7th October 2022
We chat with David Rosenthal from the University of Exeter about his venture Hidden Cities, which offers mobile storytelling on historic maps. You can find the Hidden Cities apps in the App Store, on Google Play, and linked at the bottom of this article. This project is part of the Aspect Research Commercialisation (ARC) Accelerator 2022 Cohort.
Q: What is your academic background and what are you currently working on?
I’m a social historian of early modern Italy by background. I’ve published on carnival and street life in 16th and 17th century Florence. More recently, I’ve worked on tavern culture, unemployment in the 17th century and a couple of other things. My main role at the moment is related to Hidden Cities, about translating research into hopefully compelling public history.
Q: How did you come up with your venture idea? Why did you decide to focus on this idea?
My colleague, Professor Fabrizio Nevola at the University of Exeter, and I were really interested in urban space and how identity in early modern towns is defined not only by your social coordinates, but by your physical, urban coordinates, where you are in space and how you move through space. If you are interested in space and movement, mobile media is an interesting thing to experiment with. We developed the original model in 2014. It was the prototype, one walk through Florence that we called Hidden Florence.
At the same time, if you do this with mobile media and turn it into an app, it becomes accessible to anybody who wants to use it. So we put a lot of thought into how we could make it something that a wide public would want to use and find more interesting than, say, reading a plaque on a wall or being guided around a city by a tour guide and getting a few facts about places. We thought, okay, how can we get inside the lives and the movements and the mindset of people of this period, and offer that as a public-facing enterprise.
Since then, Hidden Cities has developed into history installations in the streets that are like situated theatre. We expanded Florence with other historians, an international team, in 2019 to six trails with all kinds of early modern characters. Apart from Cosimo de’ Medici, the political boss of Florence in the early fifteenth century, our characters are people not normally presented to visiting or local publics. We have a woman who grew up in the city’s orphanage and became a silk weaver, a city cop, a brutal character in some ways. We have also had an aristocratic widow, who offers a perspective on what was going on in Florence in the 1490s, who takes you through that story and her experience of it as you walk from the centre of the city to her neighbourhood.
We’ve really invested in what public historians call first-person interpretation, probably more commonly called living history. Our characters, some based on real historical figures, some not, are voiced in ways that are critically fabulated or critically fictionalised. In other words, we don’t just make it up, it’s based on what specialists understand to be the ideas and behaviour and emotions of the period. The idea is for somebody to not only be accompanied or guided by a version of a contemporary historical figure, but actually go to the same places and see the same buildings and objects as they did, if these objects still exist in the city. So the embodied experience of people in the past is in a kind of dialogue with the embodied experience of the person using the app in the present. The response so far has been great, there have been thousands of downloads and people have become quite excited about it.
Q: What stage are you at with your venture right now?
We currently operate in six cities: Hamburg, Deventer, Trento, Exeter, Valencia and Florence. We are moving to three new cities this year, Copenhagen, Venice and Tours. We expect several more cities to become involved in 2023. We have also expanded what we do in terms of relationships with museums and heritage bodies. Museums are full of objects that are displaced from where they originally were. That’s what a museum is. What we do with the apps is take objects from inside museums and relocate them virtually to the sites that they were once associated with. We integrate these objects into the story we are trying to tell.
The technology and platform we use is pretty stable, but we also continue to develop ways of telling stories in the streets. For example, until quite recently, it was just one character taking you around sites that were connected to their lives, their story and their times. Now, sometimes it’s more than one character. In February this year for Hidden Exeter one of the walks published was about the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. We had one character who staunchly defended a specific monastery, in 1536, and the religious traditions it represented. She was based on a real character, who actually protested in the streets. On the other side, we had her brother, who was a Protestant sympathiser. And these two characters debate their way through the streets, taking you along on that journey, going to places that are relevant to the story. Same for a trail that’s coming out on the Hidden Valencia app in November about the Spanish Civil War. It’s set in 1937. One character is an undercover fascist, the other is a republican cop who’s trying to catch her. The situated theatre element of the way we tell stories has deepened.
From a venture point of view, we are in the process of trying to create a sustainable business model, so that we don’t just have academic groups. Until now, historians from various universities have found money through research grants or through other kinds of public impact funding to make these apps with us. What we are now working on is expanding that to heritage, tourist and civic bodies with funding there. We’ve already proven the value of this in Florence, where we’ve been backed by the city council not only because we’ve expanded heritage diversity, but because we lead people away from over touristed routes to other parts of town.
The apps are downloadable on Android and iPhones, and our model at the moment is that they are free to the user. We expect initially to grow based on funding from museums, heritage bodies and academic groups, who want to make a public impact and expand, sometimes challenge, what urban heritage is, who want to take historical knowledge and use mobile media to translate it into an effective digital experience in the streets.
Q: How is the ARC Accelerator supporting you in bringing your venture to life?
Because we have a product that is quite well-developed and available, the ARC Accelerator has really been about helping me think about this in business terms. So it’s about how we expand? How do we get it to the next level? How do we get the app noticed? ARC has really helped me think about how a business model should work – perhaps it will be a two-track model, where some parts are publicly funded and free, while there are add-ons that the user must pay for.
Q: What has been the most useful part of the ARC programme so far?
I’ve learned an enormous amount about how to speak in punchy terms about what it is we do and why it should be something that a client wants to pay for. How to think about it through their eyes and their point of view. For people like me, from an academic background, we really need to have that banged into us, I think. The accelerator has also helped us think about things like market validation, how you test a concept and show that it has purchase in the marketplace.
At the moment, we are learning how to pitch for investment. I’ve learnt how to talk to potential investors and clients in a way that I probably hadn’t done very effectively before, because that’s not how we got the project off the ground. It wasn’t a necessity to go and sit with funders in a formal or corporate setting, and say, right, this is what we can do for you, give us money. I have been finding it incredibly useful to speak to people like Chris Fellingham and Roger Frosh, to be forced out of my comfort zone.
Q: Where can we go to learn more?
You can find out more on the last project’s main academic website, here. We have brief YouTube documentaries about Hidden Exeter and Hidden Florence as well.
We are active on Twitter, @hiddencitieseu, and have just started out on Instagram, @hiddencitiesapps.
You can also get in touch with me via Twitter, @davidcrosenthal, or find me on LinkedIn.
Hidden Cities Apps – Apple Store (iOS):
- Hidden Florence 3D
- Hidden Florence
- Hidden Exeter
- Hidden Deventer
- Hidden Hamburg
- Hidden Trento
- Hidden Valencia
Hidden Cities Apps – Google Play (Android):
Photo credit: Hidden Cities/Mapbox