The Virtual St. Stephen’s Project

Listening to the pre-1834 House of Commons, by Catriona Cooper

In Spring 2016 we were subcontracted by University of York to convert a visual model of the pre-1834 House of Commons, St. Stephen’s Chapel Westminster to an acoustic model. The work was commissioned as part of the Virtual St Stephen’s Project, an AHRC-funded research project and was a collaboration between the departments of History (Dr John Cooper), and Electronics (Dr Damian Murphy).

One of the major elements of the project was the creation of a three dimensional computer model detailing St. Stephen’s chapel at various points in its lifetime. The three dimensional model was then used on a touch screen device to allow visitors to interact with the reconstruction. Creating these models not only provides a great opportunity for public engagement it also allows evidence from a range of sources to be brought together and used to create an interpretation of a lost space.

The Virtual St Stephen's Interactive model

The Virtual St Stephen’s Interactive model

However, as beautiful and engaging as these models are they do not consider the soundscape of the space. In recent years archaeologists have started to explore the opportunities for applying acoustic technology. Catriona came to AAL following the completion of her PhD looking at this technique.

For the Virtual St Stephen’s project we started with the three dimensional mode produced by Dr. Anthony Masinton and simplified it to use as an acoustic model. Acoustic technology is not as sophisticated as the technology to produce visualisations; the models have to be less complex. They also use the same information in slightly different ways. Both models require the size and shape of a space to be accurate, however; where a visualisation needs information about how surfaces are coloured and textured, an acoustic model needs to understand how sound will reflect, or be absorbed by different materials.

The acoustic model of St. Stephen's Chapel, Westminster

The acoustic model of St. Stephen’s Chapel, Westminster

The resulting model can provide a series of numerical values which tell us about the space; how sound decays from various positions in the room, how clearly sounds can be heard. We can also create auralizations; acoustic reconstructions. Under the right conditions they allow a listener to experience sound from the modelled space. We hope to use these models to explore the experience of listening to speeches in the pre-1834 House of Commons.

The project featured on The Lost Chapel of Westminster on BBC Parliament on Sunday and is still available on iPlayer.

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