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Interpretation of railway heritage needs to get moving

Blog post   •   Aug 07, 2012 16:26 BST

Nick Sherrard, London. Heritage railways offer a unique opportunity for mobile interpretation. When your audience is literally moving why would you tell a story with media that is static?

Yet that is the norm at most of the 160+ steam railways in the UK. The history of the line and the people who built it, even the story of the natural environment around the track, is crammed onto text panels at stations and illustrated leaflets. We try to get visitors to mentally download a whole host of unfamiliar names and little known stories in the time we have them on still ground.

Mobile media, whether apps or handheld guides, gives us the opportunity to enable visitors to explore as they go. Rather than use an interpretation panel on the platform to tell people in the abstract about the engineering problems the founders faced, we can show them what to look out for on the landscape - and then help them explore the different solutions the designers found. Instead of telling visitors what is so special about the history of the forest they passed through 10 minutes ago, we can show them as they see it for the first time.

In short we can stop force feeding information to visitors while we have them still; we can give them a resource to download to their phone – and then help them explore when they are on their journey and most engaged.

Take a look on the app stores today and you will see that several apps have been developed in recent years. But most are really examples of publishing existing content to a mobile device, rather than thinking about how mobile media can interpret our railway heritage. They have taken the info from the leaflet and the illustrations from the text panel, and made them accessible on a small screen.

We would like to think our app and multimedia guide for the Kent & East Sussex Railway does some of that thinking. We go on the journey with visitors, exploring all that Colonel Stephens’ Railway and the land around it has to offer.  Take a look here.

That is one project alone – what we need now is for more projects to get moving. The most exciting part of the new technology we have is that we can now experiment. The barriers are no longer there to stop projects in their tracks as they did in the past. The cost of development is hugely reduced. Now you can have a tour up and running with an initial outlay of as little as £200. imagineear is helping railways to train their staff and volunteers to make changes and updates to content themselves so they can keep improving as they get new ideas, and as visitors give them feedback.

Perhaps there is no part of the heritage sector with as much to gain from mobile media as railways. Let’s hope Kent & East Sussex in this, as in so many other areas, will lead the way.

Image © K&ESR - Kent & East Sussex Railway and Lewis J Brockway

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