Emerging Digital Interpretive Opportunities for Visitors at Herstmonceux Castle

While the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in drastic social and economic impacts, the need for an escape through tourism remains steady. Heritage Tourism remains one of the industry’s most popular forms. Heritage Tourism can be as ‘travellers seeing or experiencing built heritage, living culture or contemporary arts’.[1] Encountering a site and its stories can transport you back to a different time and place, which is something many people could use given the current state of the world. A great example of a heritage site with striking tangible features, and various compelling, hidden stories is the Herstmonceux Castle Estate.

During my two-week visit at the Castle Estate in October 2021, I was immersed in the area’s natural and built beauty. However, the more I explored the Castle and its grounds, the more I realized that there were various histories yearning to be fully discovered and told. To properly communicate the histor(ies) of a site, proper interpretive services are required. If if heritage stories are not effectively told, visitors may not discover them.[2] This potentially reduces the historical, and cultural value and opportunity available for these heritage tourism sites.

Herstmonceux Castle possesses both tangible, and intangible heritage. Tangible heritage, or things you can see and feel, are abundant on-site. Solid brick walls, a restored moat, and beautifully maintained gardens establish the estate as a must-see heritage site, but the intangible aspect of the Castle is what should be emphasized to differentiate itself from other heritage sites. The Castle grounds contain a Visitor Centre and offer excellent in-person tours of the estate which outline the history of the beautiful walls, and functions of the structure. It is a beautiful area for leisure, picnicking, and reconnecting with nature, but limiting yourself to these means only passively engaging with the site. Herstmonceux Castle has so much, and is so much more than just a Castle with beautiful walls and gardens, but do most visitors know why?

GuideTags page discussing the Doodlebug / V-1 Missile crash at the Castle Estate. This page includes audio narration, historical images, and authentic sounds that Castle personnel would have heard during wartime.

The various former owners and inhabitants, each with their own unique impact on the Estate, contribute to the history of the Castle, and deserve to be recognized and have their stories told. But with a limited number of on-site guides, personnel, and tour resources, there are constraints for these ‘other’, less-mainstream histories be heard. Perhaps using digital tools like mobile phones is an emerging form of interpretation that can deliver these stories to users. Digital interpretive technologies can allow sites to have ‘as “pervasive, invisible” location-based / location-aware technologies’.[3] There is a demand for these experiences, as studies have found that ‘only 19% of mobile device owners globally use a locative application, but 62% aspire to use one’.[4] This is a large gap between those wanting to engage with these resources, versus the available opportunities to.

The expansion of Web 2.0 tools has allowed heritage sites to experiment with digital tools and become more available for diverse communities.[5] With proper collaborative and curatorial processes, these digital interpretive tools could fill gaps in the ‘othered’ stories that often remain untold at heritage sites, and allow visitors unprecedented access to undertake various interpretive experiences, all in their own mobile device. This experience is something that the Castle Estate is looking to explore using the GuideTags mobile app, which has become available for visitors this season at the Castle Estate. The app is free to download on iOS and Android phone stores.

The welcome page of the “Herstmonceux Castle: Ivy Ruins to Restoration” tour on an iPhone device.

The app contains two new interpretive experiences about the Castle Estate. The first tour, Herstmonceux Castle During World War II, will show you the various locations and personnel involved at the Castle during wartime. Did you know, for example, that a German Doodlebug nearly struck the Castle in 1944? This is something you can learn more about on this GuideTags tour. The second interpretive experience, Herstmonceux Castle: Ivy Ruins to Restoration will guide you through various sections of the Estate that experienced significant physical changes after it fell into disarray in the mid-1700s. Two of the Estate’s more recent owners, Sir Claude Lowther (owner from 1911-1929), and Sir Paul Latham (owner from 1933-1946), are integral to the existing architectural and aesthetic conditions of the castle we see today.

A unique advantage of GuideTags is that you can select between two ways to experience these tours. The first option; TOUR Mode, allows you to explore the tour using a specific route that tour developers have created. This mode is created by developers to be the ideal order for visitors to engage with the narrative. The second option; EXPLORE Mode, allows you to follow the tour in any order you wish, which is ideal for more adventurous visitors. These options are an advantage to implementing digital tools like GuideTags at heritage spaces and are currently underexplored as a means of public engagement.

Part of my own research at the Castle Estate aims to understand how visitors like yourself choose to experience these tours. Understanding what works with these digital experiences, how the different modes are received, and what can be improved upon is crucial in understanding how digital tools can better communicate stories to visitors at the Castle Estate and other heritage sites. Simply trying these tours can improve the future of heritage interpretation and your participation is how these improvements can occur. So, please do take time to learn about the Castle’s different histories by trying these interpretive experiences on your mobile device, as this emerging post-COVID world allows you the opportunity to see and experience the beauty of the Herstmonceux Castle Estate in all its glory this season.

Anthony Montagano, MA Geography Candidate and Teaching Assistant, Brock University.

[1] Dallen Timothy, Cultural Heritage and Tourism: An introduction, (Bristol: Channel View       Publications, 2011).

[2] David Brown and Greg Baeker, ‘Mapping Community Identity: The Power of Stories’, Municipal World, (2010), 21-23 (p. 21).

[3] Malcolm McCullough, ‘On the Urbanism of Locative Media [Media and the City]’, Places, 18, (2006), 26-29 (p. 26).

[4] Glen Farrelly, ‘Which Way is Up? How Locative Media May Enhance Sense of Place’, International Journal of Mobile Human Computer Interaction, 7, (2015), 55-66.

[5] Maria Economou, ‘Heritage in the Digital Age’, A Companion to Heritage Studies, 15 (2015), 215-228 (p. 216).

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