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Exeter Cathedral Keystones and Carvings:
A Case Study in Project Management

One day in 1976, Professor Avril Henry, of the University of Exeter, entered the town's cathedral to discover workmen repainting the medieval bosses. Inspecting more closely, she was alarmed to find that the painters were ruining the original art, introducing bright blobs of modern colours and covering up the intricate details that had once graced the bosses. The potential loss of centuries-old craftsmanship in the cathedral inspired Professor Henry to initiate the Exeter Cathedral Keystones and Carvings (ECKC) project. She first contacted the Cathedrals Advisory Commission, as a result of which the professional restoration of the cathedral's artwork was undertaken by the late Anna Hulbert, who worked in long-term collaboration with Professor Henry in the ECKC project. Once the restoration had been completed, Professor Henry wanted to publish photographs of the cathedral's painting and sculptures, and the associated text they had both written, in hard copy format. However, with over 1100 images (over 200 of which were in colour) it was realised, a few years into the project, that traditional publishing would prove too expensive. Various other forms of publication, such as microfiche, were tested through the 1980s, but it was not until the 1990s that, with technology having reached a sufficient standard, a digital version of the Exeter Keystones and Carvings could be considered. Even then, the project continued to struggle as publishing houses failed to comprehend the complex requirements of such a scholarly undertaking. Only following discussions, which commenced in 1999, with VADS (who host the final product), and the web designer company Tell Communications, did Professor Henry ensure progress towards electronic publication of the cathedral artwork.

While transferring from a printed to an electronic medium offers many advantages, it also involves many new challenges. In composing a traditional monograph, an academic's task is primarily devoted to supplying learned text, whereas the digital project demands an awareness of legal, business, technical and graphic issues. This article summarises the various tasks that faced Professor Henry in managing the Exeter project.

Creating a Specification

During the course of 1990s, Professor Henry had contact with a number of publishing houses, private firms offering digitisation services and various academic departments. She hoped to be able to find the digital expertise necessary to translate the photographs and text into an integrated electronic whole. In many cases, however, these contacts were unable to supply Professor Henry with the assistance she required. This was partially a problem of technology - many publishing houses had still to grasp fully the potential for electronic editions.

Finally, however, a local company was commissioned to digitise the photographs of the Exeter art, and provide a sample of how the final project could appear. The relationship between the ECKC project and the local firm was a tortuous one. The unbelievably poor quality of the sample CD that they produced, nowhere near the necessary standards, was symptomatic of this. Concentrating on the cathedral's bosses (the painted carvings at the apex of each vault) the sample CD-ROM had, amongst other faults, an interface which allowed the user little freedom in choosing which text to read, rather garish taste in its colouring scheme, and a serious lack of titles, captions, documentation, and other devices to explain to the user what position he or she was in. Figure 1 is a good example.

Figure 1 - A sample from an early CD-ROM

Figure 1 - A sample from an early CD-ROM

While the initiated might just grasp that this is a depiction of the ceiling of Exeter Cathedral, the new user might not understand this - there is, after all, no accompanying text to explain what the diagram represents. Such an example illustrated that the company had next to no knowledge of how academic material should be presented in electronic form. There were additional problems: the company took several years to perform the digitisation, and the firm went bankrupt before producing a satisfactory CD-ROM.

Professor Henry faced similar problems when she attempted to run the project inside academia. She hoped that various contacts would help enhance the digitised pictures and produce both a website and CD-ROM that would include the illustrations and their associated text. However, the outcome was still not satisfactory. A lack of understanding meant that the product was not suitable, especially with regard to the quality of the images required. After the images had been enhanced they looked fine on screen, but when accessed from the CD-ROM, they were 'squashed', with the bosses appearing elliptical rather than circular.

Professor Henry realised that the project would never be accomplished if she did not prepare her own detailed specification of how she wanted the electronic publication to operate. This meant specifying the interface, how text and image were to overlap and providing a sense of the graphics to be used. It also meant acquiring a broad understanding of the technical issues surrounding graphics - issues such as formats, file sizes, and resolutions, which all effect how the images will appear to the user, and therefore should be of concern to the project manager.

Initially, this was a tricky task; Professor Henry could find no standard model or on-campus experience to help her construct a specification. However, the earlier problems Professor Henry had with the reluctance of external bodies to provide help and support were now disappearing. The ECKC was finding help from knowledgeable individuals, such as Dr Dave Edmondson of the Innovation and Technology Transfer Centre in Plymouth.

Other Issues

Creating the specification was part of a larger set of skills that Professor Henry had to acquire during the running of the project. It is common, Professor Henry remarked, for academics involved in such projects to lack the business and legal skills necessary to arrange contracts with external bodies. Various business difficulties - bankrupt firms, slow delivery times etc. - persuaded Professor Henry to learn more about business planning, as well as to seek out specific help when arranging the financial and legal aspects of contracts. For example during negotiations with VADS & Tell Communications, Professor Henry's business knowledge has given her a clearer sense of what rights she wishes to retain. Whilst retaining rights to original data, Professor Henry would like her specification to be a template for other cathedrals in the country, so that keystones, carvings and other cathedral art could be documented according to a common formula.

Organising funding is a branch of project management familiar to all academics. Much like traditional academic projects, money had to be raised from funding bodies to assist during the preparation of the intellectual content of the ECKC - but funding was also required to pay for technically knowledgeable research assistants, the process of digitisation and interface creation. Unfortunately, an unwarranted suspicion of the electronic medium from both internal and external funding bodies made raising money during the earlier parts of the project more difficult.1 However, funding bodies are now less wary of the possibilities of electronic publication. The Leverhulme Trust has been particularly helpful, having fully grasped the technical and scholarly issues involved. This resulted in Professor Henry being rewarded with a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship, which paid for the interface creation by Tell Communications.

Good financial judgement has also been required when negotiating with the various publishers. Numerous factors (the number of photographs to be published, their resolution, the complexity of the interface) all influenced the possible costings, and therefore the scope of the final product.

Now that the project has been in existence for quite some time, Professor Henry has also seen the importance of documenting its various stages. Negotiations with other bodies are eased if information on the history and contours of the project is easily available to them; indeed, Professor Henry has often needed to refer back to earlier notes so as to try to clarify certain issues in the project. Numerous details should be recorded from precise technical specifications to the subtle shifts in the broad vision of the project. Material that seems obvious and unforgettable to project managers at their inception may not be so transparent a few years down the line. This is a problem that is exacerbated by the inevitable departure of staff who may work on a project for several years. With many recent changes to the project in the last few years, Professor Henry has been especially anxious to record the chronology of her project.

Figure 2 - An Exeter Cathedral boss representing the murder of Thomas Becket

Figure 2 - An Exeter Cathedral boss representing the murder of Thomas Becket. The black and white photograph was taken before the original colouring was covered by the modern repainting

© (Crown Copyright NMR)

VADS - Disseminating the Project

Now that Internet delivery is becoming a more frequent mode of publication, Professor Henry has profited from the support of specialists such as VADS and Tell Communications. Tell Communications, Plymouth, were contracted to produce the resource to Professor Henry's specification, with VADS providing the on-line delivery and archiving.

VADS' ability to deliver resources on the Internet will constitute for Professor Henry an "invaluable contribution" to the Exeter Cathedral project. The expertise of VADS in preservation will allow for the continued accessibility of the Exeter Cathedral material. Much of the history of Professor Henry's project has been dogged by the accelerating pace of format technology and the relative inability of many others to cope with this change. Attempts to record the data on microfiche in the 1980s were dashed by the sudden redundancy of the medium and the shortcomings of the firm involved. VADS' knowledge of standards and open systems architecture offers the project manager the opportunity to safeguard their data for the foreseeable future. VADS also fields user enquiries relating to its delivery and maintenance.

Nevertheless, technical consultants, such as VADS, are not there to finalise details on behalf of those running digitisation projects, but to provide guidance. Individual choices on a variety of issues do still need to be made, and managers need to be aware of what those choices will entail. For example, copyright, complex in this instance, has had to be safeguarded. This is normally a particularly laborious task, but here it has been made more difficult for Professor Henry by the long time span (almost a quarter of a century) since the photographs were taken, by the changing formats for delivery and by the untimely death, on 10 April 2000, of Anna Hulbert. Professor Henry had originally organised copyright clearances for distribution on CD-ROM but has had to reaffirm this now that the digitised images are being distributed on the Internet. The latter has only been made acceptable to copyright holders by Tell's use of an electronic "watermarking" of each image.

Finally, the project manager must be present to ensure that the resource is being implemented according to her design, in terms of both its production and its subsequent delivery and archiving. While the 'technical' parties involved have considerable expertise in matters of digitisation, they still require Professor Henry's knowledge of medieval art and history to ensure that the content is being created and delivered without error. The creation of links between texts and images can be partly automated, but verification of each link is essential.

The Exeter Cathedral Keystones and Carvings were available on the VADS website from Spring 2001. For Professor Henry and her late co-author it has been a long trek, branching down many unexpected routes, whether they be legal, financial, or technical. To respond to these diverse challenges and to exploit the opportunities presented by a disseminating and archiving body such as VADS, and by the skills of web-design experts like Tell Communications, Professor Henry has had to become acquainted with a range of skills. Being aware of the need to apply these skills is an integral part of running a successful digitisation project.

Footnotes

1. The Association of Union Teachers website (http://www.aut.org.uk) carried a press release relating to Exeter University's withdrawal of funding from Professor Henry's project. According to the press release: "The university withdrew the funding for her work when a change in the timetable of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) meant that the work would not be eligible for submission to the 2001 RAE because she would have retired by then."

 

 

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