A few years ago, I heard a representative of a UK heritage organisation talk about options for providing information at historic sites. Apparently he regularly received complaints from visitors about the use of text panels in historic homes because they spoiled the illusion of stepping into things as they had been. (The answer, they reckoned, was smartphones. Pointing a smartphone at something to find out about it is not anachronistic, because you’re the time traveller.) This raised questions for me about what we might expect of a historic home as opposed to a museum, and what authenticity might be in this context – original fittings and furnishings? – something that looks ‘period’, whether or not it is? I also found myself thinking of Goldilocks wandering about the bears’ house, finding they ate and slept much like humans do, and making herself at home before dropping off to sleep. Is that the kind of experience visitors want? Or is their frustration a reflection of another kind of aspiration – that, while they are unlikely to encounter bears, they nonetheless might, so long as the fourth wall isn’t ruined with cumbersome signage?
The Goldilocks impulse is understandable enough (even if some visitors are a bit too literal in acting on it, as Dove Cottage suggests with their discreet-but-effective cord across Wordsworth’s chair). One of the drawbacks of the smartphone approach though is that you have to think something is interesting enough to want to point to find out about it. Sometimes it works the other way round – you read a sign or the booklet you’re carrying, and realise you want to have a closer look at an artefact you’d otherwise not have registered. If Wordsworth’s chair didn’t announce itself via a brass plate, would you point your smartphone at it?