whales, we all feel the need to be the centre of attention in a social group, even those of us who work in museums. The danger is that we forget there are other groups apart from our own.

I was struck by this while attending the excellent International Congress of Maritime Museums in Chile in October. Delegates were fascinated by developments in maritime archaeology around the world. Some maritime museums are trying to provide access to shipwrecks and their stories without having to go to the terrible expense and bother of raising a ship from the seabed. Virtual reality seems to have the answer. Maritime archaeology museums will allow visitors to explore wrecks in situ, using digital interface technology with the divers down on the seabed. That sounds great fun, and a way of seeing much more that you normally could, especially when a lot of the time either the water is so thick that little can be seen with the naked eye, or when the wreck is in such a state that it can’t be easily understood.

Fans of these techniques say they’re creating new ways to engage and connect with new audiences. But is just giving people more access to archaeology going to make them more interested? It’s more likely to work for those who are already interested in archaeology, but won’t help those who don’t currently understand or enjoy it.

In effect the archaeologists are thinking that everyone must like archaeology because they love it themselves. This surely is the old trap for which we must all watch out – that what we think ourselves is just what our visitors will think and feel. It seems to me a reminder that placing our museum into the centre of a social group is all very well, but only provided that we do not restrict that social group to those who think like we do. We must remember to start our museum stories from the visitors first, and not from our ourselves.

Author: Dr Matthew Tanner MBE, Chief Executive – SS Great Britain Trust