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Creating a Virtual Exploration Exhibit

John Tredinnick from the Department of Computer Science reflects on engaging the National Trust and members of the public with his research.

This project, led by John Tredinnick, a postgraduate researcher in the University's Centre for Digital Entertainment, involved devising and trialling an immersive virtual exploration exhibit (a so-called 'discovery dome') depicting the archaeological discovery of The National Trust's Chedworth Roman Villa.

Alongside demonstrating the potential of such technology for visitor interpretation at heritage sites, the project involved the collection of data from visitors in order to reveal future research paths that could be undertaken with the system. Over 5000 visitors had a go with the exhibit, and 500 surveys were completed to inform future research.

The project received extensive coverage through the University news pages, local news sites and regional TV news.

What I gained from the experience

Engagement with The National Trust and with a public audience was key to shaping the future of the research. It also enhanced the research in the following ways:

  • provided access to knowledge outside of my domain, including historic and archaeological information and guidance on the organisation of large-scale exhibits and interpretation media
  • provided access to a large and diverse audience that would be difficult to recreate in a lab environment and which provided a vast supply of data
  • provided access to logistical resources and volunteers that were key in setting up the project and maintaining it over the weeks that it was live
  • provided the opportunity to test ideas and research within an appropriate and specific context and where the participant feedback may have been different if in a lab or alternative location

From a personal point of view, this was my first chance to undertake a public engagement activity. As such, I had the opportunity to learn and apply a whole new domain of knowledge. I hope to utilise what I’ve learnt in my future research where I plan to include more activities that involve non-academic collaborators.

What my partners gained

The National Trust benefitted from:

  • access to cutting-edge research that they wouldn’t otherwise be aware of or that would be too costly to use if accessed through a traditional commercial route
  • a chance to feedback on an area of developing research that could be of future benefit and use to their properties
  • the chance to demonstrate that they are a forward-thinking organisation, actively seeking to engage new audiences with their properties in an innovative and exciting way
  • resultant media attention for the project

Visitors to the exhibit commented that they were interested to learn more about the University’s research and to contribute to it, and were pleased to see the development of research that they could benefit from directly.

Young participants were pleased to discover that in the future, they could choose a research career that aligns with their own interests.

What I'd do differently

My first attempt at trying to capture feedback from visitors was slightly misjudged. I hadn’t considered how to pitch the activity for them or how best to structure survey questions in order to elicit useful feedback from them. Thankfully, I undertook a planned test session before formally running the activity, so was able to address these issues.

In the future, it may be a better to work with a small focus group of visitors in order to co-devise appropriate activities to capture meaningful feedback from other visitors.

My tips for other researchers

The project engaged with a far wider audience than first planned as I actively worked with the University’s Press Office to generate local and national press coverage. So do take advantage of the range of expertise available from professional services on-campus.

Find out more about the project

Watch John talking about bringing historical sites alive with the immersive virtual experience dome.

Contact us

If you want to discuss how you might engage publics in or with your research, the Public Engagement Unit can help.