How London's statues are finding their voice

First World War Tommy Paddington Station

Statues of the great and good across the capital and Manchester will be able to chat to passers-by thanks to smartphone technology

Public statues across London and Manchester will clear their throats and begin speaking for themselves on Tuesday, thanks to a scheme from "public interventions" company Sing London, with funding from the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. A group of heavyweight writers was signed up to put words into the statues' mouths while familiar figures of stage and screen recorded the monologues that give voice to 35 majestic men and women (plus two cats and a goat), transforming them from stony strangers into garrulous fountains of living history for a year.

A marble child in Manchester Central Library, for instance, will produce a monologue written by Jacqueline Wilson and spoken by Dr Who's Jenna Coleman, while the first world war Tommy in London's Paddington Station has been brought to life by Tony Harrison and actor Patrick Stewart. "I hadn't planned to have all these stars," says the company's artistic director, Colette Hiller. "I just wanted to get the technology right."

It's technology that aims to bring you physically as well as emotionally closer to the subjects. Once in front of a statue, a "heritage plaque" on its plinth offers you three ways to hear its story: a link to type into your web browser, a QR barcode or a near field communication (NFC) chip that can be tapped with any supporting phone to trigger a speech. "You don't need to download anything," explains Hiller. "It's all about having a spontaneous moment. Your phone will just ring and it will say, 'Sherlock Holmes is on the phone for you' and the monologue begins."

The NFC technology is also used for instant, short-range radio communication for contactless payments or Oyster cards, but Hiller believes this will be the first time it has been used in a cultural context. The manner in which the data is transferred to the phone is another technical coup for the project, whose digital particulars have been designed by a specialist museum-guide developer called Antenna Lab. "The big secret is that it isn't really a phone call. It's an audio file disguised as a phone call," explains Hiller, conspiratorially, "but the experience is seamless."

Organising the project, however, was not quite so smooth. Access to Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and the other inhabitants of Parliament Square was denied, according to Hiller, on the grounds that the plaques would have been disrespectful. "Jeremy Paxman was furious on my behalf!" says Hiller; Paxman has written and voiced a monologue for the statue of radical politician John Wilkes. "It worked out, though, because we had to look further afield and ended up with a better mixture of old and modern statues."

Aside from breathing new life into weary landmarks, the project is also designed to encourage listeners to visit nearby museums. A statue of Queen Victoria, for example, whose monologue is written by the Observer's Elizabeth Day, encourages listeners to visit the Victoria exhibition at Kensington Palace. Data from the project will be collected and analysed by researchers at the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies, to gauge its success.

With monologues ranging from the comic (Samuel Johnson's cat, Hodge, voiced by Nicholas Parsons) to the tragic (Alan Turing, voiced by Russell Tovey), the project offers passers-by a new way to explore the legacies of the great and the good. "Look up!" says Isaac Newton outside the British Library, in the commanding tones of Simon Russell Beale. "Most of the things you're doing now, like listening to me on your mobile phone, can only be done because of my discoveries."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Kit Buchan, for The Observer on Sunday 17th August 2014 09.30 Europe/London

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