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30 Apr 2020

Digital heritage in the time of coronavirus

Written by Sophia Mirashrafi, Digital Project Officer at the Hill House
Bird's-eye view of a 3D model of the Hill House.
Photo-realistic images create a 3D model of the Hill House
As we’re all doing our best to get used to these unsettling times, those aspects of our lives that had escaped the screen have, through necessity, quickly slipped into the digital sphere. Everything from nights out with friends to going to work have become online activities due to closures and social distancing.

I’m sure most people are aware that historic sites are not exempt from this.

With no way to physically explore these sites for the foreseeable future, the spotlight has quickly swivelled to digital resources to step in. It’s always been my opinion that virtual access and 3D models can never fully replace the experience of visiting a site. However, in times such as these it’s clear that digital data is invaluable in allowing as many people as possible to explore, appreciate and learn about Scotland’s heritage.

Digital Heritage at the Hill House

Designed and built in the beginning of the 20th century by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh for Glaswegian publisher Walter Blackie and his family, the Hill House is an iconic example of domestic Scottish architecture. Located in Helensburgh, you might recognise it as the house with the incredible steel box built to shield it from the ever-increasing rainfall from our changing climate. But that’s another story.

Digital scan of a floor plan of a building, with the outlines in different colours.
Digital scans helped us produce this plan of the ground floor

Last year, Historic Environment Scotland and the Trust worked together to digitally scan the Hill House in its entirety. The team also took the opportunity to walk through the house with a 360 degree camera to collect data for a virtual tour of the site.

Virtual tours offer an excellent opportunity to make sites accessible to those who cannot visit themselves or have difficulty navigating the layout and floors of buildings for various reasons.

On top of this, we worked with the Conservation Science team from Historic Environment Scotland to undertake a survey of thermal photography and moisture mapping to better understand how moisture is moving throughout the house over time.

There’s a lot going on! Watch this space for these projects to be highlighted and explored in the coming months.

South elevation of the Hill House, with a pinkish thermal overlay.
An overlay of thermal data on the south face of the Hill House

Tips on keeping up with digital

To keep up with the ever-updating digital heritage sphere, I’d recommend heading over to Twitter. It isn’t always an anxiety-shaped blob of politics, news and anger! The heritage corner of Twitter is a platform used to share and amplify the work of heritage professionals and history-loving public alike.

Indeed, new hashtags like #MuseumFromHome are cropping up, where homebound heritage professionals are showing behind the scenes of museums, filming little videos from their living rooms with interesting facts, and highlighting virtual tours of historic sites.

Final thoughts

These are unprecedented times, and the virtual is stepping up to fill in the void that visiting heritage sites has abruptly (and temporarily) left in the wake of COVID-19. Interestingly, discourse around digital heritage is often focused on the virtual overwhelming or attempting to replace the physical sites and artefacts of our past.

Is there a danger that as we can no longer physically visit these places, virtual experiences will negate the need to go to them in person? Are we moving towards a completely digital age, with social distancing and COVID-19 acting as a catalyst?

On the contrary, I believe that after this is over, we’ll return to our historic sites with a renewed sense of reverence. These are more than just places in which we connect to the past, but also spaces to connect with one another.

By all means, explore the new digital platforms that are being created and shared by the heritage sector – they’re brilliant and it’s a silver lining in all this insanity. But ... use them to create your post-plague wish list on places to go visit and experience with friends and family.

I mean, if you think Mackintosh looks good online, you really need to see his stuff in person!

If you want to learn about the Digital Project at the Hill House, read this blog from last year. And if you have any questions, you can find me on Twitter.

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