We’ll do the content ourselves…

Do non-interpreters overlook the art, skill and time required to create good content? Creative Director Dan Boys argues that it may come down to growing confidence and shrinking budgets.

Over the last few years I have noticed something of a trend: more and more clients want to provide and curate their own digital content.

I don’t have an issue with this per-se; there are plenty of talented people out there who can write fantastic interpretive text and work wonders with a camera. Sometimes I am struck by the quality.

We’ve recently finished a project in the Forest of Dean. The client supplied a series of over twenty animated gifs for inclusion in the Hidden Heritage of the Dean app. The images seamlessly fade from historical photos (some 120 years old) to perfect modern day reproductions. These accurate match-ups took months to produce. Firstly our client had to identify the footprints of the original photographer before shooting a replica. Due to differences between the camera lenses used now and then, the images then needed tweaking in Photoshop to enable the seamless fade from old to new.

Now and then: one of the Hidden Heritage app’s animated gifs in mid-fade

Underestimating the job

However this is often the exception rather than the rule. It is understandable that many do not appreciate how long it takes to bring high quality interpretive content together; the Forest of Dean team of volunteers had themselves massively underestimated the time resources required and were quite fatigued by the end of the project.

Arguably, we have noticed this trend because we have shifted from being solely content creators – until 2010 we focussed almost solely on producing audio trails – to offering app software. Apps themselves are a vehicle for delivering content but this issue goes deeper and I suspect the following two reasons play a major role:

  1. People feel far more confident about making and curating their own digital media than they did just a few years ago
  1. The content is seen of as something that can be done in-house to save a bit of money, whereas app development is far more tricky and therefore out-sourced to external companies to deliver

Content is king 

But what every heritage interpreter will impress on you is that ‘content is king’. You can’t just chuck a few words on a page, snap a few photos on a dull day and use your iPad to record an interview with someone in a noisy room and think you’ve done your job – yes, we’ve seen all of these!

At the other end of the spectrum we have some clients who are so passionate about their subject that they will inevitably try and include everything they can, without realising that this overload of information will turn many people off. With a bit of guidance, clients are quite happy to accept that ‘less is more’. However, it is a very hard discipline to execute well.

Early on in my career I was told to make every word, photograph and second of audio/video earn it’s place. Question the content you have chosen to include time and time again and then leave it to stew. Invariably, once you return after a leave of absence you will wonder why you’ve included some of it, and further trimming can take place. Put yourself in the shoes of your target audience. Test it out on them.

Less is more: 18 words can say quite a lot! Magna Steelos Gallery
Less is more: 18 words can say quite a lot! Magna Steelos Gallery

Remember, the content needs to grab the end user, inspire and engage them. It needs to swiftly enhance their experience which in turn will encourage them to further explore the site and app.

Interpretive writing is an art

I’ve been producing interpretative content for 15 years and I am still learning. I will often revisit old course notes and learn from what others have done well to refresh myself on those little techniques that can make content come alive and grab the visitor.

And when I read a particularly beautiful sentence from a novel I add it to a document on my laptop for later inspiration, such as this one from Tess of the Durbervilles:

“The quick-silvery glaze on the rivers and pools vanished; from broad mirrors of light they changed to lustreless sheets of lead, with a surface like a rasp.”

Connecting people and place

Our Welcome To… app software connects people with place. Each Place page we have on an app doesn’t need to contain chapter and verse just because the page will scroll endlessly. When clients choose to supply their own content we try and encourage clients to break down their content; treat each page as an interpretation panel – a panel with a maximum of 150 words, some pictures, plus some audio.

Create a souvenir photo on Ayr Through the Ages and replace Robert Burns face with your own (r). The MK Trails app has a good mix of thoughtful content for each place of interest (l)
Create a souvenir photo on Ayr Through the Ages and replace Robert Burns face with your own (r). The MK Trails app has a good mix of thoughtful content for each place of interest (l)

Capture the essence of the place with an opening paragraph (in larger or emboldened font). Use headers and images to break up text and introduce audio to enable visitors to lift their gaze from the screen and listen as they explore the place of interest with their feet and eyes. A mix of soundbite media will assist in the various ways people learn and consume content

Adding questions and activities is a simple way to enliven the text further, and through apps we can add all manner of exciting functionality to make that content fly in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago.

Dumbing down?

There is of course the concern that you may be accused of dumbing down your interpretation, but hopefully you will have sussed who your key audiences are and targeted content at them. As previously mentioned, in our apps we often contain links to further reading for those who want to learn more – websites can be a perfect receptacle for those bits that have been left on the cutting room floor.

The bottom line is to treat content like your own children. Give it all the love and attention you can muster. Devote lots of time to it and in due course it will reward you when it flies the nest and becomes part of the wider community. You can then look upon it like a proud parent and pat yourself on the back for a good job done.

If you’d like to discuss your project with us then please get in touch.

This article was written for the Association of Heritage Interpretation (AHI) Interpretation Journal, Summer 2017. It also featured in the Apr/May edition of INTERPnews.