A pause for reflection

I couldn’t resist it: “Education place of the day: Globe Theater on Renaissance Island“. “The real attraction”, writes SL blogger Annette Pohlke, “you will only find when walking to the south-eastern corner of the sim: The famous Globe Theater! You can walk around, walk in, take a seat – just that is a lot of fun. … Tomorrow (June 15th) night you have the chance to watch a historical debate between Katherine of Aragon and Ann Boleyn, the first and second wife of Henry VIII.” And so, although I’d missed the aforementioned event, I had to go see the Globe.


There is no doubt at all that it is an impressive virtual reconstruction, true to the blogger’s description. And I’d be delighted, for the sheer novelty of it, to attend a performance there … I can envisage English Literature undergraduates in SL enthusiastically staging Hamlet or The Changeling.


But Renaissance Island overall left me feeling a little disappointed, intellectually uncomfortable, a tad sceptical with regard to its paedogogic value. A blend of Las Vegas and Disney World, it seemed to me a dumbed-down trivialisation of Elizabethan England, an architectural spectacle lacking the structure and content that would as it stands offer little obvious support for effective e-learning.

This takes me back to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s perceptive observation that museums characteristically “ask the museum visitor to look closely at something whose value lies somewhere other than in its appearance”. The danger of Second Life is that impressive appearances may not simply interpose between the visitor and intellectual content but that the latter may be wholly sacrificed in favour of, as the blogger notes, “a lot of fun”. I almost succumbed to that temptation in building the basic CISM buildings: it was a lot of fun, but I recognise that appearance must be subordinate to e-learning content and the right kind of functionality to support engagement with that content.

Visit the Globe Theatre at:
[SLURL] http://slurl.com/secondlife/Renaissance%20Island/179/82/26


About Christopher Hutchison

Museologist, cognitive dissident, political grouch, curmudgeonly bibliophage, and all round jolly nice chap.
This entry was posted in Case study, Museums and history. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A pause for reflection

  1. wanderingmadman says:

    While I can understand Christopher’s somewhat negative reaction to the Renaissance Island project, I would suggest that perhaps he is being a bit too harsh in the use of such terms as “dumbed down” and the comparison to Disneyland.

    First of all, I would point out that the RI project is very much an experiment, carried out primarily by a variety of volunteers from different disciplines, in their spare time. It also is very much a work in progress, especially at the point when Christopher seems to have visited.

    A great deal has been acomplished since then, in terms of the creation of interpretive materials and information portals, and additional elements such as the wharf and merchant galleon.

    Furthermore, educational activities have begun at the classroom run by Desiderata Stockton (last time I looked, Disneyland didn’t offer discussions of Elizabethan poetry). And people from different backgrounds are being brought together to share ideas and information–most recently with the wonderful discussions that took place yesterday at the opening of the now completed recreation of the Globe, in which guests, RI residents (including some scholars, librarians and museum folk)had a fascinating dialogue with a Shakespeare scholar (and actor) and the in-world architect who executed the difficult process of creating a representation of the Globe theater in a form that would function in SL.

    However, even at the point that Christopher visited, there already were notecard givers on some of the elements that provided intperpretive information, explanation of the significance of parts of the build, and the thought processes that went into the design, as well as–in certain cases–links to other web resources that provide the detailed historical or interpretive information that would potentially expand the vistor’s understanding of everyday life in the Elizabethan period.

    Apparently Christopher made only a superficial examination of the build and what it offered, and missed a good deal of what it had to offer.

    The point is, that as well as being incomplete at the time of Christopher’s visit, the didactic aspect of the build is rather subtle. The limits of the transitional product that is SL severely limit our ability to make anything that is anything other than representational and very stylized. What we can create–and yes, the process of doing so is Fun, and there is nothing wrong with that–is an environment that can only convey so much in itself, but which can serve as an engaging setting for the vistor to acceess intepretive matieral, and as a portal to selected outside resources.

    Making RI fulfill these roles is an on-going process, and in the future will involve partipation by an increasingly varied population, including students and SL residents who have an interest in and knowledge of the period, but who do not happen to be professional historians. Under the circumstances one can be pretty sure that this will contribute to the evolution of the project in ways that are not always consistent, but the goal here is to foster intellectual exploration, dialog between people from different places, backgrounds, and disciplines, and to see where the experiment can go. It is not to create a perfect historical build, which is impossible with the platform anyway, even if it was deemed to be desirable.

  2. Christopher says:

    Many thanks for your comment, wanderingmadman, and my apologies if my negative remarks caused offence–never my intention. Renaissance Island is visually stunning, and clearly the product of countless hours of work by dedicated individuals.

    Teleporting into the world, among the first things one sees are the shops ‘Stone Keep’, ‘Renaissance Attire’, and ‘Drusilla’s Delight’. While I’ve personally no problem with advertising boards showing scantilly-clad girls in thongs and not much else (and I’m sure my students would love it), I can’t help but feel that these might have looked just a tad out of place in an authentic mid-16th century boutique. To my knowledge (and I suspect that a browse through books of Elizabethan fashions might well bear me out on this), thongs were never a la mode at the time of Shakespeare and the low-cut bra had yet to be invented 🙂

    Were the signposting of e-learning content more prominent and the costume more authentic, I’d probably have felt more positively about RI. First impressions that a visitor will inevitably have of RI in its present form, however, will more likely be that they’ve arrived in an adult-oriented theme park. Call me a curmudgeonly old purist if you will, but I can’t in all honesty see myself recommending this to students as–at least for now–a place of learning. Sorry …

  3. wanderingmadman says:

    Hi Chris, I appreciate you giving it another shot. I find it interesting that you still keep focusing on some of the anachronisms and inconsistencies, like the waltz ball, instead of seeing past those to things that I find more noticeable, like the demi-culverins in the Bulwark, or the painted sky over the stage at the Globe. Or that if you had actually gone into the Drusilla’s Delight shop, you would have found some damn good elizabethan gowns based on proper period styles (produced by a content maker with a background in history of fashion design) and pikeman’s armor done by a medieivalist based upon a breatplate that was excavated at Jamestown…ut then hell, I’m guilty of the same tendency myself, and my first ex-wife still hasn’t forgiven me for noting loudly and at some length in a movie theater while watching “Nicholas and Alexandra” that the Russian troops shooting at the protesting peasants had the “wrong rifles!” (M91/30’s rather than the earlier M91)

    But yes, I’ll concede your point on the content of some of the other shops. It’s a frustration that the reality of the situation is that the project has to be self-sustaining and at present that means that space has to be rented out. Seriously, and I’m not being snarky here, if you have any other ideas for a business model that could eliminate the need for rentals, we sure would like to hear it.

    It is a probelm, and not limited to SL: look at the crap that a place like Williamsburg has to sell in the ye olde gifte shoppes located inside buildings throughout the historic area. In RI, the team had hoped to head this off. Initially, a set of vendors guidelines was drawn up that dealt with the very issues you bring up, but under the circumstances and presures of financial necessity, it wasn’t put into effect. One of the goals as the project evolves, however, is to implement controls that could improve the situation.

    As far as not wanting to recommend RI as a place of learning for students, that’s fine–no need to apologize to me. I honestly don’t think at this point it is meant for students to just come and randomly graze anyway (though on some level, I think you may not be giving them and their powers of discernment as much credit as they deserve) I think the learning that is going on in RI is informal adult learning at this point–derived from what the various particpants from different disciplines are sharing with each other as they explore the possiblities and push the evolution of the environment. I’d be be happy to hok up with you in-world sometime and talk about it–we might learn something from each other.

  4. Christopher says:

    hi, wanderingmadman — the commitment and achievements of the RI team are, as I’ve already said, extraordinary. My dilemma arises out of consideration for two of my activities: first, I have the responsibility within my Faculty (and that’s what prompted the creation of this blog) to assess SL as an e-learning platform complementary to other e-learning support applications we currently use (preeminently Blackboard, which I personally dislike); and, second, I teach courses in desktop VR and Museum Informatics for both of which I’m always looking for good case studies.

    With regard to the first responsibility, you might like to look at the page (in the sidebar menu) “Why Second Life?”. I list more reasons for than against use of SL, yet I remain uneasy about its use in an e-learning content. I’d value any comments you might offer on that debate.

    I’ve been doing a lot of serious thinking about the second matter, the course I teach in Museum Informatics. It seems to me that, in general (as I write on the aforementioned page), “Second Life is a triumph of appearance over substance”, and this worries me. How should we best (most effectively) go about designing learning spaces for culture and heritage? I’ve several ideas which I’d be delighted to discuss with you; and I’d like to hear your own views on this — we should perhaps privately exchange views via email, but I’m now also tempted to start a SL “e-Heritage” group to provide a forum for broader discussion of the issues.

    As regards the shops on RI, I briefly mentioned an alternative to clothes: book shops. But this depends on whom you see to be your constituency: Renaissance scholars or casual shoppers? Had I been in your position, I’d have sought sponsorship from e.g. a major publisher, and have encouraged them to create bookshop and (ideally working) printing press in that space, selling e.g. reproductions of early folios, music sheets, etc. That would be good business for the publisher, and intellectually respectable frontage for RI.

    I’d be delighted to discuss further and deeper via e.g. email or Skype; and I’d also like your views as to whether you’d see value in a e-Heritage SL group.



  5. wanderingmadman says:

    Hi Chris,

    yes, the publisher sponsor idea is a darn good one I will pass that on to the Library folks. And the idea of an e-heritage group is rather nice as well. I think the thing that SL does best at this point is facilitating connections and communication between people who otherwise might not even be aware of each other, let alone have the opportunity to informally share ideas and opinions. There is a museums in sl group, of course, but it is very general, and I think those of us with a specific interest in the interpretation of history and heritage issues would benefit from an association that was more focused on history.

    If you want to chat in-world, feel free to stop by my pub in Caledon, the Falling Anvil (yes I watched far too many Warner Brothers cartoons as a child), and look for Aldo Stern.


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