Bringing the past to the present: a magical conversation with Matt Pike of TimeZone Productions
The webinar came about after an encounter with world renown story teller in the Southwest of England, Matt Pike. We wanted to share with the you the story of how he works his magic at the UNESCO world heritage site of Stonehenge in the UK, reimagining how to engage audiences and bring the past alive, educating, entertaining and celebrating his local heritage.
Malak ElKhadem from Cairo, Egypt, welcomed Matt Pike and interviewed him, along with Belqees, a young Omani heritage graduate exploring his experience as a heritage entrepreneur; and explored his unique take on storytelling.
Stories have always been how we learn. Stories capture our history, legends and how we communicate our imaginings. They are vital to our creativity and they help to communicate a world that is often too complex to share in a simple way. Storytelling is one way in which we can bring the past to the present, but it can do so much more.
As Peter Forbes, photographer and author wrote “Stories create community, enable us to see through the eyes of other people, and open us to the claims of others.”
For a heritage practitioner thinking about how to bring the past alive, Time Zone Productions provides some very unusual and powerful insights.
For an entrepreneur working in the heritage or tourism sector, Matt provides insights into how to make heritage interpretation financially sustainable.
If you are a teacher, you may learn how to fuel the fire of curiosity.
Matt has given lectures for history societies, national and international university students, BBC radio and television, and as a regular Special Guest on American Radio Network KCOR. He has given guided tours to many famous souls and their families over the last few years, from like Alicia Keys and Ozzy Osbourne, to history legends like Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon.
Malak: Can you describe Stonehenge to us and what it is that draws almost a million people to come see 93 rocks whose past is largely shrouded in mystery?
Very little is known for certain about this prehistoric monument, and yet it endures as one of Britain’s most important heritage sites, despite being a collection of stones some of which are half buried. Nevertheless more than a million people visit it each year and it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986.
Stonehenge is a mystery. That creates an allure to it It has been revered as “A Humanity magnet” that attracts curious souls from around the world. But it has also been the beneficiary of high profile marketing which even included Microsoft Office using it as a background image for one of its early operating systems.
Malak: I know Matt you are a historian, and bookworm, but how did you become such an advocate for history and heritage?
Growing up I discovered my family’s home was built on the site of a disused jail yard, and the gruesome unsolved murder, of a Victorian child happened 10 yards from our garden shed on Halloween , I started to delve into the past of my own community and local history.
Later I had a job and was making good money… but something was just not right, something was missing. I have always known that my passion was anything and everything to do with local history. I read everything I could get my hands on, but after a while I felt that there had to be an outcome to all this knowledge and passion. A friend suggested that I looked for a job in a museum. That actually struck a chord and got me excited to work in heritage.
However it is not easy to get to work in the heritage field, you need experience, qualifications, a relevant degree is not enough, you have to get your foot in the door. I knew Stonehenge had their seasonal team, where they bring in a group of young keen souls to work a summer season, quite like a six-month long interview process, in the end there is one or 2 jobs going if you’re lucky. That is how I got in, I made it through that year and my experience grew. This experience on site was like university, where you meet so many enthusiastic people with so many different specialties, interests and talents, as you work with them all you find yourself learning so much and gathering all sorts of facts and figures about the site.
Malak: How did TimeZone productions come into being?
A chance encounter at Stonehenge that led to a great friendship with fellow history fanatic’s, Ruby Vitorino and Frogg Moody, who share the same passion and drive for storytelling, it was never about the money when we started, it was about putting our passion and knowledge towards something that we can share.
After months of comparing notes and swapping historic tales over a beer on Sunday nights, we decided it might be fun to write and share our discoveries in a Halloween walk. It was a sell out. And we got lots of mentions in our local papers and people were asking for more. After the Halloween walk we wrote more and more tours, about 2 new ones a year. Each one getting more adventurous than the last.
We were contacted by the UK Ghost Club, which was established by Charles Dickens, and put together a five-day convention, talks, walks and museum visits around Salisbury, for people from all over the world. From there we were invited to do something for American Radio and many more international media outlets… you never know who you will meet and where that would take you.
Malak: Well having this conversation is proof for that, when people with the same mindset meet, even if for a short time, so much can come out of it. How does your approach differ from the traditional, more formal guided tour?
A significant number of people who visit Stonehenge are part of a coach tour around England. These coaches often stop here, in Bath and at Windsor Castle. The visitors might have been on the bus for a long time, they might have been stuck in traffic, so I need to capture their imagination as soon as they get there. It was very helpful to see the tour guides that lead the coaches and take them through the tours, and you can really tell that they have been in the job for too long. I got the idea of doing things the exact opposite of what is done by them, to engage people more and stand out.
When I started, I was so keen to learn every guidebook there is, but then I have come to realize it's more than just the facts in the book, it’s about the personal stories, the journeys and the experiences to captivate people through empathy.
We decided from the start that we would not abuse any one element from history books and repeat it over and over again, but we stuck to our research, we would select things that were interesting to us, and we felt passionate about, because we believe that this passion would then be transmitted to the audience
I started with the way I dressed, I bought myself a top hat and a tail coat from a secondhand shop at Salisbury. Instead of carrying around laminates, I bought off this small inexpensive projector that I could shoot images or even videos onto buildings as we walked around. We have constantly enriched our approach over the last 7 years working together, using state of the art image projections, sleight of hand, music and even nerf guns to get the story across.
When we did our first Halloween tour, I went and researched the recipe books for the meals they had at the jail in Salisbury (which was part of the tour) and I would serve the group Gruel, which is what they would have expected the prisoners to have, to engage all their senses. On another tour I created the illusion of having my hand chopped off.
Malak: I just want to bring Belqees in with an Omani perspective and take you from
Salisbury and Stonehenge to a far off place- the Bahla oasis in Oman. Belqees has grown up in this oasis beneath the great rock fortress amongst the old buildings in their labyrinth narrow streets.
Belqees: If I was to create my own ‘TimeZone’, what would I need to do in terms of knowledge gathering and engaging my audience?
The first thing I want to tell everyone all over the world is that No one owns history.
The second thing is that you need to read and learn a lot, research what you are passionate about, not only about what people want to hear and know. For example I bought a little pocket recorder to use when I meet interesting people and possible primary sources to stories that are of interest to me. I used it to record interviews for hours and hours with my 95-year-old grandmother a few years ago. The chance to get stories from her taught me so much I did not know about my family, my parents and places within my neighborhood, this helped me out a lot in my tours, to add a personal touch.
Thirdly, appreciate that stories can be told in different ways depending on your audience and what is going to capture their imagination. You need to strike the right balance, and the essence is finding something you are passionate about, looking closely and doing the necessary research and then making the connections in a way to allow the story to resonate with your audience. That way you will give your audience a unique experience, it is all about how you position the story and how you market it to people. In my opinion, for an interactive storyteller, you should have in mind 3-4 different routes to take when telling a story, depending on the crowd and interests.
This is not easy, it has to be backed up by very good research and knowledge of the story and have different styles to tell the story, you need to be quick to think on your feet and shift to a different direction as needed. Always know that you can’t fake passion, and it is always conveyed to the audience and never goes unappreciated. Learn from your previous mistakes and accept that some days no one will show up.
The final thing I want to say is to always be yourself, that’s the secret”
Malak:Thank you. We will remember the importance of authenticity in who you are and the stories one tells as well as building empathy with the audience, and that is something we will be exploring further in the next webinar https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/empathy-and-stories-without-borders-connecting-with-the-world-tickets-162966965581