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Picturing Scotland

Picturing Scotland with Wiki Loves Monuments

By Sara Thomas, Scotland Programme Coordinator at Wikimedia UK and formerly Wikimedian in Residence at Museums Galleries Scotland. 

In 2015-16 I was the Wikimedian in Residence for Museums Galleries Scotland, training museum staff to edit Wikipedia, and generally being enthusiastic about open knowledge to anyone who would listen.  These days I’m continuing that work in my new role as Scotland Programme Coordinator for Wikimedia UK, working with all kinds of organisations to open up Scotland’s culture and heritage to a global audience.  And in September, that means Wiki Loves Monuments.

Wiki Loves Monuments is an international photo competition – the world’s largest – that aims to make high quality openly licensed images of the world’s listed buildings and scheduled monuments available to anyone in the world, through Wikimedia Commons.  And as you can see from this interactive map, there’s rather a lot of Scotland missing.  I’d like to turn some of those red pins blue.  Actually, I’d like to turn rather a lot of them blue.  Which is where you come in.

Picturing Scotland

There are prizes for the top 3 images in Scotland (sponsored by Wikimedia UK and Archaeology Scotland), as well as the top 10 images in the UK.  The latter then go forward to the international competition. Last year a Scottish image came second in the UK competition and I hope we can match that.

You can take a look at what’s already been submitted here.  Currently we’re holding our own against England, Wales & Northern Ireland, but there are still three weeks to go…

Why you should get involved

Encouraging the creation of openly-licensed cultural heritage resources is a natural extension of museums’ existing commitment to outreach. Helping to preserve those items for future generations.  The recent fires at both the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, and the Mackintosh Building at the Glasgow School of Art are tragic reminders of how quickly key parts of our history and culture can be lost. The New Palmyra project has shown how valuable digital reconstruction can be. Wikipedia is encouraging people to contribute to the movement to digitally reconstruct the contents of the Rio museum, by donating images to Wikimedia Commons.

Images on Wikimedia Commons are licensed most commonly under a CC-BY-SA license. (Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike), which means that anyone can use those images, as long as they attribute them to the person who took them, and share using the same license.  This means that anyone – schools, students, and the general public, can access, learn from, and re-use these images for free. The images can also be used on any of Wikipedia’s sites – available in nearly 300 languages worldwide, and view-able by a global audience. Many museums are now releasing images of out of copyright works into the digital commons, like the Rijksmuseum, or the National Library of Wales (NLW) adding 10,000 images to Wikimedia Commons over the last 4 years. Over 455 million people have seen images from NLW that have been added to Wikipedia articles!

How you can get involved

Do you work in, or live near a listed building or scheduled monument? Have you visited any recently?  Is there a picture of it in our database? (Again, you can use our interactive map to check.) Pictures don’t have to have been taken in September – just uploaded in September – to be eligible for the competition.

All you need is a camera (or indeed, camera phone), and a Wikimedia Commons account (very easy to set up, and if you already have a Wikipedia account, you don’t even need to do that), and you’re ready to go. There are full instructions here about how to make your submission. Check out the video below from Wikimedia UK which shows how simple it is to take part.

Do you have a group of volunteers in your museum who are interested in photography, or perhaps you have a heritage walk of your local area planned? Are some of your staff are keen photographers? Is a picture of your museum in the database? If not, now is a perfect chance to add one.



“Am I a Monument?”

Some fun for the weekend. Play the classic 1950s get-together game Am I a Monument? – the “delightful thawing game”. Guess the monument that’s been pinned to your back by asking the other players yes/no questions such as “Am I a bridge?”

Am I a Monument? game
Am I a Monument? game

A bargain at only one shilling-and-tuppence three-farthing (including tax). Endless fun to be had by all!

Price label
Price label

From beginner to prize winner in a few months

Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens‘ by Sarah Ellacott is licensed CC BY-SA 3.0.

In October 2013, I received an unexpected email. A photo I had taken of the Albert Memorial and submitted to Wiki Loves Monuments UK had placed in the Top Ten as a Highly Commended photo.

I was shocked. Never in a million years had I expected one of the four photos I had submitted to the competition to place in the Top Ten.

The reason why – I was an amateur photographer, who had only received their first DSLR about six months earlier. I was still learning how to use certain components of the camera and my editing skills were shaky at best.

The photo that had placed, had been taken on an early June evening as my daughter and I wandered around Kensington Gardens, ahead of a performance we were to be attending at the Royal Albert Hall. I had noticed the tourists walking around the monument and taking photos, but I didn’t want to take the typical tourist shot, I wanted a different perspective of it, I wanted it to be different.

I couldn’t tell you now, what led me to that spot or even why. All I know was I saw an opportunity at that point for a different vantage point, a different perspective. With the branches and leaves of the tree framing the memorial and the low evening sun behind it, I took my chance and got the shot.

In my eyes, the photo wasn’t anything special. It had been shot on Auto and in JPEG as at the time I was too new and too scared to try to use manual or any other file type. Even so, I was pleased with the photo I had captured.

However, it seemed the judges of the UK National competition of Wiki Loves Monuments did think it was something special.

Knowing this, it gave me a boost in my confidence in my skills and potential as a photographer. It also gave me something to focus on, an interest in which to take photos – architecture.

Since 2013, I have continued to pursue my interest in photography, slowly improving my skills. I have also continued to partake in the competition, which led to one of my photos placing second internationally in 2014. I have had many of my photos which I have submitted also used across Wikipedia, despite them not placing in the competitions.

My message to those amateur photographers who are too nervous to compete against professionals, please don’t be. I am proof that someone with limited knowledge of photography can create a special shot and place within a competition. However, even if your photos do not place, you are helping to build a collection of images of important historic buildings and an amazing resource for future generations.

This is even more important than ever with wars and natural disasters threatening and destroying historic architecture across the world. A prime example of this is the partial destruction of the Old City of Aleppo because of the Syrian Civil War. Thankfully, Wikipedia has numerous photos of the beautiful city from before its destruction. Therefore, if you can capture a photo of a Listed Building, then please do. You never know how important that one photo will be.

Experiences Take better photos

Special photos and Open House

Royal Albert Hall – Central View 169” by Colin is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Royal Albert Hall is best known for hosting the “BBC Proms”, a summer festival of classical music concerts. Opened in 1871, it stands 83m wide by 72m deep and 41m high, with capacity for over 5000 guests. As fitting for Victorian Britain, the hall is ornately decorated, with red and gold the dominant colours. The fibreglass acoustic diffusing discs, normally beige, are here coloured by violet LED lights.

The building is only open to the public when attending a concert or on a guided tour, neither of which afford the time or opportunity to take high quality photographs. Fortunately, the RAH takes part in Open House London, an annual architecture festival where over 800 buildings are opened for free to the public over one weekend in September.

As a photographer in London, Open House is one of my favourite weekends of the year. The focus of the event is architecture, both modern and historical. Some buildings have extremely limited access, with a ballot run to award tickets. For example, access to 10 Downing Street or going up the BT Tower, but this also includes many small places that could not handle large crowds such as private residences. Other buildings are extremely popular, with huge queues to access. The Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe) is a prime example, as it can only handle 30 visitors at a time. Many though are more reasonable in terms of queues and volume of guests.

I decided to visit the Royal Albert Hall on Open House Saturday last year and joined the relatively short queue to enter at 9:30. Guests were guided round a set route which took in most areas of the building, including access to selected areas of seating on most levels. Photographically, this was a big advantage as the downside to Open House is that fellow visitors crowd in front of the camera, providing not only a distraction to the eye but also making long-exposure photography very tricky. Here, though, it was possible to photograph the hall without visitors appearing in the frame.

The image above is not a single photograph, but is stitched together from 21 frames. In fact, I took around 40 frames that cover a wide and tall area, and this is just a crop of the full stitched image. In order that the frames align correctly without parallax errors, one needs to use a special panoramic head on top of a tripod. This equipment ensures the camera rotates around the “entrance pupil” of the lens, which is where the light rays cross before being focused onto the sensor. The frames are stitched together on a computer, using a software package called PtGui.

One problem with photographing interiors is the extremes of brightness from the dark corners to the bright lights or windows. This is too much for a single photograph to handle with current technology. To get round this, I took three photographs for each frame, at 1/3s, 1.3s and 5s. These three exposures are combined by PtGui to produce a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image. This is then converted back to a standard JPG file with Photoshop Lightroom, using a technique called tonemapping.

The result is an image with far higher resolution, much lower noise, and better lighting control than could be achieved with even the most expensive camera in a single shot. It is time-consuming both to take and to develop afterwards, but this effort paid off with second prize in last year’s Wiki Loves Monuments international awards.


Mythology and Landscape

Gwal y Filiast” by Karen Sawyer is licensed CC BY-SA 3.0.

They say every picture tells a story… well, this is mine. It’s about the relationship between myth and landscape and my connection with a 5,000 year-old cromlech (or dolmen) in Britain that goes by two names; Bwrdd Arthur (‘Arthur’s Table’) and Gwâl y Filiast (‘Lair of the Greyhound Bitch’).

I first visited the cromlech one fine spring day – April 28th 2010, to be precise – shortly after I’d decided to write a book about the Muse. It sits on a hillside above the river Tâf, in a liminal place between two counties in Wales – Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire – called Cilymaenllwyd, which means ‘retreat of the ancient stone’ (cil: ‘retreat’, maen: ‘stone’, llwyd: ‘ancient’). I was immediately enchanted by the place. Little did I know then that, three years later, I would come to live nearby and spend many, many hours here with my dogs, come rain (and snow) or shine, tuning-in and musing upon its original function and appearance.

There’s an old Welsh legend, The Tale of Taliesin, that tells of Ceridwen’s cauldron and her strange brew called Awen (Welsh for ‘Muse’). The story goes that three magical drops touched Gwion’s lips and he became wise (the name Taliesin means ‘shining intellect’). I was reading The Mythology and Rites of the British Druids (1809) by Edward Davies and nearly fell off my chair when he said that;

“…in the tale of Taliesin’s initiation, the table of Arthur is connected with the mysteries of Ceridwen, and in Llan Beudy [Llanboidy] parish, in Carmarthenshire, we find a monument which joins the name of Arthur with another name, which we can only refer to that goddess. It is called Bwrdd Arthur, Arthur’s table, and Gwal y Vilast, the couch of the Greyhound bitch.”

In the story, which took place during the days of King Arthur, Gwion turns into a hare and Ceridwen transforms herself into a greyhound bitch and chases him down to the river. Could this cromlech perhaps be the physical locale mentioned in the story? I don’t believe this was a burial chamber or passage tomb – not sepulchral, but chthonic. In the Mysteries of Ancient Greece, initiation took place underground in dark spaces overseen by the Muses. In a sense, Ceridwen was a British Muse; a teacher of these ancient Mysteries in Britain. The cromlech was originally covered by an earthen mound where one could, literally, ‘go within’ and receive insight and inspiration, just as monks retreated to their ‘cells’ and hermitages.

I continued reading: “… the period which was employed in preparing the mystical cauldron, the anniversary of its commencement would fall, of course, upon the twenty-ninth of April.” I looked at the date… it was the 29th April, almost three years to the day of my first visit (make of that what you will).

To me, this is more than just a photograph that I took one cold, winter morning as the sun rose through the mist – it’s about the genius loci of a place; a reminder that the Muse lives on… by a cromlech in a wooded valley somewhere in wild West Wales.

Bydded i’r hen iaith barhau.

~ Karen Sawyer.

To find out more about Karen’s forthcoming book about the Muse, you can connect with her on Twitter @impishkaren or email