March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: Getting Archives On-line: Innovative Concepts In Interactive Content Bring To Life The Gunpowder Plot of 1605

Anra Kennedy, 24 Hour Museum, David Prior, The Parliamentary Archive, Andrew Sawyer, MWR, Jon Pratty, 24 Hour Museum, United Kingdom


The Gunpowder Plot Web project brought together four different organizations embodying three different areas of expertise. This paper explores the methodology and technology underlying the Web site with members of the development team outlining their own institution's approaches to this challenging project.

Keywords: archive, learning object, children, interactive, interpretation

Fig 1:  Homepage of the adults' site

Fig 1: Homepage of the adults’ site

The Gunpowder Plot: Parliament & Treason 1605

The Gunpowder Plot ( is an authoritative and engaging on-line account of one of the most infamous terrorist plots in British history. The subject matter is an explosive mix of religious intolerance, political intrigue and international terrorism whilst the target audience ranges from seven-year-olds to academics via 'lifelong learners' and casual browsers.

The Gunpowder Plot Web project brought together four different organizations embodying three different areas of expertise. The Web site was commissioned by the Parliamentary Archives. ( Archivists and historians from the Archives and their partner institution The History of Parliament Trust ( provided the source material and historical knowledge. 24 Hour Museum, ( the UK's national virtual museum, provided the on-line publishing and educational input. The site was designed and built by specialist interactive learning developers Mackenzie Ward Research (

The Commissioners' View: An Archive And A Story Central To Britain's Political History

By David Prior, Assistant Clerk of the Records, The Parliamentary Archives

The Parliamentary Archives has custody of the archives of both Houses of the United Kingdom Parliament. These records, which include all Acts of Parliament from 1497, records of proceedings, documents laid before both Houses, plans relating to public works, and judicial and administrative papers, date from the fifteenth century and are stored in the Victoria Tower repository within the Palace of Westminster in London.

The Archives pursues an active outreach program designed to promote our activities and enable as wide as possible access to our collections. About three years ago we began to make plans to mark the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. The occasion provided us with an excellent opportunity to display documents we have relating to the Plot as well as to raise our profile both within the Palace and externally.

The initial focus of these plans was a temporary exhibition in Westminster Hall featuring our documents as well as loan items from a range of other institutions. It was soon clear a Web version of the exhibition would mean we could reach people who were unable to travel to Westminster and would also provide a permanent legacy of the exhibition.

At the Archives we were also particularly keen that our resources should be available to schools, and it was clear that the Plot would make an ideal subject for an on-line learning resource. In order to research and provide text for the exhibition and the Web project, we worked with the History of Parliament Trust, which is creating a major scholarly work of reference about the members and activities of, and elections to, the British Parliaments since their origins in the thirteenth century.

At an early stage in the project definition process, we decided, with the other partners, that the on-line resource should not just mirror the temporary exhibition, but deliver on areas which had proved to be difficult to address in the 'terrestrial' version. In particular this meant providing learning materials which offered a level of interactivity for schoolchildren at (UK) National Curriculum Key Stages 2 and 3.

The project was also seen as an opportunity to engage with the public by providing information about a well known historical event. This might encourage them to use links to explore not just the holdings of the Parliamentary Archives via our catalogue ( but also the parliamentary Web site (

It was important in this context that the resource include information about the 17th century Parliament so that users could draw comparisons with Parliament today. In doing all of this, at the Archives we wanted to demonstrate the benefits that heritage based resources can provide to Parliament as an institution. In the case of this project those resources were not limited to the archives and the other collections of the Palace of Westminster, but extended to those of other archives, museums, galleries and libraries - to whom we are grateful for their co-operation.

Although we have been involved with Web-based projects of various kinds for some time, this was the first time we had taken overall responsibility for the development of this kind of resource. This meant we needed to think differently about items we could include; we realized, for example, that through interactive tools it would be possible to explain the content of a letter or a drawing in a way that was not possible in a traditional exhibition.

The project has made staff at the Archives more aware of the possibilities that exist for interpreting archive material in the context of this type of on-line package, and the potential for the use of archives in initiatives linked to education.

This is an excellent way for us to engage with specific groups of people who would probably not visit our Search Room to consult the archives; it is particularly true of children and therefore means that we have a way of dramatically widening our user base and enabling access. This, with our other Web-based resources, has meant we are re-appraising who our users are, whereas in the past we used to consider them essentially as Search Room visitors and writers of enquiries.

One of the problems for a national specialist repository such as ourselves is the concept of community and how we relate to it. Web-based resources make relationships with the outside world much easier to facilitate. The experience we, as archivists, have gained from this project has informed our thinking about the kind of outreach we should be undertaking in future, and in particular, the enabling of access to our collections and the provision of learning resources. There is clear potential for similar projects to assist in the exploration of our catalogue and to support digitization of certain series of records. We are currently planning further projects of this kind.

Fig 2: The kids’ site homepage

Fig 2: The kids’ site homepage

The Publisher’s View: The Gunpowder Plot As An Editorial And Educational Proposition

By Anra Kennedy, Head of Learning, 24 Hour Museum

Our primary concern as on-line cultural publishers was to ensure the Gunpowder Plot Web site presented the Archive's diverse range of material to its target audiences in the most engaging and accessible way possible. To do this we had to balance the potentials and constraints of the technology available within budget with the huge range of material and intellectual capital available to us and also with the expectations and ambitions of the Archive team.

Telling A Story

At the heart of this project lies a fascinating story and cultural tradition. In 1605, Robert Catesby and his gang plotted to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James I of England. Their plan was foiled. Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed, James went on to rule until his death in 1625 and the plotters met grisly ends.

Four hundred years on and 'Bonfire Night' is still a popular fixture in the British cultural calendar. Each year in the UK, on November 5, the anniversary of the plot's discovery, people gather to set off fireworks and watch 'guys' burning on bonfires in an echo of the street celebrations that followed Guy Fawkes' arrest.

Despite Bonfire Night's widespread popularity, the details of the plot and the plotters have arguably faded in the nation's collective memory. Municipal firework displays become ever more spectacular year-on-year but make little reference to their cultural origins. Back garden bonfire parties concentrate more on sausages and sparklers than on the political situation that led to the plotters' deaths all those years ago. Guy Fawkes has become the 'brand' epitomizing the festival whilst his leader and fellow protagonists are hardly ever mentioned.

The four hundredth anniversary of the plot provided the ideal 'hook' with which to reel in the audience initially, but this is a story with long-lasting interest and appeal, so the first decision taken was to make sure the content was not time-specific. The 'Gunpowder 400' title applied to the terrestrial exhibition would not be carried through to the on-line version.

We looked upon this project as an opportunity to provide an authoritative source of information on one of our national cultural institutions - but also an opportunity to tell a really good story to a wide, general audience.

Writing for the Web

The general audience - browsers finding the site through a search engine - dictated the style of the site. The use of plain English and 24 Hour Museum's established 'writing for the Web' principles informed all of the site's copy. This wasn't always straightforward. Reining in an enthusiastic historian with seemingly limitless stores of information, accustomed to writing lengthy academic tomes, was a challenge at times. Historical accuracy was of course an imperative. We had to simultaneously ensure language was accessible and text didn't make any assumptions of prior knowledge. Add to this the fact that we chose to present the information in two very different ways - to children and to adults - and there was potential for friction.

In practice, the text was planned out in a collaborative process between all parties. Initial copy was written by Dr Paul Seaward from the History of Parliament Trust and David Prior from the Archives before being edited, 're-purposed' and fed to the developers by editorial staff at the 24 Hour Museum. In the case of the children's zone, all of the text was written in house at the 24 Hour Museum, drawing upon the adult text for factual information. The open and willing way in which historians from both the Archives and the History of Parliament Trust embraced this editorial methodology made for a smooth process.

Fig 3:  Looking at an interactive - here’s the King opening Parliament

Fig 3: Looking at an interactive - here’s the King opening Parliament

Children As Audience

The 24 Hour Museum publishes a child-facing Web site called Show Me ( which collates the best on-line learning resources produced by the museum sector - annotating, theming and contextualising material to enable teachers to make best use of it in the classroom. Show Me's primary audience though is children at key stage 2. The site inspires children to discover, explore and make use of cultural resources on-line and off-line, writing cultural news and features and collating the best games, activity ideas and stories in a way that children can relate to.

We were keen to extend this relationship with our youngest audience members to the Gunpowder Web site and to produce a resource which children would be able to navigate in an informal, non-directed way. Serving this audience was a departure for the Archives, so we were able to act both as conduit to the young audience and as educational consultant - ensuring the content was accessible intellectually and emotionally.

From an educational perspective, the Gunpowder Plot provides the perfect material for a wide range of cross-curricular work. It does appear in the UK National Curriculum ( but is not compulsory. Teachers can begin to teach the basic facts of the plot at key stage 1, to children aged between ages four and seven. They are able to teach it in more detail at key stage 3, when children are aged between 11 and 14. In addition to this, children are required to

find out about the past from a range of sources of information [for example, stories, eye-witness accounts, pictures and photographs, artifacts, historic buildings and visits to museums, galleries and sites, the use of ICT-based sources] (National Curriculum 2006)

as part of the 'Historical Enquiry' element of the UK history curriculum from key stage 1 right through their school careers.

The Web site's appeal as a resource doesn't stop at the history though. The Plot's stories, themes, characters, related artwork and documentation provide a fascinating stimulus for literacy, citizenship, religious education and art projects. This cross-curricular approach underpinned our treatment of the story and material. Pictures were chosen as much for their artistic merit as for their historical or intellectual content.

The Gunpowder Web site offers children their own version of all of the material. Children have their own home page - hosted with Show Me under the established brand of its URL - the content is a honed-down version of the story. We were fortunate enough to have access to a set of seventeenth century playing cards depicting the main events of the plot, part of the British Museum's collection: they make a perfect vehicle for the story and navigation.

Within the site's pages children have access to a range of documents, objects and other archival material, interpreted in a way that is accessible and meaningful to them. Very often the same objects are used in both adult and children's sites, but they are carefully 'curated' to ensure their context suits the audience.

Fig 4:  Getting to grips with the conspirators in an interactive

Fig 4: Getting to grips with the conspirators in an interactive

The Developers’ View

By Dr Andrew Sawyer, museum consultant, MWR

Given the knowledge of the content partners (the Archives and the History of Parliament Trust), and the publishing and educational expertise of the 24 Hour Museum team, most aspects of the site were straightforward. But ensuring that the digital 'exhibits' could appeal to both adults and children and incorporating some 'future proofing' presented issues that were met in part by adopting a 'Learning Object' approach.

According to Wiley (2000) a Learning Object is 'any digital resource that can be reused to support learning'. The European Union's Digicult program (Cardinali et al, 2003) argued that the concept could be useful to the museum sector if it was applied to digitized collections. In brief, they suggested that that 'raw' digital assets held by many museums - images, audio, video, 3D objects - can be delivered in an e-learning context, as Learning Objects (wikipedia:

For example, a simple picture of a courthouse could be reused in several learning contexts - in a lesson on citizenship, a lecture on architecture, and as part of a local history project. Most definitions assume the portable, reusable nature of Learning Objects means they are likely to support small 'chunks' of learning. Clearly, there are parallels with the way some collections run 'Object Loan Schemes' for schools and other educational contexts.

To be really useful, digital Learning Objects should have features that can be summed up by the 'RAID' acronym:

  • Reusable - able to be modified and used in many different learning situations
  • Accessible - able to be indexed and found as needed
  • Interoperable - operable across a wide variety of hardware, delivery environments and tools
  • Durable - continuing despite changes in versions of system software, players and plug-ins

Although standards relating to Learning Objects are still evolving, appropriate technical and content standards and metadata can be applied to the assets - in this case, prints and documents - to help assure reusability, accessibility, interoperability and durability. This was fairly straightforward.

However, the Gunpowder project also required some interactivity to provide a more effective and engaging user experience. But since interactivity can be related to different contexts and learning outcomes, it was decided that when the Learning Objects were created, MWR's software would ensure that interactivity would be managed separately from the content, to help meet the requirements of 'RAID'. So, although they respond like any other Flash interactive as far as the user is concerned, the content, interactivity and 'curator' interpretation are managed separately.

Using an approach taken by the UK's BECTA organization (, which provides a definition of Learning Objects based the characteristics of the object in terms of use), we can define an interactive Learning Object thus:

Fig 5: Learning Object definitions

Fig 5: Learning Object definitions

Besides managing these layers separately so that the Learning Object can be edited for different contexts, the software used during production to add the interactivity to images (developed as a result of work on several other museum projects) is Web-based and requires little or no special training.

This means that the interactivity - 'drag 'n' drop' with responses, ( or mouse over hotspots ( can be applied by curators or education officers, and applied differently for different audiences. This puts institutions in charge of their assets, instead of having to use specialist developers. In terms of reusability, the UK's Royal Armouries at Leeds (who helped prototype some of the software involved) were able to create a complex activity that could be used for internal training, and then export it to CD for use with young people during in-gallery sessions at another site in the Tower of London.

These advantages helped in the rapid production of the Gunpowder site, allowed the 'exhibits' - as Learning Objects - to be contextualized for different audiences, and assured the ‘exhibits’ can recycled or edited for use in different resources in future.

Fig 6:  Getting real responses like this proved the site was a success

Fig 6: Getting real responses like this proved the site was a success

In Summary

Measures of success for cultural sector Web sites are notoriously difficult to agree upon. In the UK, some funders are happy if there’s any sort of evidence of target audiences being attracted to cultural Web sites, or if some workshops are carried out enabling some heads to be counted and added to a tally of users ‘reached.’

With these two conjoined Web sites there’s been ample statistical evidence of the success of the sites - not just in terms of statistics, but also in terms of real responses from site users to the competitions set up. We organized, in conjunction with the History of Parliament Trust, two schools-related competitions, one to design a newspaper in the style of the Gunpowder era telling the story of the plotters’ discovery and trial, the other to design a ‘wanted’ poster appealing for information on the plotters. Over the two months of October and November 2005, 46,704 visitor sessions were accrued by the two Web sites, the key stage 2 version and the adult site. A total of 131,682 page impressions were recorded during these two months.

The resources were designed to remain current once the anniversary of the Plot (1605-2005) was over, and so we expect the sites to be popular again in 2006, as Guy Fawkes’ day comes around again in November.

What is really gratifying is the response to the competitions that were set - over 1300 entries were received in the 24 Hour Museum office. Every post delivery brought bags of entries for several weeks, and 24 Hour Museum staff were hard pressed to respond. The Parliamentary Archive and History of Parliament Trust were thrilled at the response too. The competition winners are to be given a tour of the House of Lords by the Speaker, a really special treat.

It now seems likely the success of the site will breed further collaborations between the main partners in this Gunpowder Plot Web site. There’s going to be a further investment by the Parliamentary Archive in more interactive games, to be added to the key stage 2 site: a great vote of confidence in all concerned.


BECTA, FERL (Further Education Resources for Learning): Classifying Learning Resources, accessed 12.06.2006

Cardinali, F., et al. Digicult (2003), Thematic Issue 4, Learning Objects from Cultural and Scientific Heritage Resources, p.7. Salzburg and Glasgow. Available:

The History of Parliament Trust: home page. Accessed January 25, 2006.

The IEEE's Learning Technology Standards Committee's LOM data model (for standards).

Kennedy, A., J. Pratty eds. The Parliamentary Archives; 24 Hour Museum and MWR, (2005) The Gunpowder Plot: Parliament & Treason 1605. Accessed January 25, 2006.

Kennedy,A., ed. Show Me. The 24 Hour Museum key stage 2 Web site: homepage. Accessed January 25, 2006

MWR: homepage, Accessed January 25, 2006.

National Curriculum for England: homepage. Accessed January 25, 2006. and specifically the 'Historical Enquiry' element

The Parliamentary Archives: home page of the Archives. Accessed 5.01.06.

Pratty, J., ed. The 24 Hour Museum: homepage. Accessed January 29, 2006.

Wikipedia; Learning object. Accessed January 4, 2006

Wiley, D. A. (2000). Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory: A definition, a metaphor, and a taxonomy. In D. A. Wiley (Ed.), The Instructional Use of Learning Objects: On-line Version. Accessed January 4, 2006, p.7.

Cite as:

Kennedy A. et al., Getting Archives On-line: Innovative Concepts In Interactive Content Bring To Life The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at