How reliable is the internet when researching built heritage? This is a question that needs to be asked by anyone that is researching the past, whether it is a person, a place or a building. There is plenty of information out there, but it varies wildly in quality.
Without care and attention to detail there are real dangers that you could focus in on erroneous information.
Recently we have been doing extensive research into the life and work of one of the Highlands most renowned architects, Alexander Ross. With the local archives and museums closed, we have had to lean more heavily on online resources.
As much of what we do involves an analysis of the architecture, the building itself is the best piece of objective evidence that we can use in any investigation. If we can’t visit the buildings in person, we can draw a great deal of information directly from photographs. We can run these through our software and generate 3 dimensional models which allows us to identify the key features and details of a building that are of architectural significance. We can then link these to other buildings and follow the evolution of ideas directly.
Take the photograph above. Note the proportions of the openings, the decorative mouldings around the doorway. All of which create a visual link to other buildings in the vicinity.
Now look at its mirror image, altered in the eighties to create a modern shop front.
The buildings do not exist in isolation, and over time, they gather stories around them. People will express an opinion, sometime positive sometimes negative. Others will share memories and anecdotes about the building. Others will raise issues that are secondary to the building in order to give context of the development.
It is here that we start to encounter problems.
Problem number 1
It is too easy to copy and paste information from one web site to another and onto social media. It is a real surprise to see passages from a small number of books copied word for word on to the internet without any examination of their merits. This is often presented as the original content of the web page owner. It is not just informal tourist venues doing a bit of marketing, on occasion it is on official sources. Once an error creeps in, it copied and pasted and repeated and repeated. It is impossible to erase it or correct it.
This how they building looks today.
Problem number 2
There is little distinction drawn between fact and opinion. Items presented as facts aren’t checked to see whether there is other supporting evidence. Opinions aren't challenged to see whether they are based on correct facts and a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the subject or whether they are based on errors, misinformation and a lack of knowledge.
There is a danger that a sound understanding and appreciation of our heritage will be drowned out by a fictionalised caricature, that however entertaining is nevertheless false.
Is one thing when the research is only for discussion, things become more serious when this issue concerns conservation, repair or adaptation of historic buildings. Once historic fabric is removed, it is gone forever, it is therefore important to ensure that decisions are based on the best information available. Leaving aside the artistic and aesthetic qualities, we need to be able to recognise and understand important features and their significance, so that we do not erase evidence that defines the history and identity of the building or place and will be important to future research.
Here are a couple tips;
- Ensure that source material is acknowledged. If it was taken from somewhere else, say so. If it hasn’t been checked, say so. Otherwise put in the hours; uncover the supporting evidence, read the source material for yourself and recognise the difference between opinion and facts.
- If you are expressing a view, highlight the evidence on which conclusions are based and the reasons why you have reached a particular conclusion.
- Acknowledge the limits of your expertise, (this includes professionals). There is always the possibility, no matter how diligent that we try to be, that we are wrong!
Follow these tips and we will create a more engaging conversation that invites further research and the development of a better understanding of the subject.
MAAC studio are accredited conservation architects and principal designers working with traditional buildings throughout Scotland.