Experts study the past and present in new state-of-the-art digital facility

Academics at the University of Exeter are using cutting-edge technologies to study the past and present in a new, state-of-the-art Digital Humanities Laboratory.

The £1.2m building houses the latest digitization tools, enabling academics to investigate important historical, literary and visual artefacts. The laboratory, which opened on 23 October, contains specialist scanning equipment that can create high-resolution 3D models of objects too fragile to be handled, allowing them to be studied in detail and seen by the public for the first time.

The rapid growth in online access to cultural and historical information, plus innovations in the digitization process, is creating new opportunities to study human activity – as well as challenges. A purpose-built research facility like the Digital Humanities Laboratory can tackle this, as well as helping to protect material for future generations.

Another technique supported by the laboratory is photogrammetry, which involves taking multiple photographs of an object from a range of angles. Software is then used to identify common points on each of the photos, which are analysed to produce a 3D model. This has already proved invaluable for the study of fragile and fragmentary skulls from the Ipplepen field school archaeological dig, run by Exeter Archaeology in conjunction with the British Museum and local authorities.

Delicate documents can also be recorded, transcribed and explored in the building, including the 10th-century Exeter Book from Exeter Cathedral, recognised by UNESCO as a Global Cultural Artefact, and 650-year-old archives from the Earl of Devon’s collection at Powderham Castle. Laboratory staff are working with academics at the University of Exeter and other institutions to compile and analyse archives and make them available, bringing their content to new audiences. As part of a project to understand and map famines in India and Britain between 1550 and 1800, laboratory staff worked with more than 700 texts in ten different languages. The laboratory also offers studio space for digital exhibitions, and professional-quality video and audio recordings.

Professor Leif Isaksen, newly appointed Professor in Digital Humanities at the University, said: