Talking Statues in London

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

At the weekend, I spent a day listening to London's Talking Statues.

This is a new project where a number of statues talk and tell their story to you, via your phone.

I love seeing statues, I have a pinterest board dedicated to my favourite statues. I've often looked at statues and wondered "who's that dude, why's he here?" (more often than not, it is a man).

So this project really appeals to me.

Doubly so, as it's part of a wider Digital R&D project from the Arts Council, Arts and Humanities Research Council and Nesta: essentially a way to have arts organisations think differently and try out digital tools. So: it's my day-job at the Horniman.

Over the course of the day, I visited twelve of the statues. Here are some thoughts.

  • I loved it. I found it great to hear from (some of) these characters, especially the historic people. Words to describe: fascinating, illuminating, funny, heartwarming, imaginative, informative. I learned things I never knew about Queen Victoria, Rowland Hill and John Wilkes.

  • I don't think the talking statues are designed to be seen the way I did, by visiting lots in one day. It works best as serendipity, you see a statue and then the plaque telling you to hear the statue. That said, something connecting them would be good too - a hashtag or something on the plaque to give the sense that there are more to see.
  • For me, the talking statues worked best when the statue was a real person (or animal). The fictionalisation of artworks didn't really appeal to me. But I loved hearing from the 'real' Queen Victoria, from Brunel or Rowland Hill.
  • The technology worked well for me. I can't use NFC tags (my phone doesn't like them) but the QR codes worked fine, as did typing in an address (I used that one most).
  • The NFC tag on the plaque is a symbol and the word 'Tap'. It was fascinating watching how people interpreted that. They tapped the tag with their feet, with their fingers, but never with their phones. Some people tapped repeatedly. (It reminded me of a time I saw a woman at the Horniman literally speak a question into an iPad as it had the wording "Ask a question" [we meant 'type in']).
  • Tech fans: the 'statues' don't actually phone you. It all connects to mobile-optimised websites which cleverly package streaming audio to look and feel like a telephone call.
  • At several of the stops, I got into conversations with other people about the technology, about the talking statues. It was quite enjoyable sharing these little moments.
  • Even when I was alone, my presence listening and looking at the statues encouraged other people to look at the statues that little bit more.
  • Public artworks are quite unusual in a museum sense. They often have no interpretation whatsoever.
  • My favourite: without doubt, Queen Victoria. Two of her statues are narrated, both by Prunella Scales. A wonderful actress playing a wonderful character.