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Being creative online - 'A Night at the Rare Books Auction'

By Dr Ana de Oliveira Dias, Lecturer in History at Durham University and Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study 

Ana reveals how she brought about a fantastic online performance that immersed attendees in the action and broke down the barrier of the computer screen.

Can you tell us a little bit about your activity? 

Our event was an immersive theatre performance, hosted via Zoom, that recreated the 1929 sale of two of Britain’s most famous medieval manuscripts: the Luttrell Psalter and the Bedford Hours. The event brought important aspects of our research to life, such as the complex processes undertaken by public institutions when trying to secure historical works for the nation. In this performance, we invited the public to engage with past dealers and collectors, to ‘bid’ on their favourite manuscripts, and to reflect on the importance of historical auctions as a moment in which cultural heritage gains new meaning.

To bring the event about, I worked with my colleagues in CULTIVATE MSS, a research project that explores how the trade in medieval manuscripts between 1900 and 1945 affected the development of ideas about the nature and value of European culture during this period.

Actors Indra Ove as Belle Greene and Jade Williams as Mary Noyes

Did you work with any cultural partners to bring your activity to life? 

We worked very closely with the playwright, director, and actor Jack Tartlon (Traces, 2019; Outlander, 2014; Imitation Game, 2014). Jack was ideally placed to bridge the gap between academic research and the public, as he has vast experience adapting historical texts for stage performance and conducting public engagement activities both in person and online. Jack and the CULTIVATE MSS team were in regular contact to discuss historical sources and experiment with creative ways of translating this complex story into a Zoom play.  

We were very fortunate to work with Jack, whose vision, creativity, and experience were crucial to make our activity possible. I believe everyone in the CULTIVATE MSS team learnt a great deal about how to communicate our research to wider audiences in an engaging and informative manner.

Actors Sushil Chudasama as Eric Millar and Lorna Nickson Brown as Lillian Westby

How did you bring attendees into the action? 

Considering the immersive nature of our activity, it was important to engage with participants well before the event.  

We contacted them via email twice: the first message included the official auction invitation, a ‘homemade’ fictional auction catalogue and detailed information about the event. The second one, disclosed their secret budget for the auction, whose value determined how much each person could be involved in the play. 

During the event, Jack also cast members of the public to take part in small sections of the play and ‘stage directions’ were communicated via Zoom chat.

The invitation to the virtual event, emailed to registered attendees.

Did you face any challenges in organising your activity? How did you overcome these? 

The biggest challenge was ensuring that Zoom worked properly and that all interactive elements (e.g., chat, polls, live captioning) were adequately set.  

We dealt with potential technical problems with a great deal of hope and planning. Each of the ten members of the CULTIVATE MSS team worked ‘backstage’, checking if all technical elements were working correctly, assisting the cast when needed, and guaranteeing the security of the ‘virtual space’. This ensured that the cast could focus exclusively on their performance. We were like a small orchestra, all contributing to the harmony of the event! 

What were the major successes? 

Overcoming limitations of the online format and creating a truly interactive experience was certainly an achievement.  

The post-performance discussion led by Dr Laura Cleaver was also very important, because it enabled us to engage in a two-way conversation with the audience and to discover how much they took from the performance and from our research. 

As a team researching attitudes to the trade and the collecting of medieval manuscripts in the early twentieth century, it was very interesting to observe people’s reactions to those objects and situations today, even if only through fiction.  

We also curated an online exhibition entitled ‘Picturing the Auction Room c.1880 – 1930’, showcasing images of early-twentieth century auction rooms and medieval manuscripts. 

Do you have any top tips or lessons learned for future event organisers? 

  • Work collaboratively and be open to your cultural partner’s ideas and vision. 

  • Start work early and have a solid contingency plan. 

  • Think carefully about your target audience and give them clear instructions of what to expect if you are planning an immersive event. 

Try it yourself

This project was part of Being Human’s 2021 Open Call pathway. To be part of the festival please visit our ‘Get involved’ page.

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