The start of the 2020/2021 academic year marked the beginning of a new hybridity in the heritage sector. As the Coronavirus pandemic shut universities, museums and heritage sites across the UK, the sector launched a commitment to a new age of digital heritage that would prove essential for heritage practice over the next year.
Exhibiting, exploring and preserving heritage has shifted dramatically at the University of Exeter. Beginning with the Hidden Cities project, a collaborative project funded by the university and a number of heritage institutions across Europe, historical monuments and sites were brought to screens. App users were able to explore a series of European cities (including Exeter) and their histories from their isolation at home. At the time, co-creator Professor Fabrizio Nevola, Director of the Centre for Early Modern Studies at the university, said that the project illustrated the importance of digitizing heritage during the pandemic, in order to continue the investigation of spaces that were not accessible.
Where physical heritage work was halted, digital heritage practice allowed for new creative projects. As part of the Arts Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and BBC series, ‘Culture in Quarantine,’ Exeter Professor Naomi Sykes and Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Sean Doherty co-produced an animated film that told the story of one of Britain’s most mysterious animals — the hare. The entire project, which drew artistically from the 1978 film Watership Down, was conducted remotely. The film can be watched via the BBC Arts and culture website.
As creative projects were digitised, so too were heritage events. In April 2021, PhD student Bradley Osborne and colleague Dr Arabella Currie led a virtual symposium on the work of Cornish-born author William Golding. Famous for his first novel Lord of the Flies (1954), some of Golding’s work is held in the university’s Special Collections and archives. In examining a range of papers by national and international academics, the digital event sought to reframe Golding’s work and re-establish it as a viable field of study for future scholars.
In addition to its literary heritage, the pandemic called for further exploration of the heritage within the walls of the university. This year, the Northcott Theatre hosted a virtual event exploring the stories of women newly discovered in the theatre’s archive collection. The live streamed event, which featured a panel of women who are developing Exeter’s current arts and cultural landscape, showcased stories that had been discovered as part of the archival project. From this, the event emphasised how the knowledge collected can be used to shape the future culture of Exeter and the South West.
On the Arts and Humanities front, the University was awarded £200,000 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to take arts and humanities research beyond higher education to drive social change. The award was given to Professor of Shakespeare and Early Modern Performance Studies, Pascale Aebischer, who will work with a huge range of academics throughout the UK on Covid-19 projects supported by the AHRC with over £16 million. The two-year programme will help connect, support and showcase over 70 AHRC projects which broadly cover three themes: the impact of Covid-19 on the cultural and creative sector; ethical, regulatory and human rights issues in responses to Covid-19; and communication and public health during the pandemic.
On partnership, the university has renewed and formed several Memorandums of Understanding (MOU’s) with south west heritage organisations over the past year. In September 2020, the university signed an MOU with The Charles Causley Trust, following previous work together as part of the Trust’s Festival of Arts and Literature, maximising the Causley Archive held in the University Special Collections and developing partnership working with English Heritage. The university also renewed its agreement with Cornwall Museum’s Partnership (CMP), signed a new partnership with the National Trust and with Wells Cathedral. An MOU with English Heritage is pending.
From January to May 2021, the University of Exeter worked with heritage partner The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) on a Strategic Priority Fund project to develop collaboration and the way in which heritage and culture is collated across the city with the City Council. In addition to this, alongside longstanding heritage partner Exeter Cathedral, the Digital Humanities Lab at the university successfully digitised the Exeter Book, a tenth-century anthology of poetry. In creating a new website, images of the ancient text are now accessible to view in incredible clarity. The launch of the digitised book took place over Zoom, with colleagues from the cathedral and the university present.
During the last academic year, the university have carried out six Professional Pathways internships and two Widening Participation (WP) internships, one of which has been extended until the Autumn.
To read more about the rise of digital heritage in the sector, see our recent blog pieces written by Exeter students: https://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/heritageexeter/blog/2021/07/14/in-the-age-of-virtual-heritage-do-museums-still-need-objects/. For heritage news at the University of Exeter, see: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/research/heritage/newsandevents/.