British Academy Digital Modelling Workshop, Dec. 2015.

Reading recently hosted a digital modelling workshop, run by Matthew Nicholls and funded by the British Academy’s Rising Star Engagement Award (BARSEA) scheme. The aim of the day was to introduce participants to digital modelling in SketchUp, accessible free software that provides an ideal entry into digital visualisation. Dr Nicholls, a Roman historian, has used this software to create his own large digital model of ancient Rome, and teaches undergraduates how to make their own models in a module on Roman Silchester which won the Guardian/HEA’s Teaching Excellence award in 2014.


Dr Matthew Nicholls' BARSEA-funded SketchUp workshop

Dr Matthew Nicholls’ BARSEA-funded SketchUp workshop

Having adopted digital modelling in his own research and teaching work, Dr Nicholls is keen to share its benefits with others. He has spoken about it in many contexts, including talks to fellow academics and schoolteachers, in presentations at SketchUp’s Basecamp conferences in Colorado and London, and in lectures and YouTube videos. The British Academy’s BARSEA scheme offered a chance to share expertise with scholars in other humanities disciplines, through funding for a workshop disseminating practical digital skills.

This workshop ran on 14th December, in a computer lab on the Reading campus. Participants included academics, PhD and post-doctoral researchers, a school teacher, and museum professionals from 11 different institutions; the disciplines represented ranged from classics and ancient history to English literature, medieval history, landscape archaeology, and geomatics. Attendees were contemplating digital visualisation projects including illustrating theses and articles, presenting museum artefacts to the general public, conducting academic research projects, and engaging sixth form classical civilisation school pupils. Graduate student assistants Els Meijer and Philip Smither helped with the planning and smooth running of the day.

Participants working on their digital models in SketchUp

Participants working on their digital models in SketchUp

The workshop covered the principles and methodologies of digital reconstruction, and the practicalities of using SketchUp. The handout for the day is attached here: the workshop covered the basics of navigating the programme’s viewport and interface; principles of ‘tidy’ modelling including disciplined use of layers and groups; modelling functions such as the line and polygon tools, move, push-pull, follow me, and erase; importing and manipulating images and textures; geo-location and terrain modelling; and presentational tools such as shadow settings, viewing styles, scene creation, and various export modes. The aim was to send people away with a good idea of the software’s capabilities and some inspiration about how it might add to their own research and teaching work.

Participants found the day a useful introduction to the software, and a good starting point for thinking about visualisation projects of their own. Although there are plenty of online resources for those experimenting with SketchUp, a concentrated day workshop, in the company of experts and others sharing a common interest and related academic goals, proved to a be a useful and stimulating experience. All involved are grateful to the British Academy for its support.

The next event under Dr Nicholls’ BARSEA grant will be a colloquium at Reading in spring 2016 on digital visualisation in the Humanities; proposals for papers are welcomed.

Handout part 1 – interface and windows; importing and scaling a plan; draw tools.

Handout part 2 – important position textures; scale, follow me, section plane, scenes, shadows, and terrain tools.

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