Traces of past lives in St Fagans

A visit to St Fagans in September 2018 to try the Traces/Olion immersive audio experience…

The other week we visited St Fagans National History Museum to delve into an imagined past using current technology. We were invited by Cardiff street gaming company yello brick to try its app, Traces (or Olion – it’s bilingual, see), a free and unusual immersive audio experience and walking tour.

When I mention St Fagans Museum to people they usually, and rightly, rave about it. Many Cardiffians are extremely supportive of and enthusiastic about the museum which is in its 70th year.

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Download the bilingual Traces/Olion app before you arrive in St Fagans as it’s a huge file and chances are you’ll want to use wi-fi to do it

These days St Fagans welcomes nearly half a million people annually. A thousand of them have so far tried Traces, which was created in partnership with the museum and Cardiff University. Not your usual audio guide – there are no facts for start – it marks a departure from what the Museum has offered visitors in the past.

“This artistic interpretation challenges visitors to experience St Fagans in a new way,” says Dafydd James, Head of Digital Media at the National Museum. “It’s an opportunity to switch off from the hustle and bustle of daily life and enjoy the narration in the relaxing surroundings of the historic castle gardens.”

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Bin here? Reckon the grounds of St Fagans Castle is perfect for a production (possibly an immersive one) of Midsummer Night’s Dream

If as a kid I was taken to this late 16th-century manor house (donated to the people of Wales by the Earl of Plymouth in 1948, you know), then I’ve somehow forgotten. (Cefn Onn was our favourite site for major exploration when young.) What a place St Fagans Castle is – the wild flowers, the pumpkins, the walkways, statues and ponds… You don’t really need any help to let your imagination run wild in this environment, do you? Now that we’ve finally discovered it thanks to Traces I know it will gain a special place in our hearts in the years to come.

Featuring evocative music composed by Jak Poore and the calm voice of actor Natalie Paisey whose warm Welsh lilt conveys writer Sara Lewis’ poetic script, Traces takes the listener on an enchanted wander through the castle grounds. It’s perfect for magical, blue-skied autumn days, the likes of which we’ve been enjoying recently.

“Traces/Olion offers a unique opportunity for visitors to try something different, and maybe to feel something different, within the grounds of St Fagans,” said Dr Jenny Kidd of the University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. “We are interested in the potential of such heritage encounters to seed new kinds of relationships between people and place.”

This kind of ‘heritage encounter’ is right up my street. Yet Traces totally passed me by when it was launched last year, so when I learned about it the other day I was eager to try it straight away.

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Traces is not an audio guide. Nor is it a tourist guide.”

Based on archive material from the museum’s collection, the audio story, split across three chapters, focuses on characters who might have lived and experienced the castle and grounds in the early 20th century. They include a war-scarred convalescing soldier and a ghost-like girl who shares the magic of her fervent imagination. It’s a journey unlike any other you’re likely to take at a museum.

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“We wanted to give people permission to explore the space in a way that perhaps they wouldn’t normally have, such as exploring the hidden spaces, touching the stones, to see things differently,” says Alison John, producer at yello brick.

“It is very much an artistic interpretation of the archives and the space itself which challenges visitors to experience St Fagans in a new way.”

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There’s a one-person and a two-person version and the trail can be experienced at any time during the normal opening hours of the St Fagans site.

I was surprised that it didn’t use location technology and frustrated at the lack of a pause button, but Alison explained stopping the audio would cause people to fall out of sync with their partner in ‘two player mode’.

“We always say that technology should enhance the experience rather than be the experience. It should ignite the imagination rather than replace it,” she says. “We wanted to encourage participants to put their phone in their pocket once they start their journey rather than it being an integral part of the piece.”

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Fair enough. So, take your time, clear your schedule, and ensure you’re in a whimsical or receptive mood. It’s also probably best if you don’t have a baby with you, as we did.

Make sure you download the app (links are below) before you visit because it’s very big indeed. It should be also noted that since this app was made, visitors now (or once again) wander through the redeveloped main building to get ‘park side’, so you may need to ask at the information desk how to reach the starting point for Traces. (Basically, it starts near the tunnel between museum and Castle grounds.)

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The wild flower beds of St Fagans Castle in September 2018

New spaces

Speaking of the revamped and enlarged Grade II-listed main building, it really is a fabulous facility, isn’t it? It’s all very scandi and modern and worth seeing in its own right. As well as the restaurant/cafe (pricey, cawl needs work) and shop, there’s the Weston Centre for Learning with activity spaces and a lecture theatre “providing eight times more space for schools, family and adult learners”, Lleucu Cooke, the museum spokesperson informs me.

Perhaps because we don’t read signage in any language when playing tourists in our hometown, we didn’t realise you had to walk through the building to reach the park, and then found navigating through the main building – especially with a pram – not all that straight forward. I think maybe we’re just a bit twp though.

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I love all the concrete, glass and steel – so at odds with the historical architecture beyond. There’s suddenly a lot of space to fill, and feels a little…empty. But it’s early days.

“It does look bare in the main hall as we haven’t completely finished everything yet,” says Lleucu. “In future we hope to have artists work or installations on display. It will also be a space for events and music. We’ll also be installing more signage as part of the fit out.”

Some of the empty space has already been filled by new seating since our visit. And it will probably have changed again by the time we return later this month for the opening of the new galleries (on 18 October), the culmination of the museum’s biggest redevelopment project in its history.

I can’t wait to put another fiver in one of the museum’s parking meters and explore more of what is probably Cardiff’s best family day out.


Traces/Olion is on the Apple iTunes store here and available on Android via the Google store here. Or click here for the Museum’s webpage on the app.

A version of this article first appeared in the I Loves The ‘Diff column in the South Wales Echo in September 2018.

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