Tag Archives: Galway Mayo Institute of Technology

Gothic Past – A Bedtime Story for the #DayofDH 2014

Bravo to all the #DHie folks who worked like Trojans to tell you what it means/takes to ‘Do DH in Ireland’. Gather round all you tired people — it’s time for bed (or the Champions League match) so here’s a little story….an extended post for the Day of DH 2014 : The Tale of Gothic Past…..

Once upon a time there was an American scholar whose Harvard PhD topic focused on Irish medieval architecture. His name was Edwin C. Rae (1911 – 2002) and beginning in the 1930s he spent much time in Ireland photographing its ancient buildings and sculpture. In 1942 he earned his doctorate and soon after joined the US army and travelled to Europe. He went on to become one of the ‘Monuments Men‘ (yes, that’s right – the  George Clooney and Matt Damon et al kind of Monuments Men!) When the war ended Captain Rae, as he was now known, was appointed Chief of Fine Arts and Archives and was stationed in Munich. He worked with the staff of many cultural institutions in Bavaria, helping them to rebuild their collections. He organized one of the first exhibitions of German Renaissance art in Germany in the post-war years and was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government for services to art history. A wonderful man n’est pas? But there’s more…..

Rae continued to visit Ireland and document its ancient buildings in film and photographic slides. (He was also Professor of the History of Art at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign). In 2002 Rae gifted his collection of images to the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Trinity College. Everyone was very happy with this lovely present – none more so than Professor Roger Stalley who had also been making images of Ireland’s ancient buildings and sculpture since starting work as a rookie architectural historian in the Department in 1974. Like Rae, Stalley also took lots of images of European medieval architecture and sculpture and used them to teach hordes of enthusiastic History of Art and Architecture students over the years. Yipee, said they all in the Department! With the Stalley and Rae Collections we now have two amazing resources for the study of medieval art and architecture images. But there was more…..

Around 2008 along came a young PhD scholar from Cork named Danielle O’Donovan. As part of her study of the Butler Lordship (c. 1405 – 1552) she had travelled the highways and byways of Ireland making measurements of moulding profiles of different parts of medieval buildings — archways of doors and windows and piers and….oh, lots more things that emphasize  important parts of the building through the play of light and shade created by the mouldings. She too had amassed lots of images and wondered how she could share these resources with others who were teaching and learning about the history of Irish medieval architecture and sculpture. (Danielle is now an Irish Research Council Post-Doctoral Enterprise Fellow at the Centre for Research in Information Technology in Education in Trinity College)

As luck would have it that very same year, 2008,  a very exciting research project got underway in Triarc – the Irish Art Research Centre at Trinity College. It was called ‘Reconstructions of the Gothic Past’ and guess who was its Principal Investigator? Why, none other than Roger Stalley — he of the collection of medieval architecture and sculpture images.  The project team also included the now President of the RSAI, the narrator of this tale and a young doctoral fellow.  When the project was nearing completion (after three years of generous financial support from the Irish Research Council) the team knocked heads together with the intrepid collector of moulding profiles and a dynamic duo: one from the Research Informatics department of Trinity College Library  (Niamh Brennan) and an up-and-coming dev by the name of Deirdre O’Regan.

Long days passed as they all toiled to think of a way to create an archive of the Stalley, Rae and O’Donovan Digital Image Collections that would create visual impact — at this time they were part of Trinity College’s D-Space repository TARA. How could these fantastic fotos photos be fashioned into a really cool dynamic site that art history students (who let’s face it – love a good picture to study), and lovers of Irish medieval architecture and sculpture could use to learn more about Ireland’s Gothic Past? (because the funded project was about Ireland’s Gothic Past see?) We are poor as church (architecture and sculpture) mice, said one (the funding was dwindling as the project end date approached). What can we do, said another? They all shook their heads….

Suddenly….Bingo! A brainwave!  Let’s use a great piece of freeware that is really suited to creating digital exhibitions of images  — what about Omeka from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media in Fairfax, Virginia, they said! And thus was born the Gothic Past site.

—Narrator: In traditional bedtime stories the next sentence would say “…And they all lived happily every after. The END”.  But this is not a piece of frivolous writing so here’s what happened next…..

GPRecords and images and their associated metadata which were archived in TARA were selectively exported using CSV to the new Omeka-powered site which was hosted on a stand-alone server. The site was one of the first applications in Ireland of Omeka so we found the discussion forums really helpful for ironing out any creases during the design stages. (Thank you Patrick Murray-John especially). We have since been contacted by users in other countries who liked our tweaks of Erin Bell‘s already excellent abstraction of the Deco theme and wish to clone a site of their own.

By customizing the Deco theme and incorporating several of the available Omeka plugins we hoped to develop a really versatile resource for users. We were particularly keen to use the MyOmeka plugin so that the Gothic Past site could help those who wanted to learn about medieval Irish architecture in a more dynamic way.  Casual visitors may search the site using tags and keywords, but registered users have the added benefit of being able to curate their own personal workspace via MyOmeka. Images in the archive can be tagged and annotated with information – for example content from course reading or relevant lectures, tutorials or seminars. The annotated images may be collated into themed presentations and used as revision tools or as part of student-led seminars.

What makes the Gothic Past image archive so valuable to researchers and the general public is that it contains many images of structures that have undergone changes since first being photographed. In developing this site, the aim was to create a whole new interface for interacting with images of Irish medieval architecture and sculpture.  Registered users of the site include historians, archivists, and genealogists from a diverse range of countries.  A high proportion of users are tourists planning to visit Ireland or those with a personal or professional interest in Irish culture and heritage.

In time users will be able contribute information about specific monuments, as well as adding their own photographs to the archive. It is hoped that this will make the resource an organic and expanding one for many years to come and a superb interface for research-led teaching across all educational levels, from primary to fourth level and for the general public. Higher education institutions are also active users of the site, among them Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology where @AoibheannNiD was the first Irish lecturer to use Gothic Past as a teaching resource. During the past year I’ve been using it to help Junior Freshman (i.e. first year) History of European Architecture and Ancient History and Medieval Culture courses at Trinity College Dublin develop visual analysis skills and revise for annual examinations.

The image below summarizes the rather longer than intended Tale of Gothic Past — a special bedtime story by Caroline McGee for this (One Fine) Day of DH 2014.



My other Day of DH posts are held over for publication until tomorrow —according to tweets by @DayofDH that’s ok!

[1] The Monuments Men image is courtesy of Screen Crush