Heritage and Digital — 21st Century Bedfellows?
Liverpool, a city that speaks with an accent exceedingly rare, a people famed for their sense of humour and two fictional birds that keep an eye on the residents below them. To sum up Liverpool in a sentence is impossible, it’s unique culture whether it be in reference to its footballing prowess, musical icons or legendary status as the port city of the world are just some of the very few things which one could discuss and, as the saying goes, we’ll be here until “Dick Docks!” But one thing is for certain, something that cannot be overlooked, Liverpool is a city brimming with Heritage, so much so that outside of the UK Capital you will find no city with more historic heritage buildings than Liverpool.
Dating back to 1207 when King John officially recognised Liverpool, this Scouse powerhouse made its mark on the world stage and set the foundations on which its world-class status would stand for centuries to come.
Positioned on the bed of the River Mersey, Liverpool has utilised its port status to enable the city to become the iconic Heritage location it is today. Playing a leading role in the development of its docks, ports and international trading operations from the 1700s to the modern-day, Liverpool boasts a waterfront bursting with infrastructure and buildings above and below ground which have not only stood the test of time but have transported food, clothing, music and cultures in and out of the city and around the world influencing who we are today and stand as an exceptional, in some cases Royal, testimony to mercantile culture.
As did the city import and export cultures it also did the same with people, and while many sought to travel through Liverpool to countries around the world (making Liverpool the leading port of mass European emigration to the New World) the city recognises its past in playing a major role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade of the 18th and 19th centuries.
As the tides of the Mersey ebb and flow today along a waterfront more accustomed to luxury and pleasure today as opposed to the industrial beginnings of this working port, the Heritage venues that were created during its developing past still stand today, proudly taking their place on the city’s skyline representing a time of prosperity, creative development and a city which was not scared to step forward and make its mark…and make its mark it did!
One such venue which stands as testimony to this is St George’s Hall, which today stands proud as an expression of the confidence and ambition of the Victorians of the city and their delight in proving their achievements. Not only a building of great beauty and grace, this Grade I listed Heritage building is regarded by many as the jewel in the crown of Liverpool and, hosting the first-ever UK Digital Heritage Symposium this month, it also shone in all its spectacular glory.
In the glistening glory of the golden Concert Room, guests gathered to discuss and hear from speakers, and experts in their arenas, about the importance of digital preservation in Heritage, share best practices and collaborate on projects and ideas which will no doubt be inspirational for generations to come. A venue long at the forefront of innovation, it was a perfect setting to host such an innovative and forward-thinking seminar and, the first of its kind. But that’s not alien to St George’s Hall, for this grandiose beauty is recognised as the first commercially air-conditioned building in the world, and, when it was built, had the largest barrel-vaulted ceiling and piped concert organ in the world. Delve behind the gold leaf and porticoes, and you will find that the Great Hall has one of the greatest brick arches in the world to this day, not to mention the priceless mosaic floor of over 30,000 tiles hidden just underfoot.
A venue which stands today as a very visible credit to the people of Liverpool who first conceived the initial idea of the Hall in response to the need for the city’s triennial music festival needing a space. At the same time, the Civil and Crown courts were looking for a venue, so the people of Liverpool decided to create a unique structure which would house both in what would become an ostentatious display of architecture which would act as a vibrant showcase for the city and its creative people and has stood as a testimony to this since 1854. Alas, I digress, but the point remains the same, where else would be more suitable to host the very first UK Symposium on Digital Heritage than a venue so iconically first in its thinking and ambition which shines a spotlight on its Heritage status.
Listening to the speakers at the symposium, experts in Heritage, conservation and digital arenas one was instantly transported into a world of possibilities and questions relating to the links between Heritage and digital — two concepts which I can’t imagine would ever have been positioned in one sentence on the very same stage when Charles Dickens did his penny readings!
So what in particular is the link between Heritage and digital, just one of the questions posed to the audience to which we concluded, is that is it an essential preservation tool that in turn enables us to capture and tell the stories of our past and present long into the future. The use of digital technologies in the preservation of our Heritage is a way in which we can protect not only the story of our tangible assets like venues such as St George’s Hall but also the intangible, to capture the knowledge, skills and stories which are shared from each generation. Commenting, one speaker highlighted that Liverpool as a city, is known for its stories and storytelling ability and for me, this perfectly sums up a primary link between Heritage and digital — to tell a story.
Liverpool’s evolving story from the dark transatlantic slave trade to its international luxury cruise industry showcases an evolving waterfront, for example, with buildings and infrastructure which have stood the test of time to physically tell its story today. However, to rely on such ‘lucky’ preservation is to be unwise, as fire, flood, criminal activity and acts of war no less all have the potential to impact Heritage venues at any given time. Commenting on the atrocities of the fire in Notre-Dame (an atrocity which to this day still brings tears to my eyes at the damage to such a magnificent and soulful building), speakers discussed the vital role of the digitisation of the building has played in preserving and conserving this spectacular building. Using digital technology including 3D scanning and modelling, architects and historians are able to use digital technologies to renovate and conserve the story of Notre-Dame for future generations so that not all is lost in the flames.
Just days before this horrific accident, 25 European countries committed to take action in digitising their cultural heritage, artefacts, monuments and sites in the European Commissions Declaration of Cooperation — they must be onto something!
Listening to the discussions on stage, presentations and panellist thoughts and the example of the burning cathedral, the argument for digitisation of Heritage comes across loud and clear. Venues from libraries to churches to cathedrals to unique buildings like St George’s Hall, firsts in their arena, each contain invaluable and often replacing records, photographs, documents and structures which form part of a story of a people, place and its culture that once taken away is unlikely to be replaced physically and, should we wish to, how would we if this moment in time is destroyed? How would this vacant hole in our identity be filled? Would these visuals, writings and locations be lost for generations to come and soon become the stuff of folklore? Not, according to the seminar experts, with the introduction of digital technologies which, when utilised by cultural heritage organisations can be used to not only preserve and protect but to safeguard our heritage and history for today and tomorrow and the day after.
Taking this all in, and, to be honest, still reeling from the memories of Notre-Dam flashing on the screen in my mind’s eye, I wanted to start a rallying cry to bubble-wrap our Heritage assets and protect them, wrapped in cotton wool never to be lost. But to do so, I know, would be to dull their shine, to hide them from the public that so often has made them what they are and place them in a time capsule positioned firmly in the past as opposed to continuing on their evolutionary journey which helped position us where we are today and where we will be tomorrow. So how to do this? How do we shout it from the very rooftops of these Grade 1 and Grade 11 listed buildings that yes, they’re precious and yes they’re historic but also that yes, they belong to you, they were built by the people, they include the stories of the people and they are to be used by the people…a challenge which was at the core of the panel discussion.
When pondering this problem, one-panel member gave an analogy that to me, summed up the discussion perfectly. When Alexandra Graham Bell invented the lightbulb he invented something that was transformational, he brought power to the people and transformed lighting! However, despite this innovative technological marvel being a wonder it sat on a dusty shelf forgotten about (I like to think it stood as a rather interesting talking piece instead of over the mantel, personally) until the invention of electricity came along…if you see my point. This analogy perfectly describes the contemporary and essential need for digital and Heritage to exist side by side whereby our Heritage is the lightbulb and digital is the electricity.
Later in the day, I was tickled (and a little taken aback) to be discussing the joy of a rotary telephone and how in a recent blog, I’d written about the sheer joy of such an experience not being available to anyone born post-1990. When a colleague explained such items were now in museums (reader I think I audibly gasped in shock) it brought the analogy back to me of the lightbulb and the electricity. Standing next to a robot, (I mean literally, she’s called Pepper) which responded to the movements and speech of those she’s interacting with, I was struck by the already seamless integration of digital into our everyday lives. Whether it’s Alexa, Google or Siri — we all have our own digital friends at the touch of a button, or word as it were, and the small 3ft “Pepper” stood in front of me was the personification of this digitalisation. This is the contemporary form of experience — when in the past we would have trecked on a bus to far off corners which could be reached, investigated and returned from all before the school bell at 3.15 pm allowed, packed lunch in hand and pack-a-mac in a bag, today’s educational trips are far from limited. Children and young people, students and researchers can travel around the world from the comfort of the classroom, experiencing 3D virtual interactive tours of venues and cities, chat with virtual Victorians and roam down Roman streets, the world quite literally being their oyster.
Without the limitations of time, cost and resources to physically attend Heritage venues or projects, the potential for the education sector became quickly evident. For generations who may look at a floppy disc as a coaster, think DOS is a new shorthand and question what a table just for a telephone is for — the use of digital technologies and platforms is the norm, they know no different and therefore to engage and educate this audience, Heritage quite literally needs to get with the programme and get down with the kids. The digitalisation of venues, assets and stories is therefore an essential educational element in today’s curriculum and research if we are to inspire the generations of future legacy makers with the stories of their past.
In telling these stories, one audience member took this thought a step further, and questioned the panel on these stories — while we use digital to capture the stories of the past and preserve them, make them available for society today as educational resources available to all, how will we record and capture today’s stories which will be the Heritage of tomorrow? A thought-provoking way to end the day! Considerable thought and discussion were given to this topic which was recognised and explained by the youngest member of the panel who highlighted that digital is embraced by a large portion of today’s society through the use of various social media platforms to document and record their day to day lives through platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The panellist continued by sighting an example of recent Heritage venues in the city which took key roles in the city’s post-Covid storytelling events which featured projections on to the buildings of the words of the people, telling their stories of the global pandemic which are recorded to this day, utilising twenty-first-century digital mapping projections onto Heritage buildings including The Florrie and Royal Albert Dock.
Thought-provoking, inspiring, and instilling a sense of pride at being in a room filled with people so keen to protect, preserve and evolve I wondered what future conversations would be like in this Concert Room once again in another one hundred years. For as Charles Dickens spoke in, what he called, “the greatest hall in the world”, today we spoke in the same venue, the very same place filled with history, Heritage and memories, stories and experiences which were seeping through the walls into the atmosphere of the building. As I departed the room, in awe at the discussions, glancing up at the spectacular chandelier hanging from the golden rooftop I was greeted once more by Pepper, the friendly robot keen to assist, and couldn’t help but smile and greet the happy little character, with ease forgetting it’s robotic nature, and continued to warm to its at ease humanistic digital presence in a venue forged in a Victorian past.
Jennifer Caine, Marketing Manager, Culture Liverpool