Reconstructing History for Videogames: Owen Gower

A heritage professional’s story

Manager at the Jenner House Museum (Berkeley, UK)
Museum, Videogames, Reconstruction

Owen Gower is the museum manager at Dr. Jenner’s House, Museum and Garden in Berkeley (UK). He is an historian taking care to this piece of history, where Edward Jenner, pioneer of vaccination against smallpox, lived and told the world about his work. He is now cooperating at the development of a videogame, within the REVEAL project.

Q1-  How an historian is related to videogames, what is your role in the project? Do you usually play videogames?
A1-  I have to confess that I don’t usually play video games and, in fact, I hadn’t even used virtual reality before taking part in the REVEAL Project! So it’s been quite a learning curve for me and fortunately I’ve not been responsible for any of the technological side of the game development. My role has been to help the game developers to understand what Jenner’s house would have looked like in 1823, the year the game is set in, and along the way I have been asked to provide advice on all manner of things, from the vocabulary of the time to the correct colour of paint for the walls.

Q2- Could you explain what did you do, as historian, for the historical reconstruction of the original house of Dr Jenner and how this was transferred to the game developers, based at the University of Sheffield Hallam?
A2- We faced a difficult challenge in recreating the house. We had very limited records to work with and certainly not anything as useful as a plan of the building from the time. We started off by looking at the building and trying to identify historic features, as well as tracking down archival records about changes to the building by its various owners. Without any evidence of how the rooms were decorated we had to rely on style guides of the time to recreate the interior design of the property. Finally, we used the probate inventory taken at the time of Jenner’s death to understand how the rooms were used and what they contained. We provided all of this information in a document for the game developers and I was able to visit their studio at various points throughout the development process to see progress and to provide further advice.

Q3-We are asking now to the manager of the museum, how do you plan to include the videogame in the museum daily life? would it be installed in the museum or left to be played at home?
A3- We are very keen that people will be able to experience the game in the museum as there is something quite special about being able to stand in a modern room and then be transported to the same room as it would have been 200 years ago. We are a small team here at Dr Jenner’s House and we know that use of the videogame will need to be facilitated by a member of staff, so it’s not something that we can offer our visitors everyday, however we also hope to be able to use the information we’ve learnt through the project to make some changes to the interpretation of the museum. Plus of course people will be able to play the game at home and we hope that might then encourage them to visit us here in Berkeley.

Q4- What are your expectations, when the game is published?
A4- I’m really excited about the opportunity for one million gamers to be able to access this videogame and to discover the remarkable work of Edward Jenner and I’d be really pleased if it meant that people were inspired to go away and find out more, or even to visit the museum.

Q5-  What would you say to curators who are wondering how to include videogames in their museums? Any suggestion on what to do and how to start?
A5-  I think you have to be realistic about what can be achieved. We were told straightaway that it would be difficult, and expensive, to put moving characters in our game, for example, so we knew that we had to find a way of justifying the house being empty of people. It may be helpful to talk to people who have already been involved in similar projects to find out what they were able to do. There are also a number of public-funded projects, like ours, working to create material which can be reused by museums and heritage organisations to make this kind of project more achievable.

Q6- And what would you say to those heritage experts who think that culture and education is “serious” and museums have nothing to do with games?
A6- Museums are all about stories, whether that’s the story of an individual or a group of people, or perhaps a building or an art movement. Our job is to share these stories and to find new ways of doing so as culture and the way that people learn and interact changes. I think videogames are an excellent way of engaging with a completely different audience and helping our existing audiences to see our stories in a different light. And although we’re talking about new technologies, I think there’s something quite appropriate about introducing games into museums; certainly ours. Edward Jenner loved entertaining people and he wrote down all sorts of riddles and puzzles for his family and friends to play. I am certain that he would be just as excited as us about this videogame.

Q7-  Would you start another videogame project, after Dr Jenner game? How?
A7- Definitely. There’s so much more that we can do with the virtual reality recreation of Jenner’s house now that we have it and we’ve already been talking to our friends at Sheffield Hallam University about some further ideas that we’re trying to get funding for. Watch this space!

Links: The Jenner House museum: https://jennermuseum.com

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