Over the New Year’s weekend I had two very different interactions, one at the Tate Modern and the other at Hampton Court Palace.
Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds part of The Unilever Series is really magnificent. The amount of porcelain Sunflower Seeds is breathtaking and actually really very beautiful. It was much more thought-provoking than I expected. However you begin to crave to have some contact with the art, you want to let the seeds run through your fingers, and be able to explore and feel the vastness of the space full of hand crafted porcelain. Being able to consider the relationship between the individual and the whole is hard when you can only really view the whole, and not the individual. It is no longer possible to walk on the surface of the work, but you can walk close to the edges of the sunflower seed landscape. I know it is health and safety which is playing a factor in this, and the original intention for you to be able to interact with the sculpture. But it does seem sad that you can no longer interact in the way the sculpture makes you want to or the way it was intended.
What I did like, is the digital interaction which you can have in the Gallery. Stating that you can tweet your thoughts with the #tateaww hashtag is a really great way of encouraging visitor interaction. Not only that but visitors to Sunflower Seeds can record a video; either asking Ai Wei Wei a question or answering one from him. The One to One with the artist has a great online presence to, it really brings people back in to the experience of the sculpture.
I also went to Hampton Court Palace. I love it there. I cannot express how much I love every aspect of Hampton Court. The gardens, the Chapel, the chimneys, the food historians, the paintings, the architecture, even the audio guide (yes shockingly I quite like the audio guide), but what I love the most is the Live Interpretation. I have enthused about Live Interpretation before whilst I was at Geevor. When it is done well, it is fantastic. I know live interpretation has a bit of murkyness about it, some people think it is rubbish (mostly to do with having a bad experience with some angry Roman renactor wearing a digital watch and titainum glasses – kind of ruins the idea of Historical Fact) and it does raise questions about what it means to be authentic in a historic site and museum, and whether interpreters need to choose between authenticity and visitor engagement. It has also been classed as the commodification of the past, and selling out or dumbing down. I disagree. I think it can really heighten the experience of a visit, allowing visitors to become really engaged and inspired by the past and mostly importantly making it a really enjoyable experience.
The interpreters at Hampton Court do just that. You find yourself drawn in; you start to panic when Henry VIII comes by, ‘how do you curtsy properly?’ ‘Should I say Sire?’ I can see you thinking, that’s just you Claire, getting carried away again. But no really, it wasn’t just me! I saw every visitor stop what they were doing and bow or kneel as the king passed them by. If that isn’t engaging with history then I don’t know what is. On a normal day the concept the representation of Hampton Court, is the retelling Henry VIII’s last wedding to Katherine Parr, you can follow the events of the day with story-led visitor experiences and narrative plays a key role. But at Christmas time, the interpretation revolves around a Festive Feast, from the cooking (real spit turning!), to a Festive Fool, to dancing, and Henry VIII giving pardon’s to the gentlemen of the court. What I liked the best about this was that you didn’t need to follow a story, you literally bumped into Henry VIII as he wandered round the Palace.
I don’t think you have to choose between authenticity and visitor engagement. I think you can achieve both with live interpretation. Now, I wonder if I can get a part time job at HRP either that or Horrible Histories….p.s. my dad is the excellent photographer. Thanks Dad!