The opportunistic development of a 3D visualization of HMS Falmouth achieved its immediate purpose, generating a great deal of media interest and views on Sketchfab to mark the centenary of Falmouth’s loss. The visualization still holds great potential for further development, however, which may be relevant to how visualizations are considered more broadly amongst the tools available to archaeologists. In this regard, it is appropriate to consider the visualization on Sketchfab as a principal tool or output, rather than as popular outreach. A key benefit of visualizations on Sketchfab and other comparable platforms is their accessibility without recourse to the specialist software used in their preparation. They can be likened to the pdf of a journal article (especially as pdfs can now contain 3D content); easy to distribute and discuss, reflecting but not including the detailed data that underpins the conclusion. There is a need, of course, for methodological transparency, peer review and contestability. Such visualizations will undoubtedly improve in detail and capability as technology continues to progress. Even if current visualizations will seem rudimentary in only a few years, they can still be regarded as a reasoned foundation upon which further research, management options and public engagement can be based.
Arguably, the real foundation is the 3D survey data—acquired using multibeam, photogrammetry, laser scanning and so on—rather than the visualization. The presentation of 3D data in a way, however, that can be examined and explored directly by others—including those without specialist skills in the specific survey technologies—changes the context. Visualizations might be regarded as hypotheses reflecting the selectivity and choices made methodologically, but the result can still be tested and interrogated more than a 2D representation of the same data on a physical page. The accessibility of the platform adds to the openness of visualizations, which is important if discussions over future management or physical accessibility are being raised with for example the fishing community or local divers.
One of our aspirations was to incorporate other sources into the visualization, especially the large-scale plans, profiles and sections of Falmouth’s sister-ship HMS Weymouth which are held by the National Maritime Museum. The capacity of visualizations to enable the public to access wrecks which are remote to most people is often commented upon (Kenderdine 1998, 17; Reunanen et al. 2015, 24.3). The same is also true of resources such as documents, drawings, photographs and models that are not intrinsically remote but which are not easily accessible because they are spread around various institutions, in store and/or require special handling. Enabling people to explore such sources virtually—juxtaposed with the ship as a 3D entity and with the remains on the seabed—is a prize worth pursuing.
As well as physical remoteness, the HMS Falmouth visualization might also be considered to counteract a form of conceptual remoteness also. Shipwreck data are not always easy to ‘read.’ As Adams notes, ‘even to experienced eyes the relationship of many wrecks to the complete entity they once were is often far from clear’ (Adams 2013, 94). One of the benefits of multibeam is that images are more readily understood by lay people than other forms of remote sensing, at least in the case of relatively intact wrecks, but HMS Falmouth is perhaps more typical of the many wrecks that are already quite degraded. Using 3D visualizations to juxtapose wrecks with the ships they once were, as we have done in this instance, is therefore a means of making shipwrecks less remote conceptually as well as physically. Even this simple juxtaposition suggests that the remains of HMS Falmouth are more complete and coherent than the history of clearance and salvage might suggest—especially in the buried portion of the lower hull. The impression is at odds with the earlier perception of the wreck as a scrapyard and a good rummage. Hence, conceptual access is not just about reaching audiences: making an association with the ship could help elevate the physical material from random wreckage to meaningful heritage, nudging behaviours towards maritime archaeology both on site and in wider society.
The visualization has also helped in identifying the original position of photographs of crew taken aboard Falmouth (Figs. 12.5 and 12.6), which it might be possible to include in the visualization in future. This has two important aspects. First, it helps in placing people back aboard the ship, to present it as a human, lived-in space, even aboard a warship that was in the thick of the action at times. Although it is possible to place crew photographs based on ship drawings or models, the ability to obtain the same viewpoint as the camera and recreate the same immediate landscape of the people in the historic image provides—literally—a new perspective on the vessel (Fig. 12.5). This is especially valuable insofar as the human dimension of ships in use tends to be obscured by a focus on their design and construction, or on the circumstances of loss. As Adams notes, visualization can help ensure that ‘a ship as a thing cannot be separated from the people who conceived, designed, built, used and either lost or disposed of it’ (Adams 2013, 94). Thinking especially about models such as that of HMS Falmouth, which exist in museum collections and stores in profusion, the comments of Cooper et al. (2018, 17) are apposite:
An abiding challenge for the presentation of watercraft in a dry and static museum gallery is the fact that boats and ships are, in their intended applications, dynamic structures in ever changing aquatic environment. Digital modelling … enables museums to overcome the stasis of the museum object … and engage visitors with the lived experience of vessels …
In this respect, the attempt to place crew photographs aboard Falmouth using the visualization resonated strongly with a line from the diary of a young gunnery officer, Arnold Pears, aboard Falmouth at Jutland and at the time of its loss (LIDDLE/WW1/RNMN/235):
I have no heart to write … the loss of that ship, the symbol to me of my home, my work, my play, my life, my companion in danger, hits me too hard …
The second important aspect of crew photographs is that the visualization has formed part of a project that has become a focus for members of the public to contribute their own stories, associations and sources to HMS Falmouth. This was not a key objective but is a somewhat unintentional (though very welcome) consequence of social media. Photographs and documents relating to the crew have some to light from privately held, personal archives that have been handed down or acquired in conjunction with, for example, medal collecting as a hobby. The personal connections to Falmouth’s crew add considerably to the significance of the vessel as well as being a further source of primary evidence. It cannot be claimed that visualization of HMS Falmouth was an exercise in participation and co-production, as encouraged by Jones et al. (2018). HMS Falmouth does, however, at least point in the direction that such a project might take in the marine sphere. Visualization could prompt and provide a focus for the public in researching their own connections to ships like HMS Falmouth and major themes such as the First World War at sea. This would help to unlock the huge potential of historic material held privately in families and communities, enabling the public to contribute their own knowledge and associations and thereby shape their own maritime histories.
Further opportunities for community-based co-production are provided by the scope to combine the visualization with still photographs and videos of the wreck taken by divers (Fig. 12.6), enabling components of the wreck to be identified and observations to be made on survival and condition. Although the current visualization does not incorporate the ship drawings and diver photographs, it has been used alongside such sources to better understand what survives of the machinery spaces of HMS Falmouth, for example. The visualization could also be used as a focus for future fieldwork by volunteers, perhaps adding detail to the current visualization with localized 3D models derived from underwater photography. Together with the supporting fold-out booklet, the visualization can already help recreational divers to better understand the wreck and the relationship of its features to the original ship. There is potential also for the visualization to provide the basis for a ‘virtual dive trail’ that will enable the non-diving public to visit the wreck.
Remarkably, HMS Falmouth’s Armed Steam Cutter—the principal ship’s boat, which provided an important element of the ship’s capability as a light cruiser—has survived to the present day, despite being abandoned at the time of loss. The cutter was recovered as salvage by a fishing boat (ADM 116/1508) and, after a career of its own, has been acquired by Portsmouth Naval Base Historic Trust. The Trust intends to restore the cutter to steam as part of its Memorial Fleet of small boats. The cutter is prominent on the builder’s model and has been highlighted on Sketchfab, underlining the tremendous range of hitherto disparate historical and archaeological sources that are being re-connected and integrated by the visualization.