UK-IRELAND DIGITAL HUMANITIES NETWORK
by Andrew Tierney
1st March 2021
In February 2020 the CRAFTVALUE research team joined forces with the National Trust curatorial and conservation team at Clandon Park, Surrey, to form an AHRC-IRC funded Digital Humanities research network dedicated to harnessing digital tools for the better understanding of historic interiors. The layers of fabric unveiled at Clandon Park by the destructive fire of 2015 have proved a remarkable showcase of eighteenth-century building techniques. In its ruined state this great house has revealed many of the technical skills that underpinned the exquisite surfaces lost in the fire, nowhere more so than in the ceiling of its astonishing Marble Hall, attributed to Giuseppe Artari, one of the most talented of the Luganese stuccodores to work in Britain.
Beyond such show-stopping work, there exists wider and much less acknowledged fields of skilled craft in the house; from the carefully laid brickwork skeleton, to the surviving carpentry and joinery, now clinging to the walls in seared pieces, to the hidden armatures that supported ceiling-high putti, to the lath-and-plaster substructure of faux-marble Corinthian columns. Here the legacy of the skilled labour force is laid bare in all its rich complexity.
Our successful network application funded rich strands of communication between architectural historians, curators, heritage managers, and computer scientists from Trinity College Dublin, the National Trust, the Office of Public Works, University College London, Kings College London, the University of Surrey, the Virtual Building Lab (Dublin), and the Discovery Programme. Although Covid hit soon after our network application was submitted, it did not stop us pursuing a wide ranging and multi-faceted series of virtual meetings where we exchanged ideas and teased out a common understanding of the technical and interpretive challenges posed by the surviving structure at Clandon. Among technologies discussed were lidar scanning, photogrammetry, shadow mapping, procedural modelling, VR, AR, digital projection, interactive HD screens, AI, and game engines. Perhaps most importantly we agreed on the need to engage with living practitioners of traditional craft skills and to bring their tacit knowledge to the forefront of the narrative. This is an area in which both Principal Investigators are deeply invested. The National Trust, with its multitude of historic buildings, employs a wide range of highly skilled crafts men and women in the conservation, repair and maintenance of its properties; while CRAFTVALUE, embedded in a historic university campus, is pursuing further research on eighteenth-century craft skills by bringing together academics, craft practitioners, and conservationists, building on earlier TCD-based research in this area. An October 2020 conference hosted by TCD, ‘CRAFTVALUE: craftsmanship and its conservation in the architecture of Britain and Ireland’, saw contributions from both living craftsmen and scholars studying the legacy of craftsmen from the past, as well as contributions by 3D CRAFT PIs Sophie Chessum and Christine Casey and network partner John Cahill of the Office of Public Works. Through such conversations the network has been considering the ways in which digital technologies can capture the less tangible aspects of heritage and compellingly communicate that knowledge to a much broader audience on site and off.
A major 3D CRAFT meeting in November 2020 straddled two countries and combined an on-site tour of Clandon Park for participants in the UK. A pre-recorded tour with drone footage was made for participants in Ireland with voiceover by Sophie Chessum, followed by a live video conference call with all delegates from the Marble Hall.
The use of high-quality video footage gave the whole network a sense of the scale and complexity of the site that would have been impossible from photographs alone. Those network participants at Clandon responded enthusiastically to the surviving fabric and its potential as an interactive, experiential communication tool, having become a naturally open and performative space.
While Clandon Park is a fine showcase of craft skills, there are unfortunately no surviving documentary records for its construction. In response to this, the 3D CRAFT network has proposed using a well-preserved and well-documented building in Ireland of comparable international standing as a parallel investigative tool. Together these sources will provide much deeper insight into the full range of craft skills and techniques required to build up the multi-layered fabric of the hand-finished 18th century interior. Ongoing research by CRAFTVALUE on the historic buildings of Trinity College Dublin and its environs is showing the potential of combining on-site analysis with documentary sources and digital tools, something which requires further work in a dedicated research project like 3D CRAFT. The model below produced by CRAFTVALUE, based on the staircase in the Old Library at Trinity, shows the way in which digital tools allow us to take structures apart.
For the final meeting of the network, (Covid restrictions permitting) the team at TCD will conduct a virtual tour of Trinity’s historic buildings to give the network a digital view of some of Ireland’s finest and best-documented eighteenth-century interiors. Architecturally, they serve as a useful case study, as they demonstrate the strong links and common network of craft skills that defines British and Irish architecture during this period.
One of the challenges for 3D CRAFT is to consider how to articulate the layers of buildings like Clandon Park through a coherent and legible 3D grammar. In this regard, there are many technical, theoretical and ethical questions that the 3D CRAFT research project wishes to pursue. How do we recreate lost materials using convincing textures while also communicating the possibly tentative nature of parts of the reconstructed fabric. In a period of increasingly realistic digital environments and real time rendering, how do we distinguish between the real and the computer-generated? How do we find a way to navigate between the authentic and the imaginative in new virtual environments while not losing sight of the instructional and educational potential of these technologies. The visual grammar deployed, as it moves between the micro to macro scales, and makes fluid the visualisation of time and space, will need to move beyond the ‘real’ to explore notions of the ‘hyper-real’ – the exploded and augmented capture of hitherto invisible aspects of the built environment. We need new thinking in how we present ‘the object’ or ‘the artefact’, making more imaginative formulations of line, form, texture, surface, colour, and lighting.
3D CRAFT has so far proved a fruitful arena for engagement between researchers and heritage professionals, all of whom see digital media as a crucial arena for broadening and transforming our understanding of the past. In a period when both the National Trust and Trinity College Dublin are actively exploring the diverse and controversial legacies of colonialism, landownership and the building trade, it is more important than ever that we find ways to communicate the layered (in every sense of that word) histories of elite historic buildings. Part of that is acknowledging the broad range of skilled and unskilled people whose talents and labour have for too long remained hidden under the surface.
The network includes the following participants:
Sophie Chessum, NATIONAL TRUST, Senior Curator, Clandon Park, Surrey (with Stephen Castle and Jessica Maynard)
Christine Casey, CRAFTVALUE, Professor in Architectural History, Trinity College Dublin (with Drs Melanie Hayes and Andrew Tierney)
Tim Weyrich, Professor of Visual Computing and Deputy Director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, Department of Computer Science, University College London
Graeme Earl, Professor of Digital Humanities, King’s College London
Anil Kokaram, Professor of Electrical Engineering, Trinity College Dublin
Adrian Hilton, Professor of Computer Vision and Graphics, University of Surrey
John Dingliana, Assistant Professor in Computer Science, Trinity College Dublin
John Cahill, Assistant Principal Architect, Architectural Conservation Service, Office of Public Works (Ireland)
Anthony Corns and Robert Shaw, CEO and Senior Geo-Surveyor, The Discovery Programme, Ireland
Dr Maurice Murphy, Virtual Building Lab, Campus Company, Technological University Dublin (with Dr Eimear Meegan)