The Digital Atlas of England is a project ‘to produce a detailed digital photographic record of every pre-1900 building of architectural significance in England.’ As such, its scope is ambitious, both in terms of the numbers and types of buildings recorded and the geographical area covered. The Atlas consists of two components. First, there is a base programme called ‘Panorama’, which provides a search engine and a viewing mechanism for the library of photographs. Secondly, there is the library itself, which is held on CDs. Each CD covers a certain geographical area: sometimes a single county (as for Rutland or Huntingdonshire), sometimes a subdivision of a county. These county CDs are sold separately and then loaded into Panorama for viewing.
I was asked to review the project using Panorama to look at the Huntingdonshire library. Given this, it makes sense to divide my reflections in two. First, there are some thoughts about the Atlas itself. Secondly, I will discuss Panorama, and also mention a few things that occurred to me looking specifically at the photographs in the Huntingdonshire library.
1. The project.
So, to start with – what can we say about the Atlas itself? First, and somewhat obviously, it is a very Good Thing. While we have, on the whole, become more conscious of our architectural history in the last forty years, there are still many cases in which significant buildings are destroyed or altered, often without adequate records being kept. The importance of collective memory is something I’ve talked about at various times on this site, but one only needs to read the ‘Nooks and Corners’ column of Private Eye to realise how much is still being lost. This is so despite what seems occasionally to be an unhealthy backwards-looking heritage culture. In Britain we sometimes seem to have the worst of both worlds – a sort of saccharine nostalgia coupled with an inability or unwillingness to look after parts of what we have, in fact, inherited.
In principle, at least, the Atlas seems precisely the right sort of project to counteract this tendency. A comprehensive and unsentimental record of this sort could have the twin effects of preserving information about buildings that are subsequently lost (and I know that at least one church recorded, though not yet published, has been destroyed by fire since the project started) and reclaiming those buildings from heritage-mongers and myth-weavers. So, it is a noble undertaking.
That having been said, there is a significant question of audience facing the project. For whom is the Atlas intended? It is a bit too dry and specialised to appeal to a general audience, and I suspect that many of those who might be interested (like myself) will tend to have their own records of the buildings photographed. There’s a danger that this might end up being a bit like the Church of England whose twilight years it records: it’s reassuring to know that it’s there, but one hardly ever really needs to see it.
As I said above, the Atlas is ambitious in two different ways, and (at present at least) it falls somewhat short of both ambitions. With respect to the first, it is clear that the coverage of secular (and particularly residential) buildings is going to be considerably thinner than the coverage of churches. The author himself admits this. And there are good reasons: churches are often the most significant old buildings in any given settlement, and there are obvious reasons why it’s difficult to photograph peoples’ houses. For precisely the reasons just given, domestic architecture is far worse served than ecclesiastical by projects like the Atlas (Pevsner springs to mind), and is therefore in much more need of being recorded. Also, I happen to think that it’s a lot more interesting. If I could, I’d much rather write a website detailing the timber-framed houses of Cambridgeshire, since I tend to find them more beautiful than many churches and their study would mesh closer with my interests in social history. Still, the world is what it is, and I can’t really criticise the Atlas for this shortcoming. Still, it is a shortcoming, and something to regret.
With respect to the second, geographical ambition, it seems uncharitable to say this of a project still (quite) close to its inception, but I worry that the creator (who remarkably, is working alone) has given himself a task too large ever to be completed. After about five years of work, the only counties with published records so far are Rutland, the Soke of Peterborough, Huntingdonshire and part of Cambridgeshire. The website gives one hope that they might soon be joined by others: a map shows a decent swathe of counties across the country from Northamptonshire to Herefordshire which have been substantially recorded, in addition to some southern areas like Dorset and Sussex. Still, looking at the map one sees many of the counties most stuffed with ‘pre-1900 buildings of architectural significance in England’ substantially unrecorded: under 40% coverage in Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire, and less than 20% in Yorkshire, Somerset and Greater London. Can we ever really hope to see the Atlas fully completed? Again, I don’t think this is a serious criticism. For all I know, the author might complete the entire country in the next ten years; and anyway, it is a valuable thing that any county is recorded, even if not all are.
My main worry about the Atlas is the odd choice of media. One of the things that scuppered the series of printed inventories published by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments was the observation that technology had made books like that obsolete. With the advent of digital media – and especially the Internet – an archive can be produced that is responsive to change, to new information and to developments on the ground. The Atlas in CD form, while something of an advance upon printed media, incorporates some of the bad features of those earlier projects: by being produced on CDs, it consists in a (fixed) database of photographs, without easy (or cheap) means for providing corrections, or updates, or supplements. That seems to tie it unnecessarily to outdated modes of production and distribution. Printed encyclopaedias are, in my view, most properly being replaced with online collaborative efforts like the magnificent Wikipedia. Wouldn’t such a medium be more appropriate here, too?
Now, this criticism has been anticipated, and the Atlas project is in the process of changing its nature. An online paid access database has been set up (accessible from http://www.viewbuildings.com), and this will provide a lot of the flexibility that I considered lacking in the Atlas as originally produced. For the moment, the CD library is continuing in parallel to this web project, but I’m quite sure that the latter will eventually make the former obsolete.
One thing that is worth making clear immediately is that Panorama is not an easy programme to pick up and start using immediately. The creator explains this in the ‘Common Questions’ section: it seemed more important to have a powerful and efficient programme to deal with the database than something particularly user-friendly or easy to pick up. Given the scepticism I expressed above about the DAE’s suitability for a general audience, this seems quite understandable (besides which I’m generally well-disposed towards people who refuse to dumb down, even if their refusal is a little on the abrasive side). It does mean, though, that it’s very important to go through not only the tutorial, but also all the other documents in the ‘Help’ area: without it, the programme can be very opaque. This fact could have been signalled a little more clearly on the front page, I think: it’s OK to throw people in at the deep end, but it’s courteous to say that they might need a life-jacket and where the life-jackets are to be found.
This all notwithstanding, Panorama is an excellent little programme and very easy to use after a somewhat steep learning curve. So, most of the comments that follow are quite minor quibbles.
First, while the search tool is generally very good (and quite intelligent – it’s able to return things with “late 17 th century” in their date field when one searches for “1600-1700”, for example), it is case sensitive, which is a bit irritating. Once a search has been performed, there also seems to be an unnecessary amount of hunting around one has to do to see all of the images one can. It took me a while to work out that all photographs ostensibly of furnishings and objects are placed on a separate page from those that are of structures, and this seems to be just an unnecessary complication: why not have all images relating to a particular building (or structure) visible on one page, with the option of using filters to narrow this down if desired? In general, I felt that the structure of the programme was more baroque than was strictly necessary.
Secondly, given that the project is conceived as a snap-shot of England in the early 21 st century, it is odd that the map included with Panorama is out of date: while it’s fine for showing the relative locations of sites (and I did really like the various ways that one could filter sites and select areas of the map to perform a search on the database returning everything within that area), lacking the A14 (for example) makes it less useful for navigating. The creator has since explained to me that the price of reproducing OS maps that are still within copyright is too expensive to be practical. I suppose that outdated maps are preferable to a price tag for each county CD of three – or even four! – figures; it is a pity, though.
Thirdly, it might have been nice to have slightly more by way of annotation. I wouldn’t want a full description of every single item photographed – aside from making the Atlas an even vaster task, it would seem a bit extraneous in some respects – but a little more by way of labelling (especially for the general architectural views) wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Finally, a brief word or two on the photographs themselves. I found some inexplicable duplications of images in places. For example, in Ramsey there are two interior shots taken from the same place which seem to differ only in their lengths of exposure, and then only marginally. This sort of thing takes up space, and it feels a little bit like being made to look at rough working: surely part of the finishing process is making sure that there are only precisely as many images as are needed. Given how well finished the rest of the package is, I found it a bit puzzling.
The creator has an odd photographic style; in many cases it is almost as though he has resolved to produce photographs that are unbeautiful. That isn’t always the case – there are some lovely photographs scattered through the archive, and the sample images on the website are all gorgeous – but it is a general theme. No doubt this is a specific artistic (or editorial) decision on the part of the creator, and if I’m right about the notion of unsentimentality being central to the project, I can appreciate why he might want to avoid producing a collection of chocolate-box images like the Country Life archive, and to preserve an element of exact comparability between buildings. Still, it did grate occasionally. On the whole, I preferred the interior shots and images of furnishings, which seemed to have a little more character than the views of exteriors.
So, what do I think? First, the creator deserves praise (and gratitude) for both the ambition of the Atlas project, and for the fact that what has been produced so far lives up to that ambition. Such quibbles as I have with Panorama and with the images in the library themselves are mostly minor, or matters of subjective photographic taste (I’m sure that I’ll shortly be excoriated for my poor aesthetic judgment). My one real worry is my doubt about published CD volumes being the appropriate medium for a project of this sort, and (as I’ve said) this is being addressed. Hopefully, by going in the direction of an online database, it can avoid becoming a white elephant. This is a magnificent undertaking, performed with great skill and love, and it would be sad to see it let down by the medium by which it is communicated.
Further information about the Digital Atlas of England can be found at http://www.digiatlas.net