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A view of the quarantine cemetery with a superimposed mobile phone mid text conversation
Photograph: Kit Carruthers

Talk to the dead (or at least a cliffside cemetery) with this very weird history tour

An artificial intelligence tool allows you to have an SMS chat with Sydney's harbourside highlights

Written by
Stephen A Russell

Given the oddity that is global toy-making giant Hasbro selling Oujia boards, it’s safe to say that there's a market for the idea of communing with the dead – an eternally intriguing concept for consumers still clinging to the mortal coil. Which makes the possibility of having an actual SMS chat that reaches beyond the veil, possibly with the aid of a phalanx of ghost emojis, spookily thrilling.

Now you can, sort of, thanks to the Harbour Trust. No kidding, you can have an honest-to-goodness convo with the gravestones of the Third Quarantine Cemetery, perched on the grassy knoll of Manly’s cliffside North Head Sanctuary. Erected in 1881 to inter the fallen bodies of Sydney’s then-smallpox epidemic, it’s safe to say that this particular burial ground has seen a lot. So it should have plenty to say.

“But how?” I hear you cry. With a little help from UK company Hello Lamp Post, that’s how. Hello Lamp Post has created an impressive artificial intelligence tool that allows you to text several of the Harbour Trust's most fascinating sites – including the cemetery, secret WWII military defence complex the Plotting Room, and the Gunners Barracks precinct parade ground. If you see a friendly sign saying the site is up for a chat, all you have to do is text “hello” to the number on said sign and voila, you are talking to a surprisingly chatty historical monument with an enviable viewpoint on our fine city’s lesser-known past. And it’s no one-sided history lesson, either. You’ll be able to share your views with the site, too. There are several Harbour Trust locales clamouring to have their say, so expect more to join the gang throughout 2021, including the gregarious must-sees of Mossman’s Headland Park and the chattering classes of Cockatoo Island.

“This innovative and fun technology has provided another avenue for the Harbour Trust to connect with our community and visitors,” the Harbour Trust’s Kathryn Roberts says. “It provides a simple and engaging way for visitors to discover more about Harbour Trust sites and also allows us to gain important insights into the visitor experience.”

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