The Lost Palace, Historic Royal Palaces

Once the largest palace in Europe, Whitehall Palace comprised 1,500 rooms and covered 23 acres, it was the principle British royal residence for 168 years, until it burnt to the ground in 1698. 

The Lost Palace, an experiential recreation of the long lost Palace of Whitehall and a new visitor experience for Banqueting House, launched as a pilot version in summer 2016 and returns in summer 2017. It comprises a daytime family-friendly adventure and adult evening ‘lates’ – and is Historic Royal Palaces’ first foray into creating participatory experiences in the public realm.

Starting and ending at Banqueting House, the experience takes visitors around Whitehall's modern streets to some of the most significant locations and events from Whitehall Palace’s past. Each visitor has a wooden device, connected to headphones, which acts as a ‘historic surveillance device’. Guided around the streets by the voice of their 21st century guide, when they arrive at the spots where particular historic events took place, they travel back in time and experience it as a contemporary witness to the history.

At points they encounter large burnt wooden installations – inspired by the architecture that would once have stood in that spot – and when they touch their device to these it triggers the event that once took place in that space. At times the device becomes other objects – a sword, an oar, a cockerel – and you must physically participate in the scene in order to move the action on.

Interactive scenes include: eavesdropping in on the secret marriage of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII or the interrogation of Guy Fawkes; performing in the royal premiere of Shakespeare's King Lear; sword fighting with Charles II's rakish friends; braving the joust for Elizabeth I's coronation; and holding the beating heart of Charles I in their hands as he went to his execution (and when the axe falls, the device stops beating).

On route visitors even encounter a modern busker, who uncannily manages to bleed into their personal historical soundscape with a 21st century version of a 17th century song.

Visitor response

Based on the formal visitor evaluation conducted (a sample of 198), visitors to The Lost Palace rated their experience extremely highly. 90% of visitors rated the technology used as very effective or effective, with figures of 88% for its storytelling power; 87% for practical delivery; and 88% for the overall experience.

In addition, they rated specific aspects of the experience even higher: 92% strongly agreed or agreed that ‘the experience was unique to others I’ve had at visitor attractions’; 92% that it ‘brought the history of this time and place to life’ and ‘was fun and enjoyable’; and 90% that it ‘made me feel more connected to the past and history here’.

Critical response

The Lost Palace has also been a critical success, both in the arts, culture and heritage media and the mainstream media too.

Museums + Heritage Advisor declared the experience one of the “Museum projects that will make a difference in 2016”, MuseumNext described it “The result is a triumph and shows the benefits of both collaboration and investing in R&D”, and Museums Journal as, “an immensely inspiring and absorbing experience…your imagination populates London’s concrete pavements so fervently with characters from the past that you feel you’re witnessing events in real time”. In addition, the project has received invitations to be presented at conferences around the world.

Enthusiastic consumer press reviews include the BBC describing it as “...a really thrilling experience... beautifully constructed & well put together... neither the theatre nor the tech unbalanced each other” and Time Out London as “Funny, moving and fascinating, it’s a brilliantly created tour with plenty of smart surprises… more attractions should be creating experiences like this”.

Creative technology

The technology that powers The Lost Palace is a bespoke hardware and software system that uses NFC, GPS, haptics, accelerometer, gyroscope and compass. However, all this technology is hidden within a wooden object, and completely free of screens. Removing this interface and making the triggers for the digital content either human actions or interactions between organic physical objects, means focus is on spaces and characters  - and imagination is free to engage with the stories in meaningful and memorable ways.

Based on this we created a series of moments which combined a physical location, a historic story and a tech interaction in order to cast the visitor as present in the specific event, as a contemporary to the characters – and as an active participant in the action. The effect of this was the creation of a rich virtual reality, but a non-visual one. We augmented reality, not with CGI visuals but with an experiential layer of history.

The following design choices were key to this world creation: use of binaural sound to create immersive 3D sound worlds; use of multisensory technology (especially haptics to utilise sense of touch) to create visceral experiences; gestural recognition to make physical actions in the contemporary world have implications in the virtual historic world; and giving real agency to the visitor - so everyone had a different, personalised experience.

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