Last year, Middling Culture embarked on an ambitious project to digitally recreate an upper-middling status room from the 1620s. The space selected for this reconstruction is a (now) empty room in a house extension from the early 1600s. The property, originally part of an urban house on the High Street in Reigate, Surrey, was dismantled and re-erected at the Weald and Downland Living Museum, but the interior is not accessible to visitors. It is a space with a lot of history but a shadow of its former self with no means of direct engagement. We’ve been working closely with different organisations, collections and individuals to help bring the room to life; to imagine how it was experienced by different people from the time.
The process of digital reconstruction is fascinating but not straightforward. As a team, we’ve learnt a lot about how digital technology can be used as a tool of engagement and learning in Arts and Humanities research projects. But the process of digital reconstruction has also allowed us to think more carefully and critically about the homes and lives of the urban middling sort. As a result, virtual reconstruction offers an alternative way of approaching the project’s original research questions while also providing a means of sharing our findings.
So, how do you begin to reconstruct a room from the 1620s? We’ve condensed our approach so far into 8 (not so easy) steps:
Where it all started.
Middling Culture is a research project focusing on the cultural and literate lives of the urban middling sort in early modern England and our findings over the course of the project underpin the production of our virtual room. Of course, we also conducted specific investigations into the space we wanted to recreate. We researched the type of room (a parlour), its position (first floor), the location of the house (Reigate in Surrey), its building history as well as evidence about the people who owned and rented it. We looked at archaeological reports relating to the site and studied any surviving decorative and architectural elements remaining in the room (and the rest of the property) today. Once we had established who lived there in the 1620s we built on our previous and ongoing research into domestic material culture to make decisions about what sort of objects would have filled the space and how they facilitated the domestic, occupational, literate and creative lives of its residents. For this, we employed the project’s vast database of surviving probate inventories.
Do not underestimate the value of a database, or the people who can help you navigate them.
Databases are fundamental tools often developed by major projects studying early modern probate documents (wills and inventories). We had a large database to work with, filled with information from our different case study areas (Chester, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bristol to name a few). With the help of our database expert, Dr Mark Merry, we were able to run queries (complex searches) to establish the most statistically likely furniture and furnishings for our room. The database let us model representative groups of objects that were found in historical parlours, generating models which were sensitive to place, period and social status. We could address questions about the quantity of objects, clusters of object types commonly found together, the visual and material detail of objects with lots of qualitative description (e.g. colours, materials and wear), arrangement of objects within the room and so on, which would not have been possible without the querying tools available with the database. Our reconstruction might be creative and interpretive, but it is rooted in extensive documentary evidence.
3. Filling the room
Find surviving examples of the objects you want to fill your room – this isn’t always easy if your occupiers were of middling status.
Once we had an initial list of contents gleaned from probate evidence, we set about finding extant examples of furniture and furnishings of the correct date and social status. Some of the items chosen to fill our room are objects or documents that we have studied at other stages in the project. These are our ‘hero’ objects: items we want to highlight because they are central in articulating particular elements of ‘middling culture’. These hero objects will feature in another of our digital outputs – our online exhibition (more details to follow soon). Sourcing a fuller range of objects to fill the rest of the space was not an easy task. Most domestic items from the early 1600s are elite in status. Of the ‘middling’ items that do survive, many have been altered or restored over the centuries and it can be challenging to trace the origins and location of production for each item. Many of the furnishings and fittings were carefully sourced from a variety of museum collections. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust hold a substantial collection of domestic furniture from the 1500s and 1600s, and a large proportion of the objects recreated for our room are based on items from this collection. The National Trust, Folger Shakespeare Library, Portable Antiquities Scheme and Museum of London collections also care for a significant amount of ‘everyday’ household items and documents matching the information found in probate inventories. After many searches, mood boards and various versions of object lists, we found an extant example of each item we wanted to appear in our parlour room.
Think about how your virtual objects might fit in your virtual space.
The room itself set certain restrictions on its contents, and this offers important evidence for the surprising ‘fullness’ of some early modern rooms. The dimensions and layout of the space determined our object positioning as only one of the four walls provided a suitable position for the bed, the others being occupied by windows, a fireplace and a staircase. We were then able to plan our other objects around this key item, informed by the qualitative evidence from the probate materials about which objects were kept with or next to one another. Urban parlours in the 1620s were multifunctional spaces and this had to be reflected in the layout of the room. We wanted to recreate the feel of the room as if you were stood in or navigating the space, so we followed the exact dimensions of the room as well as the correct measurements of each extant object positioned within. This meant a lot of reshuffling and moving of items, while also thinking about the flow and function of the space. Using floorplanning software, we went through various layouts. This really helped us to think about how the room was actually used, as well as how people entering the room might have interacted with the space – what they might have seen and in what order.
5. Creative commissioning
To create an immersive experience, work with creative people.
We commissioned four brilliant creative writers to help us bring the room and its residents to life. We gave them information about four people associated with the town and property in the 1620s, worked up into fictionalised characters, along with short ‘catalogue’ style descriptions of each of our ‘hero’ objects, taken from our digital exhibition. Each took on one of the four characters and wrote insightful and emotive narratives evoking their characters interactions with our hero objects. These narratives were then performed by four talented actors and their voices will feature in the room as it is encountered by users. Some of the writers and actors commissioned for this creative aspect of the reconstruction were not familiar with the specific time period of the project, so their imaginings of the different interactions, responses and experiences people may have had with the room and its contents has been one of the most insightful aspects of this work. We can’t wait to share this creative and emotive element to our reconstruction.
6. The design brief
Essential when commissioning artists and designers.
Creating a design brief meant putting all our research, selections and examples in one place, but it also helped us to refocus the purpose and aims of the project. Our brief for the digital heritage artist, Grant Cox, who has modelled the room included background to the project, an overview of its purpose and audiences, and other logistical pieces of information. The floorplan, object selections and extant examples accompanied the brief with numerous visual aids and website links. A brief is an essential starting point for any artistic commission: it is a useful reference point and ensures that the research remains central to the more creative elements of reconstruction.
Be available for discussion and meetings.
Emails, meetings and regular communications are perhaps the most important elements of any digital reconstruction project. We’ve been lucky enough to work with a digital heritage artist from ArtasMedia who is passionate about recreating objects, sites and scenes from the past. From a single stitch on a tapestry cushion to the light cast on a wooden armchair, we have spent hours discussing minute details of shape, surface texture, colour, quality and condition. This has been an exciting part of project and through these discussions we have seen the room take shape. Dedicating time to regularly meet those involved in creating the room not only aids decision-making but allows you to be a part of the technical and creative process of digitally co-producing the space.
8. Handing over the reins
Making space for others to bring their skills and knowledge to the project makes for a more creative, inclusive and enlightening experience.
We set out to virtually create an immersive, emotive experience of middling domestic life in the 1620s. This, however, required expertise beyond our remit. The project’s research, goals and objectives may have been the starting point, but we had to hand over a significant amount of responsibility and trust to those with the creative and digital skills to bring the room to (virtual) life. We’ve worked with creative writers, actors, digital artists and storytellers whose skill is to reproduce the past in creative ways. The process of reconstruction is incredibly collaborative, and this is one of the greatest rewards and benefits of such a project.
We hope we’ve shed a little light on our approach and experience so far. Virtual reconstruction projects take time, research and resource and, in truth, there are no easy steps or shortcuts. Nonetheless, the process itself produces valuable insights and significant outcomes for any historical research project. We’re currently working with a digital storyteller to explore how people will encounter and interact with the virtual space and its contents. For this, we are going back to our aims and objectives, but also thinking about the nature of our audiences and how their engagement can help us understand our historical evidence in new ways. We want the room to be educational, emotional and immersive, but we also want it to be entertaining and challenging. For example, how does it feel not to be able to interact with certain objects and what does this say about the different gender, age, education and life experience of different members of the middling? What if some of the objects evoke sadness and loss, while others bring back memories of thwarted love? Experiencing the reconstructed room might not always be comfortable, but it offers the opportunity to engage with the complexity of past lives and culture in ways that the typical historic house interior rarely manages.
We’ll be offering more thoughts and findings in the coming months as we reach the final stages of our reconstruction. We’re truly excited to share the finished product and learn from how its virtual visitors use it.