Technology undertaken by the School of Engineering and Digital Arts opens up Cathedral archives to public

New technology developed by the universities of Kent and Rouen has enabled rare and valuable manuscripts usually stored in Canterbury Cathedral’s Archives to become more accessible to the public.

Developed as part of a cross-channel EU INTERREG IVa project, the DocExplore software enables digitised versions of historical documents to be explored via a touch-screen, simulating, as far as possible, the experience of accessing the physical object itself.

The display celebrating the completion of DocExplore will commence at Canterbury Cathedral on Tuesday 3 September and run until 19 September. It will then travel around Kent and Medway to several venues including Rochester Cathedral and the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone. A similar display will be held in Rouen at the same time.

Both displays will allow visitors to virtually turn the pages of precious manuscripts and also give them the opportunity to learn about each document through commentaries and film and sound clips. The displays will also feature background information on the DocExplore project.

Manuscripts featured in the DocExplore displays include the 17th century travel diary of John Bargrave, early charters of French kings and a hand-illustrated prayer book known as a Book of Hours.

In addition, on 13 and 14 September only, there will be an exhibition of manuscripts from the Cathedral Archives, entitled ‘Sharing Histories’. This will provide a rare opportunity to see some of the treasures from the cathedral’s manuscript collections, which date back to before the Norman Conquest.

Items on show will include documents from Anglo-Saxon times, an agreement bearing the signature of William the Conqueror known as the Accord of Winchester, documents related to the life and murder of St Thomas Becket, and artefacts from John Bargrave’s unique 17th-century museum. This exhibition forms part of the Heritage Open Days initiative.

The research and development of the software was undertaken by EDA, led by Dr Richard Guest and Professor Michael Fairhurst.

Dr Guest said: ‘Our software enables a wide cross-section of the public to interact with documents in exciting ways using the latest touch screen technology. Exhibition visitors will be able to explore digital documents which are enhanced with media such as videos and maps. The system can also be used by historical scholars who will be able to perform novel analysis methods to analyse writing styles and identify different authors.’

Cressida Williams, of Canterbury Cathedral Archives, commented: ‘The DocExplore project provides us with exciting and up-to-date ways to open up access to our fantastic collections. We are delighted to have been able to work with computer scientists and professional historians at the University of Kent and at the University of Rouen on the project, and are looking forward to celebrating its completion with the display and exhibition.’

Catherine Richardson, Reader in Renaissance Studies at the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (MEMS), added: ‘DocExplore has offered us a wonderful opportunity to combine our research into the material culture of books and writing with 21st century technologies, to help a whole new group of people outside the archive to experience and interact with these documents.’