Introducing The Mindful Garden

As this year’s Heritage Open Days Festival moved online, we’ve been publishing stories this week on the theme of ‘Hidden Nature‘. From hungry tigers to dragon remains to the pigments used in Chinese wallpaper, we’ve provided plenty of ways you can explore our collections from home.

Our last digital offer for the festival is still screen based, but it’s something that’s designed to be used outdoors, in a way that complies with social distancing. Called The Mindful Garden, it’s a short experimental tour for the Royal Pavilion audio guide — albeit one that tries to rewrite the rules about what an audio guide should sound like.

Mindful moments

The tour was written by Dr Craig Jordan-Baker, an academic and novelist at the University of Brighton. It has been produced as part of an AHRC funded project called DigiPiCH, which is researching ways in which civic museums can use digital technology in more inclusive ways.

As Royal Pavilion & Museums is a partner in the project we are using this as an opportunity to run a small-scale experiment exploring how we can create content for mobile phones that encourages a more mindful appreciation of the visitor’s environment. In some ways, this is building on previous experiments with mobile interpretation, such as last year’s Gift collaboration with Blast Theory and the One Minute app, which both explored very different methods of encouraging visitors to look at museum exhibits in a slower and more thoughtful way.

We’ve previously explored the wellbeing potential of the Royal Pavilion Garden on our blog with regular posts by our gardener and volunteers. But these posts are written to be read at home; they are a great way of explaining to people what they can see when they next visit, but no one will read a blog post standing in a garden. If we want to encourage a more mindful experience in the garden, we need a different approach to storytelling.

As a professional writer and researcher who has previously worked with the Booth Museum and run health walks, Craig is an ideal collaborator.

Facts vs reflections

I have no expertise in mindfulness, but I am interested in attention and behaviour patterns in heritage environments. It seems to me that traditional ways of telling heritage stories, such as through an audio guide, aren’t compatible with a more mindful approach.

According to a quote on the NHS website, mindfulness ‘means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment’. If mindfulness is about focusing on the here and now, where do stories about the past fit in? Heritage stories, such as how the Pavilion Garden was once part of a royal estate, tend to be rich on facts and require the visitor to be receptive of what they are told. That may make for an entertaining and inspiring experience, but probably not a mindful one.

To put it simply, most of the stories we tell at heritage sites are focused on facts about the past. What happens if we tell stories that invite people to reflect on the present? What if we ask questions rather than make statements?

The tour

The Mindful Garden tour can be found on the new version of the Royal Pavilion audio guide that we launched in July. We’ve had some good feedback on the guide and about 40% of visitors are using it. I hope some of those visitors use it to explore the garden after their visit but it’s also available for anyone to use for free, even if they don’t come into the Pavilion.

I think Craig has produced something playful, engaging and thought-provoking. Rather than providing explanations, each stop on the tour feels like the start of a conversation. As someone has spent many years working on the story of the Royal Pavilion’s use as a WW1 Indian Hospital, I found that Craig’s take on the Indian Gate made me reconsider it’s meaning today.

At the very least the Mindful Garden tries to address the challenge of making a mindful experience with a different form of storytelling from anything we’ve used in the past. You can listen to an excerpt below:

Let us know what you think

This tour is an experiment and we would appreciate any comments or feedback on the approach. You can do this using the comment box on the audio tour.

We are certainly not suggesting that this style of storytelling should or will replace more traditional fact-based ways of interpreting the past. But this may be a new narrative tactic that we can weave into the experience we offer our future visitors.

Kevin Bacon, Digital Manager

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