The Lost Palace. ©Duncan McKenzie
Modern day Whitehall in London is home to Britain's government—the Ministry of Defense, the Cabinet Office, Downing Street. It's known now as a center of power, but it was also known as one 400 years ago, too. The name itself actually derives from an old "lost palace" that used to be situated in the area. Known as Whitehall Palace, it was the former main residence of the British monarch from 1530 to around 1698 when it was destroyed by a fire started accidentally, as the story goes, by a maid. All that now remains is the neo-classical building Banqueting House, the entrance of which is the spot where King Charles I was beheaded in January 1649.
This gruesome detail and many more (not all quite so gruesome) are brought to life in a new augmented tour from charity Historic Royal Palaces, designers Chomko & Rosier, and theater makers Uninvited Guests called The Lost Palace. It starts at Banqueting House and takes you for a walk across the various sites where the palace once stood.
Using binaural sound, which was acted out on the streets and recorded, and a haptic custom-made wooden device, audiences are plunged into British history, led by many voices spoken throughout the often disorienting 3D stereo sound coming through your headphones.
©Historic Royal Palaces
Inside the wooden exterior of the device is a Galaxy Nexus 5, hacked with a circuit board. The phone's GPS is used to track where you are and its NFC (Near Field Communication) interacts with NFC tags placed on various charred-looking, blackened installations that have been put in place to represent the precise locations of archways and doorways of the palace. Placed on them are thousands of NFC stickers, so when you hold the device up it responds unveiling the next part of the story.
"It was important that it didn’t feel like a button," explains designer Matthew Rosier to The Creators Project regarding the tags. "We instead wanted to explore how an entire surface, an entire wall, an entire building can become this interactive thing where you can touch it anywhere. So it feels like you’re touching the actual historical artefact rather than just pressing a button on it."
The Lost Palace. ©Duncan McKenzie
The palace was mapped out over what is now modern Whitehall, meaning that when you walk around, you are in the exact spots of what took place. At various stages the device is used as a torch, a sword, and a long-range listening device. As you walk along, you get strange looks from tourists wondering why you're placing this wooden thing against these black, burnt-looking installations.
One of the most intriguing parts of the tour is when you go around the back of the Ministry of Defense and point the device at the windows where the palace once stood. Using the phone's compass and geolocation, as you move your device around to different windows, you can listen in to various conversations, like hearing Guy Fawkes being questioned after his arrest for the Gunpowder Plot before he was taken to the Tower of London. It's like being a secret agent listening in to the past. Like many of the tour's conversations, they are, where possible, reconstructed from actual historical logs—Samuel Pepys was a big help.
©Historic Royal Palaces "That's what I like about the culture section, you can try out these strange little experiments, part R&D, part historical reenactment," notes Rosier. "We wanted to create this strange-looking device and turn the tour into a performance, a spectacle."
In the process they also wanted to unveil the weird complex histories and the crossovers that lie beneath the mundane exterior of modern Whitehall. Where, say, outside the front of the Ministry of Defense a great hall once stood where Shakespeare's King Lear was first performed. Or point out banal parts of the street where kings once walked.
The Lost Palace. ©Duncan McKenzie The palace itself was at one point the largest in Europe, bigger than the Palace of Versailles, covering 23 acres and boasting 1,500 rooms. The tour, which lasts 80 minutes, takes in a greatest hits of its history—you learn of the secret spot where Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn with only a handful of people present. Get to experience a cock fight or joust (Henry VIII had a cockfighting pit where the prime minister's garden is). And at the end you're brought back to Banqueting House and as you walk towards it your device turns into the beating heart of the soon to be executed Charles I as you retrace the steps of his last, doomed walk.
It's an intriguing juxtaposition of technology, history, and mapping the past over the present. It also takes inspiration not just from British history but influential English architecture Cedric Price, too.
"Cedric Price was a member of Archigram who operated in the 1960s," explains Rosier. "He collaborated with Joan Littlewood who was an experimental theatre director and a technologist called Gordon Pask, a cyberneticist, and they basically came up with this elaborate theatrical space [the Fun Palace] that was all automated, all controlled and it was clearly bombastic. But there was a lot of that dreaming back then, when it really involved physical things as well as the automation. So I suppose we wanted to draw on that energy again. Now we’ve actually got the digital technologies to realize these things, through NFC tags things like that, so we wanted to just try to push those technologies into the actual physical environment and see what happens."