How technology can prevent history from becoming history

Everybody’s rightly been gnashing their teeth about the potential demise of London’s Blue Plaques.  The scheme’s been going for 147 years and has been copied all over the world but current backers English Heritage say that the initiative is no longer financially viable.  There are hopes that another organisation might step into the breach and if they do, I hope they take the chance to do a complete overhaul – and not just apply another coat of blue paint.

You see, history’s traditionally suffered from something of an image problem.  It’s been seen as quite dry, often rather number-heavy, sometimes a bit inaccessible and generally a bit irrelevant to our current times and everyday lives.  But these are all challenges that digital technology is brilliant at overcoming: bringing things to life, making sense of vast amounts of data, democratising knowledge and making things personally and immediately irrelevant.

Because of technology, history is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment.  Genealogy is currently the second most popular search topic, after porn (I mean it’s second in the list, not that it’s the second most popular thing to do after you’ve used porn…).  Meanwhile, museums are reinventing themselves by digitising their collections (all 137 million objects, in the Smithsonian’s case); allowing you to search them with a scribble on an iPad; bringing them to life with augmented reality; using facial recognition software to match artefacts to your expression; and letting you replicate their treasures with 3D printers.  Even cemeteries are getting in on the act, with organisations like Historypoint QR-tagging old graves so you can find out more about the people buried there.

In this context, a bunch of blue plaques on walls look…well, like ancient history.  But with a little imagination, these iconic signs could be reinvigorated.  For instance, the plaque at 100 Bayswater Road (JM Barrie’s house) could use AR to put Tinkerbell in the palm of your hand and tell you about the building.  Likewise, the sign at Inverforth House (Lord Leverhulme’s mansion) could use tactile technology to create the illusion of being made of soap.  Or the notice at 23-35 Brook Street (where both Handel and Hendrix stayed) could play the music on your phone in the style of either musician, according to your choice.

Of course, some of these ideas might not make sense, while some might be too expensive.  But others could be revenue-generating, as people would pay for the right material, linked to the right celebrity, in the right location, at the right time.  In fact, for personalities with the right fanbase, the funds could probably be crowd-sourced in advance.

At any rate, the original purpose of the blue plaques (“to make our houses their own biographies”) feels more relevant and feasible now than ever before.  So it would be a shame if we didn’t save these lovely stories – and bring them up to date.

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