Hexham Abbey

Project dates: 
Spring - Autumn 2014

Hexham Abbey began life as one the ground-breaking continental style churches built by St Wilfrid in the 7th century. Still retaining its extraordinary Anglo-Saxon crypt, constructed from re-used Roman stone and built by Wilfrid to evoke both the catacombs of Rome and the tomb of Christ, the abbey today is a fascinating amalgam of the many phases of its long history. The Hexham Abbey project was to present this rich and largely hidden history to visitors in a way which was engaging, thought-provoking and fun. We were commissioned to create a digital model of the abbey's development through time, from Wilfrid's church to the present day, and to incorporate the archaeological and historical evidence in ways which would encourage people to explore and question for themselves. The result is a touch-screen based interface composed of model phases and layered information which can be explored as visitors' interest dictates, but which allows people to see some of the exhibition objects on display in their historical context and to understand more about the evolution of the building and the role in the history of the area.

The biggest challenge facing us was the reconstruction of the Wilfrid's church. Although tantalisingly described in some respects in contemporary or early sources, there was little hard evidence to go on and some extremely ambiguous archaeological data to interpret. We were fortunate to have the advice and input of Professor Richard Bailey and Professor Eric Cambridge whose expertise was brought to bear on the tentative reconstructions we based on continental comparanda and the limited evidence available. The result is something which stands up to academic scrutiny, but which also adds something meaningful to the debate. The process of creating a 3D digital model is an unforgiving one and details which can be elegantly elided in a written piece are brought into sharp focus when trying to rebuild something! The 'many coloured columns' or 'twisting staircases' - where were they, how many, how tall, staircases to where? - and so on. Further excavation and research will undoubtedly add to our knowledge and perhaps challenge or refute our work, but bringing Wilfrid' s church back to some kind of life after 1300 years was surprisingly moving and reinforced just how special Hexham was and is.