Flying the flag for British technology

Flying the flag for British technology
Flying the flag for British technology

Behind the Cornish postcard: Emmie Kell, CEO, Cornwall Museums Partnership

Posted on 21st June 2021 by Jon Howell

Today we have the pleasure of chatting with Emmie Kell, CEO at Cornwall Museums Partnership, who shares how the quest to bring history to life will increase access for a more diverse audience than ever before. TechBritannia Co-conspirator Rose Ross discovers that technology such as  immersive experiences and phone apps will help tell the tales of Cornwall, a county which is steeped in tech innovation and history.

This fascinating conversation covers how games developers, such as the Falmouth University Games Academy, are using virtual and augmented reality to offer experiences like piloting the habour at St. Agnes using a real-life ship’s wheel, and Hi9 are providing a talking turtle to tell stories and interact with visitors.

Emmie shares how the Partnership is also focussed on trying to show what’s ‘behind the postcard’ to provide a more informed view of Cornwall and what it’s really like. Watch the full podcast here:


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Interview transcript:

Rose Ross: Hello everyone, welcome to the #WeAreTechBritannia podcast, and we’re going to Cornwall again, and it’s the G7, but there’s lots of other exciting stuff, the G7 will be talking about what the future will look like for the world. I’m delighted to be joined here today by Emmie Kell who is the CEO of the Cornwall Museum Partnership. And just quickly, my name is Rose Ross and I’m the founder of TechBritannia.

So, Emmie, thank you so much for joining us. A busy time, the G7 is just kicking off as we’re talking. Tell us a little bit about what you are involved with, what is the Cornwall Museum Partnership, and what can you tell us about what’s been happening historically tech-wise in Cornwall, and what can we look forward to and engage with, with the museums there?

Emmie Kell: Thanks Rose. Good morning, it’s great to be here. Well, people may be wondering, why do we have museums involved with TechBritannia, and it’s a brilliant opportunity for me to perhaps challenge some pre-conceptions that people might have about museums and about Cornwall too.

I run a charity called Cornwall Museums Partnership, and we’re an independent charity interested in creating positive social change with museums, and we think that museums are a kind of untapped part of our civic infrastructure. They’re home to thousands if not millions of stories that can help us to understand the past, reflect on the present and maybe inspire a better future. Some of the things that we’re really keen to do are to look at how we can work with tech partners to really unlock those stories, and tell them in new and imaginative ways, and enable people to engage with them and more people to engage with them in creative ways.

So, that’s really what we’ve been focused on, particularly over the last couple of years, with a brilliant project that behind the scenes is called the Wave Project, its public name is Coastal Time Tripping. We’ve been able to work with about five or six local tech partners to test out how we can use different types of immersive technology – so we’ve been particularly focussed on immersive, to enable people to engage with those stories and museums that they might not have known about. So, we’re not necessarily talking about big places that people are familiar with that hit the headlines, but some of those quirky more unusual places that people might not know so much about. It’s been a really great opportunity for us to understand more about the skills and talent that we have in Cornwall, and to build that bridge between the tech sector and the cultural sector, and I think they’re kind of great bed-fellows if you like. There’s massive opportunity for us to work more together.

Rose, do you want me to tell you about a couple of the specific projects that we’ve been working on?

Rose Ross: That would be fantastic.

Emmie Kell: As part of that Wave project, there’s two that I really want to flag up to you. So, one is a great museum called The Castle Museum in Bude which is in North Cornwall, and some people who are familiar with Bude may know that it has a harbour, and if you’re a mariner or if you’ve got seafaring connections you may also know that it’s a very challenging harbour to navigate. What we’ve been able to do with our partners at Falmouth University Games Academy is to build a virtual reality experience that enables people to take the helm of a historic ship, using an original ship’s wheel. So, that’s a really nice thing about this project is it combines authentic real artefacts with the tech, and so you get an opportunity to sail or captain – I’m going to use all the wrong terms here, for your nautical listeners their toes will be curling! But they will now be able to navigate that ship into the harbour and understand what the challenges are.

We actually had the last person I think who was able to sail that ship, he’s now an elderly gentleman, come and experience that VR experience recently, and he said it was really-really accurate, and was super-impressed that we were doing that. So that again, giving people that opportunity to really live heritage and experience what it was like. So, that’s in Bude.

Then another one I want to tell you about is also using…well, there are two aspects actually that we’ve been working on, one with Falmouth University Games Academy again, which is a VR experience which we create what is now not visible, a harbour that was at a place called St. Agnes, which is now a very popular holiday destination, but people have no idea that it used to be a very industrial place. So, we’ve created a VR experience in the museum there, and again you sit on a piece of the old harbour wall, an original piece of the wall to experience that. And as part of our partnership throughout that project we made contact with a local company called Hi9, and we found working with them absolutely brilliant because they really share our values around inclusivity.

We started to think about some other artefacts in the museum, and they have a lovely turtle in St. Agnes Museum. With Hi9 we’ve started a partnership with the local school who have been helping us to create a whole range of stories that the public will be able to access via gesture and voice technology. So, in a sense you’ll be talking to the turtle, and the turtle will tell you its stories of coming to Cornwall from the Caribbean. And we’re also going to be able to use that as an opportunity to kind of seed in messages about climate change, the oceans, marine, plastic, all of those things that are really important for people to understand in the context of the climate emergency.

That’s another really interesting new departure, helping people to directly engage with a museum object in a totally new way. It’s actually going to talk to you, and depending on the questions that you ask it, there will be a whole range of different bits of information that it will convey to you. And of course for us museum professionals that’s brilliant because it means we can learn what people are interested in, we can collect that information about those questions, and that helps us then create better experiences in the future.

Rose Ross: Fantastic, so there’s an awful lot going on there. One of your initiatives which you launched very recently is called Reboot Cornwall, and obviously a lot of these projects, I guess, are part of that initiative. Can you tell us a little bit more about that, and perhaps some of the links to some of the very tech-specific things that people may or may not be aware of in Cornwall. Because we were talking earlier about the fact that there is… you had a very lovely turn of phrase which was, ‘Behind the postcard’ and I think that’s an important part for people who are interested, particularly with the G7, with the global gaze upon Cornwall, that people understand that they can now engage virtually as well with some of the history, much more effectively than they perhaps did in the past. And also, if they’re in the tech industry that Cornwall is somewhere that they should look with either from a point of view of getting partnerships with, and if they’re visiting with their family they should also get to know a little bit more about the history of some of the other elements of it.

Emmie Kell: Absolutely, Cornwall has always been a place of invention, and I think there is something in the air here which is maybe connected to the fact that we’re geographically on the periphery, that means that that kind of resourcefulness, that creativity, that sense of innovation that comes from being slightly outside of the mainstream is slightly dialled-up, I think, in Cornwall. So, as you say it’s a great place for tech businesses either to partner with people down here, or to relocate, or to think about starting a business here. We really would encourage people to think about that.

Also, people are often surprised that we have some of the fastest broadband in Europe in Cornwall. We’ve got better speeds here than some parts of London, as well as all the great lifestyle stuff that goes alongside being in Cornwall. Some of the specific things that we’ve been flagging up, and as you say, trying to get people to look behind the postcard, really looking at some of the skills that we have with some of our businesses down here. There’s a company called Purpose 3D with whom we’ve been working, again that’s a young company that’s come out of Falmouth University and who have great skills in 3D scanning of museum objects. They’ve produced some really beautiful scans enabling people to explore objects that aren’t normally accessible, because they’re too fragile or they’re in store, so particularly things like costume which is difficult to display because the older it gets, the more fragile it gets. Purpose 3D have been absolutely brilliant in creating some really great scans that people can explore. We’re thinking about how we can deploy those, particularly in the games industry, as assets that help people engage with museum objects in totally new and unexpected ways. So, that’s one thing I’d like to flag up.

Going back to gesture control and thinking about ways of accessing history, heritage, voices from the past, that don’t involve touch which obviously has become so important through the pandemic and thinking about COVID recovery. Obviously, I flagged up the turtle exhibit at St. Agnes, but there’s also some other work that we wanted to highlight through the Reboot Cornwall programme, which is looking at audio archives, and I think sound is probably one of the most overlooked aspects of immersive experiences. And obviously I’m talking to you today as part of a podcast, podcasts are everywhere now and really accessible. People may not realise that actually museums have masses and masses of sound archives, and they’re really hard to access. You’ve got to be a real geek and know where to look to sift through loads of thumbnails on a museum website, most of the time they’re not there anyway, and they’re not presented in a particularly interesting way. Actually, immersive technology has the opportunity to help audiences engage with those archives in a really interesting way.

So, we’ve created again with Hi9 something called Cornish Tales, and what we’ve essentially done is built something which you can access via Alexa, via the smart speaker or via the app on your phone, if you say, ‘Alexa open a Cornish Tales’ it will take you to the Memory Lane Tavern, and you will be able to walk into the Tavern and choose who you’d like to speak to and hear from. There’s just something so moving about it, through the power of that archive footage from the inside of a Cornish pub, you can hear the voices from the past, you can listen to songs, you can hear people telling you about their lives, it’s really-really immersive in that true sense of the word. We don’t know of anybody else in the world who’s doing that.

So again, it’s using technology that people are familiar with, obviously through Alexa, but it’s a local company that’s helped us think imaginatively about what the paring of that technology with these historical assets that we’ve got in museums might be. One of the lovely outcomes of that is obviously thinking about people who are particularly isolated, who can’t get out to museums, or who are experiencing loneliness because they’re in a care home or wherever they might be. This means that you can have a really engaging experience without going anywhere, and you can enjoy history and heritage and take that trip down memory lane, without leaving your room.

So again, there’s something really important there about that health and wellbeing outcome, and the difference that technology can make to people’s lives.

Rose Ross: Definitely. Well, Cornwall is steeped in all of that, we can’t really have a podcast looking at the past without referencing Poldark, which obviously was a 70s series which I watched as a child while I was in Cornwall, which was very exciting because Cornwall’s not actually on the television. And obviously a fantastic remake series of that which has been incredibly popular and has obviously driven the interest in it. But it’s great to see that both that rich cultural historic element… and even that was very much innovative as well because it was very much focusing on the mining industry, which was the business that the Poldarks were in, and obviously has been very-very important. And you referenced St. Agnes as well and part of St. Agnes harbour would have been part of the transport, as was Portreath which I’m very familiar with. Yes, so very exciting to see all of this amazing stuff happening.

I wanted to just focus on one of the perhaps better known – you obviously referenced a number of perhaps lesser-known museums, but PK Museum which people may have known as Telegraph Museum in Porthcurno, where the Victorian internet was first laid with cables across to build the communications network of the Empire in the 1870s. They are a part of your network as well, is there anything you can say about how they might have been involved, bearing in mind they obviously have a technology element, and I guess possibly ended up using technology for those types of experiences a little bit more. I know they had their own reboot actually in the last couple of years too.

Emmie Kell: Yeah, that’s right. I’d encourage all of the listeners if they haven’t been to PK Porthcurno to take a visit, because it’s such an unusual and interesting place. A tiny remote village near Lands’ End which is literally connected to almost every part of the globe by these submarine cables that leave that beach, then go under the sea and make land in all four corners of the globe. My understanding is that lots of fibre optic cables that carry lots of our communications data now are laid over the top of those Victorian cables that you mentioned Rose. So, history and the present day absolutely intertwined on the seabed from Porthcurno.

In terms of things that we’ve done with them, a great museum, and what’s really interesting about the director there is that she’s really keen to help people understand the role of Cable & Wireless, which was the company that was based in Porthcurno, played in the whole community. So, we’ve developed an app with them which is using beacons, helping people to explore the Valley of Porthcurno and learn more about the impacts of Cable & Wireless upon the whole environment, and the whole place, because that in itself is quite an untold history and really interesting.

Another project that we did with them was using mixed reality. So, we used hololens technology, again working with Falmouth University Games Academy, to see whether there was an opportunity to create a museum version of an escape room experience using hololens and mixed reality. We created something called the Augmented Telegrapher which is a fabulous game that is a social experience, so you do it with friends and you have to solve a range of different challenges that have been informed by engineers who were working in the college there, in the cable station in the 20th century, so real-life challenges; what do you do when the cable goes down? That was really interesting as an experiment to see again, how can we use cutting-edge technology to create an experience that’s going to attract people to come to Porthcurno out of the summer season.

So, that’s really-really important to us is that again we think tech offers us some real solutions in terms of sustainable tourism. Many people listening will know, you can see the pictures on the TV of certain places in Cornwall or elsewhere in the UK that are really the honeypots for tourists, but actually that only happens in a very compressed time of the year, and if we’re really to deliver that more sustainable activity we need people to come out of season. That’s why again why we think partnering technologists with museums means that we can create great experience-led tourism, that’s going to get people come here, and it doesn’t matter if it’s raining. In fact that’s part of the attraction, you’ve got that wild stormy stuff going on and it just appeals to a different audience.

Rose Ross: Fantastic, well there are plenty of things to do inside, but yes I am a big fan of that North Atlantic storminess, there’s nothing like going on a beach in Cornwall and being very windswept, shall we say. It’s something very refreshing, it’s almost like a detox for the spirit, so just as nice as sitting there when it’s nice, calm, and sunny.

Beyond PK, there’s lots of other things that people probably aren’t aware of, there’s Goonhilly, and that was part of a very historic moment with the transmission of the televised landing on the moon, which I assume a lot of people aren’t aware of, because I wasn’t actually until it was mentioned to me recently. And then I was talking yesterday to Ross Hulbert from Spaceport Cornwall about what the plans are there. So, certainly from Goonhilly’s perspective, I know that you have been in conversation with them, and perhaps you’d like to say a little bit about that, and how Goonhilly would feature in that experience of tech, for people who are coming to look at the other side of Cornwall, the innovation.

Emmie Kell: Sure, it’s great that we have those landmark projects, and as you say, Goonhilly is very familiar and recognisable to people in terms of those big dishes that sit out on the Lizard Peninsular, and Spaceport is a really exciting project too. We’re in active conversations with both those projects which are really raising the profile of STEM careers and the opportunities that there are in Cornwall, for people to get involved in science technology, engineering, and maths. I guess Goonhilly is interesting for all sorts of different reasons to us. It is a site of special scientific interest, there’s some really interesting archaeological remains around the site. There’s more recent history of BT and the people who worked there back in the 20th Century, as well as you say those global moments like the moon landings.

We support the nearest museum to Goonhilly, it’s called the Museum of Cornish Life, and they have all kinds of different archives that relate to that kind of activity that has been happening at Goonhilly. So, the jury is out really as to where that’s going to go, so if anybody listening has got any kind of projects, or ideas about what they might like to see happening in terms of the connection between heritage, Goonhilly and tech, then I’m all ears. We haven’t quite found our way to the next project opportunity yet.

And in terms of Spaceport, another great thing that’s putting Cornwall on the map, and a great story about the kinds of careers that you can have here. There are all sorts of collections again that we have in museums that document Cornish endeavour in terms of astronomy and engineering, and lots of that stuff is in the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro. I know that they are actively engaged with Spaceport, and I’m hoping that some of their cool Spaceport stuff is going to find its way into the museum before too long, and people will be able to come and get up close and personal and have a look at it when it’s in the museum in Truro.

Rose Ross: So, is there anything else you’d like to share with the listeners and viewers about the Cornish tech innovation experience? We’ve talked about Reboot; we’ve talked about some of the amazing projects you’ve been working on. Is there stuff that’s coming down the line that you would like to give us a little sneaky-peek into, or at least a call-out to listeners and viewers on any ideas that they may have, that would inspire people both when they’re visiting, or if they can’t visit for any reason, whether that’s the restrictions or the fact that they’re no longer able to travel at the moment, that you’d like to share?

Emmie Kell: There are two things that come to mind, so one’s a problem that I’m mulling over that I think is a real opportunity for a tech partner or partners somewhere. The other is our strategic focus at Cornwall Museums Partnership, so I’ll start with the latter.
You might have picked up from what I’ve been saying, as a charity engaging with as many people, and particularly addressing some of those barriers to access that there have been for certain members of our community, is super-important to us. Quite a lot of stuff in the cultural sector – well, in society at large, is too inaccessible for people with disabilities, and we’re doing quite a lot of work around inclusivity. I’m really excited that right now I’m working with a company called Now & Then, that’s another Cornish company at Falmouth Art Gallery. Colleagues are testing an app that is going to provide really great access to museums and their collections for blind and visually impaired people.

So, that’s something I’m really excited about, and I want to see more of that. I think there’s huge opportunity for us to really push that inclusivity agenda, and we’re working with a great group in Cornwall called Tech Girls to really think about how we can get more women and girls involved in tech as well, and that’s part of our inclusivity push. So, those things are coming up.

In terms of the problem that I’ve been mulling over, and people cleverer than me will know the answer to this, but there has to be data that can help us with solving this issue. As I said earlier-on in the conversation, I think possibly because of the way we access information now about what we want to do on holiday, and Google top 10 things to do in Cornwall, we’ve got more and more people being served fewer and fewer options, and what that means is more people get driven, or drive themselves rather, to fewer locations, which has a real impact on the environment and on communities, and actually doesn’t end up with those people having a great experience. We want them to have a great experience when they come on holiday in Cornwall.

I went on holiday in Cornwall last week, and I went to the Lizard which is near Goonhilly that we were talking about earlier. I’m sure it was busier than normal, but actually it was really lovely because there was plenty of space for everybody, and it didn’t feel overcrowded, and nobody was really there. I know the area that I live in just 20 minutes down the road was absolutely packed. And so I’m wondering what the tech solution or opportunity might be in terms of sustainable tourism to help people discover other places that aren’t being overrun, and to spread everybody out, to spread the love make sure everybody has a great time, and to avoid this thing where the results that appear are the most popular ones on a search engine, and people get served up those same opportunities.

There’s something about sustainable tourism, visitor flow and data, that’s a business opportunity for somebody there, I think.

Rose Ross: It feels like a heatmap doesn’t it, that kind of says, ‘If you want to sit in your car for half-an-hour and entertain your kids, then try and find a parking spot and de-de-de… or, alternatively you could go and do this, this is where it’s cooler,’ but just from the point of view of less people, ‘these are really cool things that you could do there…’ I think it’s data, well knowledge really isn’t it, giving the people the secret that inspires…

Emmie Kell: Exactly.

Rose Ross: I’m sure that apart from the fact that I’m in tech, and because I have a connection to Cornwall, I probably wouldn’t have gone to PK necessarily. That was only because that was something of interest and I kept an eye on that, and it’s obviously where Marconi sent the first transatlantic message. There’s so many places to go and experience that are not just where you think you need to go to Carbis Bay to get an ice lolly. Well, hopefully somebody will be able to come up with a fantastic idea. There’s lots of incredible brains in Cornwall, or elsewhere, that there may be already something that would help with that. But that sounded great.

So, the last thing is obviously very topical at the moment, the G7, happening as we speak. What kind of things have been happening from a partnership perspective around the G7 that perhaps you can tell us about? You can forget the tech for the moment, we’ll go topical!

Emmie Kell: I’m just looking out of the window and we’re still treating the G7 leaders to some authentic Cornish mizzle, so I’m afraid they haven’t had any sunshine yet, but let’s hope they get it.

Rose Ross: Well, they should be busy indoors solving the world problems. So, if they’re out having an ice cream in Carbis Bay, then that’s why the secret service is keeping everybody away. I’m a little bit worried about the future for us all, but everybody needs a break a bit of creativity, that sort of by the watercooler, or as it would be the ice-cream van moment, perhaps. But yeah, I’m sure the sun will pop out and give them a taste of that for a little while as well.

Is there anything that you guys have been doing, any cultural stuff that’s been happening, or will be happening around the G7?

Emmie Kell: Well, you can imagine, it’s been a really busy time and we have been focusing on trying to get the messages out there about, as I say, the more informed view of Cornwall about what it’s really like, and that kind of ‘behind the postcard’ perspective. We’ve been working with some other cultural partners, so there’s a great film that people might be interested in. Anyone who’s got a connection or interest to Cornwall, called ‘Behind the Postcard’ that was produced by our friends at Screen Cornwall. They’re a great lot because again, there’s an emerging cluster of screen businesses down here in Penzance where I’m based, which is really interesting from that creative tech side of things. So, I’d encourage people to have a look at that if they’re interested in Cornwall.

Then following G7 we’re doing some legacy projects, so I’m going to teach people a bit of Cornish now, if they don’t know any, so our project is called Splanna and that is Cornish for shine. We have a programme of projects running right the way from the end of the G7 to the end of March next year, working with young people across Cornwall to help them produce their own reflections and ideas, about how we take forward those key themes that will have been discussed by G7 leaders at the summit. So, interested to see how that goes, and that kind of co-production, putting young people in the driving seat, giving them opportunities to create and show their content in museums is something that is really important to us too.

Rose Ross: Fantastic. Well, there’s been so much gold, cultural and technology wise here, I can’t thank you enough Emmie. It’s been absolutely insightful and very enjoyable to spend this time with you. I very much hope the listeners and the viewers share that excitement about what’s happening and what they can do, if they come to Cornwall or they want to find out more about what’s going on in technology in Cornwall.

So, thank you. You’ve been listening and hopefully watching too, the #WeAreTechBritannia series, and I’ve been joined here by Emmie Kell who is the CEO of the Cornwall Museum Partnership. Thank you, Emmie.

Emmie Kell: Thank you, Rose.


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