Medieval castle site of unique Brock grad student opportunities

The setting looks freshly plucked from a fairytale or the legendary stories of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, but this medieval English castle is instead home to a wealth of opportunities for Brock University graduate students.

Over the next seven years, up to 11 Master of Arts students have the chance to join David T. Brown, Brock Associate Professor of Geography and Tourism Studies, in researching the surroundings of picturesque Herstmonceux Castle and other heritage landscapes in East Sussex.

The chosen team will work to create a roadmap for tourism interpretation by a wide audience, contributing to the project “Environments of Change: Digitizing Nature, History, and Human Experience in Late Medieval Sussex.” 

Brown is the Brock co-applicant on this interdisciplinary initiative funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and led by Steven Bednarski of St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo.

Time-lapse animation of the north face of Herstmonceux Castle showing its transformation from a virtual ruin (1900) to its current state (final photo taken in 2017) after a period of extensive restoration (1914 -1935).

Work with Brown’s Environments of Change will combine fieldwork and archival research with digital media skills, including photography, mapping, audio and video recording, and emerging techniques like augmented and virtual reality.

For students, the unique and exciting opportunity also involves “transportation and accommodation overseas in England with a bunch of really cool people from very diverse backgrounds,” Brown says.

“It’s a nice way to bring small pieces into a big picture,” he says, noting the very broad range of time, geographical area and subject material that’s covered, as well as the number of stakeholders already involved in the initiative. 

According to Brown, Environments of Change is as much a process as a project. 

“We have a clear idea of where we want to go,” he says, “but, depending on who gets on board, what students we have and the synergies among the partners, it’s hard to predict exactly how we’re going to get there.”

His team will focus on developing approaches, tools and techniques for digital interpretation of cultural and natural landscapes. For this project, they will start with the landscapes surrounding Herstmonceux Castle and expand into other heritage landscapes as the project progresses.

Built in the 15th century, the medieval castle’s “documented period of human history provides a longer look back than we might have in some of our own domestic scenarios,” he says.

Until recently, visitors to historic and cultural sites were often limited to reading static text on plaques, Brown says. But technology can respond to what he calls the “whole spectrum of inquiry” from casual tourists with little prior knowledge to academics and others with very focused niche interests. 

“We tend to forget that today’s lived experience is tomorrow’s history,” says David T. Brown, Associate Professor of Geography and Tourism Studies.

Graduate students will have an opportunity to build on the Interpretours digital interpretive platform and its associated Guidetags mobile app, which were designed, built and maintained by Brown and his colleagues. The platform allows visitors to create sophisticated point-of-interest profiles for significant natural, cultural or historical sites using digital multimedia, as well as customized itineraries to experience and learn about the destinations in real time, in the field.

“Another interesting possibility is to gamify the interpretive experience,” says Brown, who is also involved in Brock’s Centre for Digital Humanities.

Fine-tuning the technology and assessing the feasibility of potential new features will be among the tasks facing his research team. 

Although the history of Herstmonceux is already quite well documented, Brown expects the new knowledge and digital information generated by the project to have implications far beyond the castle grounds. The technologies developed, including enhancements to his digital interpretation platform, are generic and can be used to interpret and explore landscapes anywhere in the world. 

Documenting change over time is not a new phenomenon — people have sketched, taken photos, created and collected postcards, and maintained legal and civil records for centuries — but, Brown says, it was not always done purposefully. Channelled through the platform, and with the informed consent of users, new information and the context under which it was collected can be time- and date-stamped, and geolocated using GPS technology. 

“When you collect that data over time on an ongoing basis from hundreds of users, you start to get a very compelling dataset,” he says. “You can potentially create a really wonderful resource for documenting and understanding of what’s going on in that environment.”

That understanding is crucial, says Brown, because it’s only when people understand a place that they value it.

East facade of Herstmonceux Castle in 1918. (Photo used with permission from Country Life Magazine)

“The decisions that we make, the activities that we undertake, the policy decisions, the large-scale and small-scale changes that we undertake on an ongoing basis end up having dramatic effects on the long-term outcomes for a particular landscape.”

As they discover the “rationale and the story behind why things look the way they do,” Brown’s grad students will get to see, shape and experience environmental history up close.

“Our job is to make people recognize that continuum, how those patterns fit together, and how history is a living thing.”

Additional details of the Environments of Change graduate opportunity, including instructions for applying, are available online.

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