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How to Make History Exciting

Published: 9 May 2023

As digital storytellers, we know that historic sites far from dull! But history can have something of a poor reputation with the general public – for some, there may even be some bad memories of boring teachers at school.

Museums, galleries, historic sites and preserved landscapes have done plenty in the last few decades to challenge the image of history as boring– lively, activated sites, filled with engaged content and motivated staff. Visitors are less likely to be presented with traditional historical narratives. Indeed, they are more likely to encounter history that’s been made relevant to their lives, sometimes asking questions or being gently provocative.

When we’re working on productions with a historical theme, ATS is often asked how we can make the story more exciting or dynamic. How can we make history come alive?

Here are some of our top tips for creating engaging historical content on audio tours and multimedia guides, based on our experience in the sector:

With our extensive experience of making audio guides, we’re used to exploiting the power of audio as a means of communicating historical stories. The starting point for an audio tour might be the script, but there’s much more to a great production than the words – music, sound effects and a mixture of carefully chosen voices combine to give audio experiences texture and tone way beyond text on a page.

And when creating multimedia guides, we can also utilise the power of the screen that visitors hold as part of the experience. We can show them different angles and inaccessible viewpoints, perhaps with behind-the-scenes footage or content filmed from our drone, such as in the St Paul’s Cathedral guide where the phoenix flies down the centre of the nave.

There’s no need for us to film as if we were making a tv history documentary – creative camera angles and close-ups can help to draw your visitors closer to the story, making what might seem grand and inaccessible, actually rather close and personal. We invite visitors to play games on their screens or to use our Rubaways – swiping their finger over the screen to reveal an archive image or historical recreation drawing.

One of the tried and tested ways of activating history is to use drama to bring a moment to life. That’s not to say we take creative liberties with the facts. Our work has honesty and truth and we don’t seek to dumb things down. Perhaps we might dress something up in finery, add a little panache or creative flair, but always within the confines of historical accuracy. We use actors and costume for on-screen productions, but we always check the details with clients and with historical advisors. For the Churchill at Blenheim Palace online exhibition we blended moments of creative dramatisation with direct quotations and archive images, providing digital visitors with an experience that goes beyond simply looking at objects on their screens.

In the creative scripting process and in production it’s possible to create a sense of place using images and words. If the historic story is linked to exact locations that your visitors will experience, you can root their experience in that place by suggesting hints of the past. Take them back in time using images, sounds, sound effects, but also with words and language of the period, bringing the place to life using subtle interpretive techniques.  Perhaps show them something that’s stood the test of time – a step, worn by centuries of feet walking up it ; or a stone window frame, now derelict and missing its glass, shown to the visitor as a recreated view from they are now standing. Techniques like these really do send shivers up the back of visitors’ necks. And they make history all the more real.

We’re not scared of using playfulness in our storytelling – allowing some of the more ‘serious’ stories to be juxtaposed with moments of light relief. Incongruous details, little asides, whispers or suggestions and tiny disruptions can all add flavour to a historical commentary – though we also understand that the use of humour needs to be carefully tempered as part of a strong script and production, so we use this sparingly, but with glee.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice for making historical content exciting isn’t about how we understand history at all – it’s about how we understand our audiences. By rooting the experience in what we know audiences already do and like – what they watch, what they do, what they find exciting – we will be all the more informed about how to excite and engage them. As a company that places visitor experience at its heart, we like to keep abreast of what people are ‘into’ at the moment. So, while we watch documentaries and read history magazines, we’re not ashamed to say we watch Horrible Histories and YouTubers and follow the people posting great historical content on social media. And one of us can always find Wally. By tapping into what your audiences are already consuming, we not only keep up to date with the latest trends but we also take inspiration, meaning the way we present history is modern and relevant.

In our next blog we’ll be looking at how to create five-star family experiences at your attraction. Sign up to be notified.

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