2020 applicants
Research Case Study

Insight: Immersive theatre that brings history to life

Winner: Celebrating Excellence in Research and Impact Awards 2020 - Best Creative and Cultural Research Impact

  • Tagged under

    Digital, creative and cultural

  • Lead Academic

    Dr Holly Maples

Actors performing Breaking the Silence at St John’s Church Hillingdon

Black Lives Matter has revealed a lack of public understanding of British black history and the role of British slavery abolitionists. It’s a period of history that can, and is, being addressed in local and regional museums but critically engaging more diverse audiences with complicated local stories that relate to national issues is challenging. 

Dr Holly Maples has shown how heritage performance can bring history to life and is changing the way people experience British history.

The challenge

“The challenge for some heritage organisations is how to attract audiences who think the museum space is not for them,” explained Dr Maples from East 15 Acting School.

“That means a diversity of class, region and race, and targeting adult audiences without children.”

Her multi-faceted project has not just been about attracting more people into museums. As she explained, it’s also “about decolonising the museum and heritage industry, emphasising the voices of lesser-known characters and events to challenge local, regional, and national heritage narratives.”

Through site-specific heritage performance, she sought to retell complicated and sometimes contradictory historical stories, immersing audiences in an illusion that shapes their memory and attitude towards the past.

Dr Holly Maples
"My work is about decolonising the museum and heritage industry, emphasising the voices of lesser-known characters and events to challenge local, regional, and national heritage narratives."
Dr Holly Maples East 15 acting school

What we did

“Heritage performance offers a departure from re-enactments by commissioning artists and research-practitioners to complicate and contextualise the past,” explained Dr Maples.

“To get audiences to feel like they are walking into history.”

Dr Maples created, performed and evaluated site-specific performances for three distinct projects.

At Paston Footprints she developed three interactive performances, responding to the organisation’s collection of letters of a powerful Norfolk family, which attracted over 600 people. She is now creating a series of dramatised audio guides for walking tour routes.

At Norwich Castle Museum she created two performances and an immersive scavenger hunt, which attracted over 1,100 people, including a large proportion of 18 to 35-year-olds.

Her work successfully gave a voice to Viking women and examined the Victorian construction of Viking history in support of its own empirical expansion.

Her third project, developed for the Being Human Festival in collaboration with Dr Inge Dornan from Brunel University, was Breaking the Silence, which challenged amnesia around British involvement in the slave trade. Performed at the gravesite of a freed slave at St John’s Church Hillingdon, the event attracted over 160 people.

Actors performing at Mannington Hall in one of the Paston Footprints events
Actors performing at Mannington Hall in one of the Paston Footprints events
Actors performing Breaking the Silence at  St John’s Church Hillingdon
Actors performing Breaking the Silence at St John’s Church Hillingdon

What we changed

Dr Maples’ performances successfully attracted new and more diverse audiences creating exciting spaces for cross cultural debate.

“Dr Maples’ events are important in their ability to showcase Norfolk's story to wider audiences emphasising its significance to the nation's social, political and cultural history,” said Dr Rob Knee, from the Paston Heritage Society.

In reaching new audiences, her work is changing perceptions and enhancing understanding.

Feedback from Breaking the Silence was overwhelmingly positive, with those attending describing it as “thought provoking, innovative and powerful.”

Audiences were moved and inspired by the celebration of women and black British leaders of the 18th century abolitionist movement, with one black audience member saying

“I’ve lived in Hillingdon all my life…this is the first time I’ve felt I belonged.”

In 2021 the show will tour 11 churches across the UK where freed slaves and key abolitionists are buried or connected to.

Her work is changing the way museums interact with audiences too.

At Norwich Castle Museum, Dr Maples’ projects have been used to train staff in how to critically engage audiences and her immersive scavenger hunt design is being incorporated into future exhibitions.

“These events demonstrated a step change in the way the museum is engaging with its adult audiences,” said Danie Hadley, from Norwich Castle Museum.

There is anxiety in the heritage industry for the sustainability of heritage sites and education initiatives due to a perceived lack of interest in regional heritage by younger people. However, Dr Maples’ work shows that their interest can be ignited, and they not only want to witness historic narratives, but experience, embody, and ‘touch’ a localised past.