Voices from Fort Pozzacchio

What is it?

Places sign the life of people. A three-storey Austro-Hungarian stronghold dug into the Alps in 1912, Fort Pozzacchio is a masterpiece of engineering that brought the first road and work for all in the village before the war but death and destruction when WWI broke out; it was the scene of a bloody battle in 1916 and a source of precious metal when life came back to normal after the war.

The interactive installation Voices from Fort Pozzacchio augments the visiting experience of the WWI artillery gallery located in a WWII air-raid shelter excavated into the hill under the castle that host the Italian National Museum of War. The physical environment of the two places, Pozzacchio and the artillery gallery, are very similar: a sequence of dark, humid, and cold caverns. Four interactive stations complement factual information on display in the artillery gallery (captions, panels and photos) with the personal stories of soldiers and officials as well as those of the locals before, during and after the war. The stories, drawn from diaries and journals from wartime and memoires written long after the events, are part of the rich museum archives. Digital media is used to great effect: animations, soundscapes, and video portraits tell the stories in a deeply personal way (first person accounting) and create an evocative experience that engages visitors emotionally.

The visitor or group of visitors can choose which story to listen to by means of a smart pebble they receive at the entrance. The stations are designed as “counters” as to invite the visitors to take the best position to explore the timeline of the personal accounts represented by a series of shallow cups for the pebble. Each account is labelled with the name and the occupation of the witness and the date of the event told: this gives minimal contextual information and invites the visitors to interpret what they listen.

The installation is composed of four interactive stations spaced along the gallery. The first, at the entrance, has no audio and shows how to use it; the location of Pozzacchio on the map and the history of the fort shown in a series to archive photos.

The second station tells the story of the fort itself through the voice of the chief engineer who designed it, the man and women who built the road and the caves, the captain who lived in it and those that finally dismantled it. This station is within a short tunnel in the rock: white-on-black hand-drawn graphic animations visualise the story being told. The animation is projected on a large black canvas to suggest the story slowly surfaces from the darkness of memory.

The third station holds the voices of the civilians and the stories of how the fort changed their lives. The stories are very different: the benefit the construction of the fort brought to the villages (e.g. work, road, water); the recruited brothers who never met again; the evacuees leaving their burning villages; and  after the war the boy who died while collecting unexploded bombs and the girl who went to the fort with her goats. An evocative sounds scape set the scene for the narratives: the clattering of a train for the young soldiers leaving home; a bell for shepherd daily routine; the wind blowing for refugees moving out of their houses.

The last station is in a secluded corner as to feel the space as private and intimate. Visitors reach this point after about 30 minutes inside the mountain. Here they find the testimonies of the failed attempt by the Italian army to conquer fort Pozzacchio; the event is narrated by both Austro-Hungarian and Italian soldiers. Professional actors individually recited the diaries making them video portraits, confessions between the soldiers and the visitors. The shooting was done in place and the actors wore original uniforms to immerse the visitor in the place and the time of the story. The video portraits are projected on a large white canvas hanging from the ceiling as to reinforce the sense of a portrait talking to the visitor.

When leaving the visitor returns the pebble and receives a personalised postcard that summarises the visitor’s experience mentioning the names of the people whose stories were listened to and briefly describing   the theme of the stations. The postcard has a postmark with the date of the visit and a link to the museum website to find the complete and unabridged stories.

How do visitors respond?

The reaction of the visitors was well beyond what we expected. They stayed longer in the artillery gallery (30 min. more) despite it being a cold and damp place, visitors commented on the experience giving meaning to the pieces on display: “to my eyes, this is not a cannon anymore… I now see a means of destruction, not of the enemy, but of the lives of normal people.” The pebble empowered them, it gave them choice and a reason to listen, to share and discuss as a group. The pebble was a way to connect to the people from the past while their stories provoked personal empathy and affective responses: “with the pebble you take those stories with you” and “I feel like I am entering the lives of others”. The postcard made the experience tangible and a means to remember it.

More formally, in the first three weeks from the opening we collected 143 questionnaires and observed and interviewed 61 visitors and volunteers. Feedback was extremely positive as the visitors highly appreciated the stories and the emotional presentations (all stations scored above 85%); they stayed longer in the gallery (average 30 minutes more); they appreciated the tangible interaction offered by the “pebble” (79% preferred the pebble over buttons) and felt connected with the content prepared by the curators. Observations confirmed the interaction was very easy for everybody and the use the pebble was straightforward.

The observations highlighted how the setting enabled visitors to share the experience: groups read the panels as individuals then reconnected at each station deciding together what to listen to. The listening was then very concentrated and intent, done in silence. In the questionnaire visitors acknowledged they easily shared the experience with their companions, with the “pebble” used as part of the group dialogue and interaction. 

The personalised postcard was received with enthusiasm as a souvenir and as a memento of the experience via the narrative summary, and as on opportunity to find more online via the museum website.

How does it work?

The museum requirements for the pebble were to be small, cheap, robust, easy to use and to clean. It contains read/write NFC technology to control the multimedia content at the stations and to log the interaction: the stories chosen and their order plus the day and time. 

Each station conceals a set of NFC Arduino readers (one under each cup) and a Raspberry PI to control the delivery of the multimedia content. When the pebble is placed in a cup, the NFC tag in the pebble is read and the corresponding content is played. This design has allowed the museum to extend the installation over time and to add multiple languages to satisfy the need of foreign visitors. To do so the museum had only to produce a new set of pebbles (in a different colour as to easily distinguish the languages) and to match each with the new content.

The log collected by the pebble during the interaction is used to automatically generate and print the personalised postcard with the summary of the visit. 

Why is it special?

Voices from Fort Pozzacchio is a bespoke installation that uses very simple and cheap technology to a great effect. It offers to visitors an immersive and emotional experience triggered by handling the pebble and reinforced by the crafted audio-visual content. In the installation we do not use screens, there are no cables neither headphones. We leave the voices rebound within the caves wrapping the visitors with stories and emotions.

The pebble, despite it does not look interesting, was designed for the tactile experience, an object that is interesting to move in your hand. It has a lovely oval shape that invites playing around with in your hand. It is also warm, made of polyurethane, it has some weight and feels friendly while walking around a dark, cold place. For the period of time the visitors use it, it is theirs. It is part of them. 

In essence the pebble was designed to generate attachment and this attachment was, in turn, amplified by the stories and the voices of the actors reciting them. The postcard completed this deeply personal experience by providing something that was made “just for you”. 

This design intent is reflected by the visitors comments of “entering into the story” or “carrying the story with me” or “the postcard reminds me I have to come back”.

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