Pier of the realm

25th November 1994 at 00:00
Over 100 local volunteers helped to contribute to a new multimedia exhibition about Brighton. Geraldine Brennan looked at the town through their eyes and those of the tourists who helped make up a talking scrapbook.

Illustrator David Sawyers enjoys his private view of Brighton. He sees a homage to Magritte in a hat-shop window, picks out a seafront bollard like a sugar sculpture and peeks through his neighbours' garden gates and rear windows.

Christel Gauthier, visiting from France, takes a fancy to a pair of town-house doors and a pub sign; schoolgirl Jessica Holloway finds chalk cliffs and badgers' haunts; railway worker Farid Ullah leads the way under the viaduct.

Their sparky, witty and highly individual tours of the seaside town's past and present are at the centre of My Brighton, a multimedia community history project now open to touch-screen explorers in Brighton Museum's History Gallery.

Its combination of the latest multimedia technology with reliance on local eyes and ears (more than 100 local volunteers helped to gather the 23 hours of material, and museum visitors are constantly filling gaps and suggesting additions) make it a model for inclusive, stimulating community education projects.

The only limit is imposed by shortage of technology: despite sponsorship from American Express, there are only two touch-screen terminals for My Brighton and these are often under pressure. To compensate, there are linked tableaux displays elsewhere in the gallery.

The project started with low technology: 12 throwaway cameras were handed out to David, Christel, Jessica, Farid and eight other community guides, who were asked to construct a tour of "their" Brighton and document their intinerary. In interviews, they explained why they had chosen the places they photographed.

The result was a stack of "talking scrapbooks" of unedited words and images. The punchy, down-to-earth presentation and user-friendly technology (no clicking or typing needed) mean that My Brighton is an open book to casual browsers as well as a research tool for pupils and teachers.

John Roles, the museum's senior keeper, was impressed by the quality and variety of images collected by the roving photographers. "The tours are very much driven by people's personal views and enthusiasms but a strong flavour has emerged of the kind of place Brighton is," he said. "We sought to involve a cross-section of the community. We included visitors to Brighton because visitors and short-term residents are very important to the town.

"There was very little repetition in the images: only two pictures of the Palace Pier and the Royal Pavilion. We had no idea what images people would come up with or where they would lead us."

The scrapbooks are the tip of the database iceberg: the My Brighton interactive voyagers can branch out in every direction through a jungle of words and images, their paths criss-crossing through historical data and today's street life, down to recordings of the town's star buskers.

Jessica's badgers lead to the badger sculpture in Stanmer Park, carved from a tree that toppled in the autumn 1987 "hurricane", which leads to taxi-driver Tony Deane's video of the devastation the severe storm conditions created in the town. The deckchairs snapped by two New Zealand visitors, Ray and Raquel, link up with the history of Brighton as a resort and the beach images of painter Philip Dunn, who has also supplied a personal tour.

There are also extra "specialist tours" to make use of local pockets of expertise. These cover topics such as the history of Punch and Judy (supplied by Mike Stone, a beach entertainer and yet another community guide) and Brighton Swimming Club (the club has donated its archive to My Brighton). Again, these are cross-referenced to common ground in the other tour itineraries or in the wealth of historical material compiled by the My Brighton project team curators, local history specialists and volunteers.

Each scrapbook image has a personal history written by the researchers. This expands into other histories and offers jumping-off points for browsing through photographs, prints, maps, documents and paintings from the museum's reference collections. Much of this material, says John Roles, has previously been in storage due to lack of space.

"This is a way to make full use of our resources," he says. "The technology makes our enormous collection of postcards accessible and inviting. A postcard can be blown up to five times its size and a special palette has been created which means that hand-tinting, for example, can be faithfully reproduced.

"We've had no complaints about quality of image in fact, the only serious complaint we've had about anything is that there's too much information. "

He is brazenly planning to squeeze in yet more words and images. New personal and specialist tours will be added next year a competition is being held in Brighton schools to recruit one of the guides.

A mammoth cross-referencing effort is planned to link the My Brighton material to Tim Carder's Encyclopaedia of Brighton, which can currently be read on a parallel database, and to direct My Brighton browsers to the town library. Teachers' evenings are being held to explain how to use the material.

As Mr Roles says, "Return visits are essential."

My Brighton, a permanent installation, runs on a 66 MHz 486 DX2 PC with a CD-Rom and a Soundblaster Pro audio card. The system was designed by Desktop Display, a local multimedia firm. Brighton Museum, Church Street, Brighton, is open 10am-5pm Monday-Saturday (closed Wednesday); 2pm-5pm Sunday. Telephone 0273 603005.

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