This essay addresses our recent experience with the teaching of early modern court architecture through a variety of online tools to an audience of doctoral researchers scattered throughout Europe and Turkey.
On Tuesday, 14 April 2020 a varied team of doctoral students, supervisors, and associated researchers was supposed to gather in Munich for the opening session of the first international training week of the PALAMUSTO program. This Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Innovative Training Network (MSCA ITN) unites five European universities and four museum and heritage institutions in research on the court residence as a phenomenon of cultural exchange, not only in the past but also today and in the future.1 Ten Early Stage Researchers (ESRs in MSCA parlance) had just started their research on different topics of early modern court architecture in the course of March. The “German week” was meant to introduce them to court studies and to the study of the digital humanities, as well as to the “reading” of the early modern court residence through on-site visits in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg in the latter part of the week. This would also have been the first time the complete team of ESRs and supervising PIs of the consortium met in person after the recruitment interviews at the end of November 2019.2 Since the project’s success depends on close collaboration between all ESRs—the ten doctoral theses shall constitute the building blocks of an integrated approach, with a new history of the European court residence as chief goal—the meeting in Germany would also play a crucial role in the necessary team-building. Moreover, MSCA networks like PALAMUSTO are all about mobility within Europe, in this case also trans-sectoral, from academia (university) to the professional world of heritage (palace-museum).
When it became clear in mid-March that it would not be possible to gather in Munich, we switched to digital alternatives for the first part of the training week, using services offered by KU Leuven, the coordinator of the program, and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU), chief organizer of this particular module, for starters. Since time was of the essence in getting all ESRs up to speed in court studies, we did not envisage developing a custom-built online platform, as this would have meant abandoning the original calendar. One advantage of the progressive lockdown in April and May was that the consortium universities stepped up their use of available digital tools, each of which had specific advantages and drawbacks regarding accessibility, security issues, and flexibility.
By the last week of April, PALAMUSTO’s German week could start more or less as originally planned. The first part of the teaching offered an introduction to court studies with case studies from Germany, Belgium, Portugal and The Netherlands. The experts, the majority of whom are the network’s supervisors, recorded their lectures and made them available through KU Leuven’s cloud-hosting service (Box), which was opened up to the external users in the team. For each lecture a Q&A session was organized in a virtual meeting room based on the “Blackboard Collaborate Ultra” tool (part of KU Leuven’s teaching platform Toledo) or by using Zoom Pro (made available by LMU). While Zoom Pro offers very smooth streaming and large visibility of all participants (in our case up to 20), thus creating a more vivid impression of a face-to-face meeting, the Blackboard VMR has some extra features for sharing, comes with a whiteboard, and allows a team to work together on a project.3 Easy and flexible sharing of visual material and texts is essential to the seminar format, an important point when choosing a meeting tool.
Almost inevitably, the original week-long training program was spread out over the course of several weeks, not only to accommodate the transfer to the digital platform but also because of didactic reasons. First of all, every web lecture became longer and more detailed than it would originally have been when condensed into the three days’ teaching period foreseen to take place in Munich (with a limit of two hours, to avoid being too lengthy). Every Q&A session was organized two to three days after the release of the digital lectures in Box; lectures and Q&As were thus spread out over two weeks. Giving the fledgling researchers enough flexibility to watch the lectures at their own pace turned out to be a boon for the intensity and depth of the ensuing discussions, far beyond what could be expected at this early stage of the program.4 In spite of the added workload, the advantages of this way of teaching are such that henceforth all PALAMUSTO’s training modules will have this online version in parallel to the on-site meeting.5 Not only will participants who are absent due to unforeseen circumstances or illness be able to catch up later, but the level of preparation and the degree of absorption in the long term may safely be expected to be much higher. Moreover, PALAMUSTO’s online teaching will lead to a vast body of digital material on court studies, heritage studies, and digital humanities that can later be developed in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), which will allow for dissemination of project research and results to a broader audience.
Though nothing can replace the coffee breaks that we would have had during the live events, the opening and closing sessions did offer an opportunity to get to know one another. As part of the opening session the ten ESRs presented their research topic Pecha Kucha style to the entire group. By doing these short three-minute presentations each of them had to focus on their research questions—a challenge since they had only been working in the program for less than two months—while building up a picture of the different topics and the way they mesh together. This type of online exchange will be regularly repeated in the future, since it allows for the sharing of ideas and valuable resources with each other on a systematic basis. For daily communication we use Slack, where each of the researchers has their own channel, accessible or readable to the entire team so that references and resources of interest for a particular topic can be shared freely. Indeed, though the PALAMUSTO training program offers a unique combination of skills which are valuable for the world of academia as well as for the professional realm, its scientific goal is to create a new history of the court residence. In short, PALAMUSTO is a collaborative effort that demands project-wide thinking from each of the ESRs from the start and in which exchange and collaboration are key.
The results and conclusions of each individual doctoral-research project will be integrated into an online geographic platform, in itself an important challenge. To this end the second part of the “German week” was similarly devoted to prerecorded web lectures introducing the digital humanities, virtual reconstruction, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), with Q&A sessions to follow, but it also included hands-on sessions learning different software packages. All PALAMUSTO ESRs are expected to contribute to the digital platform. Since most of them have a background in art history, we included tutorials on 3D modeling software (Sketchup, ArchiCAD, Cinema4D) and GIS software (ArcGIS Pro). These tutorials took the format of on-screen recordings showing the basics in short manageable videos. We organized Q&A sessions to solve technical and practical issues.
The feedback during the closing session taught us that the “digital turn,” however sudden, was well received and that the early stage researchers appreciated the opportunity to follow the lectures at their own pace. Timing remains an issue, however, since the online version of the “German week” actually took nearly a month to complete.6 The tutorials on the digital tools will need regular follow-up to ensure that all ten researchers are off to a good start. In addition to video tutorials, there is also a demand for written tutorials that can be used as a reference afterwards.
Nevertheless, not all is well, even if we leave aside the challenges of team-building without actual personal interaction. The latter part of the “German week” was to be devoted to site visits in and around Munich and in Baden-Württemberg, coordinated by the LMU and the Staatliche Schlösser und Gärten Baden-Württemberg (SSG). Architecture is an art of space, and the experience and study of a court residence on-site is well-nigh impossible to replace. Still, more digital alternatives become available every day. One alternative is the digital models made available on Sketchfab, an online platform that allows users to publish, share, and discover interactive 3D models. Several German court residences are (partly) available, including Landshut, the wooden model of Munich Residenz and Marienberg. Other palace-museums have been investing in their digital presence online (Versailles 3D, for example, has 3D models showing the building history of the palace, as well as more animated videos and reconstructions covering the gardens), but more is needed. Together with the visits, the subject of heritage conservation and its related management issues have been postponed to a later date. In the meanwhile, these digital examples at least provide a starting point for the discussion on built heritage and its future after the COVID-19 crisis.
To sum up, without the COVID-19 crisis the PALAMUSTO training program would have stayed set in its ways as far as the teaching format goes. The restrictions of the sudden lockdown forced the supervising team to fully explore and use the online tools already available to them. The pragmatic combination of several digital formats has turned out to be quite successful, not only in furthering communication and collaboration within the team of early stage researchers and supervisors, but also in helping to build up the common digital research platform which stands at the heart of the program. The crisis inspired the entire team to think proactively about knowledge exchange among themselves and about dissemination outside the program to various audiences. The intense and frequent exchanges of the German week have indeed not abated in the meantime.
Krista De Jonge is the former Chair of the Department of Architecture at KU Leuven, Belgium. She trained both as an architectural engineer (at KU Leuven) and as a historian of architecture (at the Centre d’Etudes supérieures de la Renaissance, Tours, France). Her research focuses on the architecture of the late medieval and early modern court and nobility in the Low Countries. She directed the European Research Networking Program PALATIUM and now coordinates the European Training Network PALAMUSTO.
Sanne Maekelberg has a master’s degree in architectural engineering from KU Leuven. Her master thesis focused on the digital reconstruction of the Prince’s Court in Bruges, one of the main residences of the dukes of Burgundy. In May 2019 she successfully defended her PhD project “The Residential System of the High Nobility in the Habsburg Low Countries: The Croÿ case,” in which she combines approaches from architectural history with an interest in digital-visualization techniques. She is project manager of the European Training Network PALAMUSTO.
1 “Research and Training for the Palace Museum of Tomorrow.” This program has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No. 861426. Consortium members are KU Leuven (coordinating institution), Universiteit Utrecht, Rijksdienst voor Cultureel Erfgoed The Netherlands, Uniwersytet Warszawski, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Staatliche Schlösser und Gärten Baden-Württemberg, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Parques de Sintra-Monte da Lua, and Muzeum Łazienki Królewskie Warszawie (associated partner).
2 Principal Investigators or supervisors are Krista De Jonge (with Sanne Maekelberg as project coordinator), Konrad Ottenheym, Eloy Koldeweij, Barbara Archiszewska, Stephan Hoppe, Michael Hörrmann (with Carla Mueller), Nuno Senos, António Nunes Pereira, and Małgorzata Maria Grąbczewska.
3 The whiteboard’s functionality is limited when it comes to drawing together on a plan, however, as shown by the polling KU Leuven’s Department of Architecture did amongst its students in architectural engineering and the design studio staff, for instance. Other apps such as Google Jamboard and Notability do allow for collaborative drawing, but work best with (expensive) tablets and drawing pens. This will become more of an issue once the PALAMUSTO team starts working on joint reconstructions of lost residences, and so on.
4 All Q&A sessions in the VMR were recorded, so they remain available as a reference.
5 Future training modules will take place in Poland, The Netherlands, Portugal, and Belgium.
6 The lengthening of the schedule was partially due to the fact that the supervisors at the universities also had to convert to digital teaching in the meantime.