Engaging new audiences through digital restoration

The University of St Andrews is at the forefront of digital reproduction and restoration. This blog has previously covered some of the digital restoration efforts led by the University, however the influence of academics such as Dr Miller and Prof. Sweetman extends further. In this blogpost, we explore how collaborations between university academics and external institutions have brought locations that were thought lost or destroyed back into view, while simultaneously engaging new audiences in the digital humanities.

Ruins in the Acropolis of Sparta. Licensed from David Holt under Creative Commons.

LAVA and the Sparta Basilica

The Laconia Acropolis Virtual Archaeology project (LAVA) was developed to enable students to engage with realistic archaeological excavation without visiting the dig site itself. The multidisciplinary project has been developed by both Sweetman and Miller, as well as their former colleague Kristoffer Getchell and others from the School of Computer Science. Fieldwork lies at the heart of archaeology, and any student must engage with it meaningfully to truly understand the discipline. However, the opportunities for students to gain real-world fieldwork experience are limited and expensive, while, even within those opportunities, the roles and responsibilities students can take are constrained. 

LAVA has helped to address this by developing software which allows students to view digital representations of archaeological projects through virtual reality and other forms of multimedia. One of these is the basilica church in the Acropolis of ancient Sparta, in Greece. Resources developed by the LAVA team enable students to explore the ruined basilica as it stands today, along with a reconstructed version, without the considerable expense of an in-person visit. Additional tools developed by the team include an excavation simulator, which allows students to review entire excavation sites from a first-person perspective by navigating around three-dimensional digital models. These tools have successfully been integrated into teaching at the University of St Andrews, allowing students in the School of History to explore sites that might otherwise be out of reach. 

Reconstruction of the St Andrews Cathedral

St Andrews Cathedral

The St Andrews Cathedral has been a ruin since its abandonment in the 16th century. Its digital reconstruction began in 2009, in a project spanning the Schools of Art History, History, Music, Computer Science and Classics, with input from the Library Special Collections and University Museum. Based upon physical evidence, academic research and expert interpretation, the team constructed a three-dimensional model of the cathedral as it would have stood over 7 centuries ago. Digital visitors can traverse the cathedral’s vast rooms and hallways, listen to music from the period and even meet figures associated with the cathedral such as King Robert 1 of Scotland, who was present at its consecration. The recreation captures the life of the cathedral with extraordinary detail, including the daily routines of its characters. One example, in the words of the developers, is Morrow Mass. ‘At that time, all of the NPCs representing the Augustinian Canons change into suitable clothing, navigate to suitable locations, and are then animated into realistic stances suitable to their individual character during the mass.’

The reconstruction was initially intended for use by school and university students, however its applications span much further. After being used as part of several degree-accredited university courses and a curriculum unit for local year 11 school students, the project attracted media coverage which alerted far wider audiences of the reconstruction. It has since been featured as part of the Sensation exhibition at Dundee Science Centre, which engaged a broad cross-section of society with guided tours and interactive games such as hide and seek within the digital environment. 

The Timespan Museum

Miller and his team at the School of Computer Science have been collaborating with the Timespan Museum since 2012. Located in Helmsdale in the Scottish Highlands, the Timespan Museum aims to foster new ideas and creative exchange through innovation and a strong sense of community. 

2013 saw the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Highland Clearances, which was the start of the forced eviction of many Scottish people from their homes in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. This destroyed much of traditional clan society in the area, and kickstarted a pattern of rural depopulation in Scotland. To commemorate this tragic period in Scottish history, the Timespan Museum set out to digitally reconstruct the settlement of Caen to its condition in 1813, before the havoc of the Clearances.

To achieve this, the museum collaborated with the University of St Andrews to create a three-dimensional virtual representation of a longhouse for visitors to explore. The experience can be accessed on multiple platforms, for which Timespan developed a stereoscopic 3D version for virtual reality devices. The collaboration has developed into a fruitful partnership between the two institutions. Timespan has witnessed a steadily increasing visitor count each year since the exhibit opened and has been shortlisted for Museum of the Year 2021 in recognition of their innovative approach to community and information exchange.