Targeting new audiences using immersive technology – The Tin Coast at Botallack

On 7 December 2020, UoE postdoc Cristina Mosconi presented the case study of the Tin Coast in Cornwall at the CIDOC conference on the digital transformation of cultural heritage institutions. Her presentation focused on the importance and means of targeting new audience segmentations using immersive technologies, with the National Trust site as an example.

Tin Coast History: The Botallack mines, which were active in the 16th and early 17th centuries, really reached their peak in the 19th century. These sites played a significant role in the industrial development of the entire nation. They were a major tourist attraction in Victorian times, including the famous Crown engine houses where people came from far and wide to see the workers in action, or the underground shaft tours. The mines, which closed in the 1914 following a mining accident, were abandoned until the NT became the main landowner and manager of the mining areas in 1995. Today’s visitors come mainly for the charm of the landscape. Botallack was made famous again thanks to the romantic TV series Poldark in the 1970s, revived in 2015, for which the site was used as a backdrop. The on-screen mediation of Botallack inevitably plays an important role in the interpretive message also in the official interpretation of the site.

Yet, the screen reconstruction offers to the visitors a not-so-accurate interpretation of the working reality of Botallack, where the grittiness and the struggles of the miners are often neglected. Accordingly, the National Trust felt the urge of providing their visitors with a more nuanced interpretation encompassing the different aspect characterising the site.
Designing a digital experience always starts with an understanding of the pre-visit, i.e. determining who your visitor is, where they come from, or why they are visiting your site. The University of Exeter Business School team led the academic research and data analysis of the visitor experience using a variety of methods to collect and analyse visitor comments and behaviours from pre-visit to post-visit. This holistic approach is summarised within the “Datasphere”, a visitor-centred framework that visually illustrates the methods and the type of data generated by visitors within the broader approach to the sites.

For the Botallack site, Visitor Intelligence data from the National Trust’s membership scheme has been collected and analysed. This helped to identify the main parameters around which the new digital interpretation is based.
Audience: explorer families and ‘curious minds’ or more generally visitors who want to discover more about the history and heritage of the site, and the landscape.
Location: on 1km2 of the Botallack coast, including the Count House, the different ruins of the stamps and the Crown Engine Houses.
The purpose of interpretation: to offer an accurate reconstruction of the site to give the visitor the opportunity to see the landscape as it would have been (dirty, noisy and industrial), improve accessibility (digital exploration, lost or hard-to-access features and areas such as underground mines) and to secure local identity (the locals are very proud of their mining heritage). This led to the creation of the augmented reality app, which is located in Botallack.
A large-scale, three-dimensional, stone reproduction of the 1km2 landscape as it stands today has been created. The visitor will be given a tablet which, when pointed at the 3D model, will allow them to see what this landscape looked like in the 1860s, to interact with and even to access additional information on the characteristics of the mining industry (points of interest).

Looking at the specific case study of Botallack, why would a technology such as AR have been the best tool to convey this interpretative message to this specific targeted audience? To address this question, the research team focused on two specific issues and how technology can address them.

– The first issue was how to enable visitors to see what Botallack looked like less than two centuries ago, in 1860 (polluted, dirty, noisy and dangerous), far different from today’s landscape or the screen representation of the mines (creation of an image of a vaster landscape) and highly discordant to the historical records . The model and AR are based on a historically accurate reconstruction of reality and give a very good idea of the authentic size.
– The other issue was the interpretation of the underground, because the underground shafts in the mines are one of the most important components of the site’s history. Most visitors are oblivious of the extent or the existence of the huge network of tunnels running below their feet, and even under the seabed. AR technology offers the perfect solution to this problem as it allows the 3D model of the underground shaft to be embedded in the landscape and aligned with the surface 3D model, providing an accurate reconstruction of how the underground network worked in relation to the surface structures.

The ability to “overlay” the historical reconstruction with the modern landscape is also intended to inform visitors about the key elements of the local cultural identity, or the great pride of the inhabitants in this traditional way of life.
With the pandemic came a growing interest in landscapes and heritage sites close to home and possibly far from the crowds. Through the experience of immersive interpretation, people are also beginning to take a greater interest in gaining a better understanding of the locality.

Overall, any development and implementation of new interpretation using digital technologies to reach new audiences starts from taking into consideration the needs of three key actors: the site manager(s), the visitors and the local community. Audience research and Visitor Intelligence in general are essential to understand who the visitors are, to decide which technologies are the best ones to choose and apply, and why implement such technologies in that specific location. Structures such as the VISTA AR Datasphere have been specifically designed to support sites that are not familiar with the development of targeted digital experiences helping them to assess which is the best interpretative approach.