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Review of The Story of Nonconformity in Wales [website]

Reviewed by Patrick Gibbs (17 November 2016)

The Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture, University of York, UK. Email: patrick.gibbs@york.ac.uk

Cite this as: Gibbs, P. (2016). Review of The Story of Nonconformity in Wales, Internet Archaeology 42. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.42.9


Available: http://www.welshchapels.org/

The Story of Nonconformity in Wales is an online resource conceived by Addoldai Cymru (Welsh Religious Buildings Trust), a charitable organisation created to protect and develop Nonconformist chapels in Wales by taking vulnerable examples into ownership. The resource is an ambitious attempt to convey, via a comprehensive and indeed rather bewildering array of multimedia-based interpretation, the significance of these structures in terms of their architectural importance, social and political influence, and community roles. At the time of writing, the resource encompasses the six chapels currently under the ownership of Addoldai Cymru. Given the charity's remit and the number of potentially at-risk Welsh Nonconformist chapels, the already impressive range of information available is likely to grow.

Figure 1
Figure 1: The Story of Nonconformity in Wales homepage.

The audience for such a resource is at first glance difficult to define. It is certainly not singular and spans a variety of fields and interests, but a better understanding can be gained by looking at the subject's history. Nonconformity, the segments of Protestant Christianity that did not adhere to the structures and usages of established Church of England Anglicanism, played a significant part in the history and development of Wales between the 18th and 20th centuries. Baptists, Calvinists, Congregationalists (or more accurately 'Independents' in Wales) and, perhaps most significantly, Methodists, all played roles in shaping the communities and politics of the country. Their chapels and meeting houses proliferated and became more elaborate, for example incorporating elements of Palladian classicalism, as their popularity and reach within the country's cities, towns and villages expanded.

However, as these religious movements lost their momentum, their places of community and worship were steadily lost to the relentless progress of the later 20th century: in cities they became the solicitors' offices and chain restaurants of our high streets, while in more rural settings they frequently suffered the ignominy of decay and dereliction as their congregations waned and finally disappeared. In a country that was predominantly nonconformist in its religious adherence during the second half of the 19th century, many chapels in Wales suffered a remarkably quick turnaround of fortune. When taking this all into account, the importance of these buildings to architecture, politics, sociology and history is clear, and anyone with even a passing interest in these disciplines will likely find fascinating insight within the resource.

Structure and design

Figure 2
Figure 2: Contextual section of the website, providing information on early chapel building.

From an initial glance at the homepage it is clear that the resource fulfils a number of aims. First, and certainly most obvious, is the presentation of the chapels themselves. The charity currently owns six, and the information and multimedia associated with each can be accessed via small graphical buttons at the top of each page. However, while the information provided for each building is engaging, it is very building-specific and lacks contextualisation within the wider development of nonconformist religion, chapel architecture and associated fields. Fortunately, the resource addresses this in a second, broader section, where these more general concepts are explored in thorough but accessible detail. Arranged under two primary headings, the first (entitled 'Welsh Chapels') explores how chapels were built, stylistic architectural developments, the architects themselves, and the buildings' socio-cultural uses and legacy. A comprehensive bibliography is also presented. The second, 'Nonconformity', explores these varying strands of Christian Protestantism in terms of their key figures and development. Lastly, the resource has a useful 'Advice Area', which offers information for congregations and other owners of nonconformist chapels on caring for and maintaining these buildings. This section also has information on grants and other forms of funding.

The resource was developed as a partnership between Addoldai Cymru and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW), the latter providing the majority of the site's wide-ranging visual materials. The RCAHMW also provides access to a comprehensive database of chapels in Wales, currently numbering in the region of 6500. This database is searchable directly from the Welsh Chapels website, and allows both simple and advanced forms of querying, plus a useful map-based facility with filtering tools.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Smartphone screenshot showing the resource's mobile device format.

The resource's subject matter is obviously very visual, and the website's graphical design does much to show off the variety of photographic and multimedia assets held within. The fluid-width layout also ensures the same design is well-presented on smartphone and tablet devices without the need for the endless panning and zooming required of some online resources – especially useful since the subjects are geographically sited and there is potential for utilising the resource while actually present on site. The inevitable range of issues associated with such 'mobile-enabled' websites are nonetheless still present, manifested here in fortunately more minor problems: distorted images on the various chapel buttons, misaligned tiles in navigation interfaces, and the rather odd decision to utilise fully-justified text which leads to some significant word spacing issues on smaller screens.

Although the graphical design provides the visual canvas upon which the resource's assets are displayed, the structure provides the frame in which it is mounted. In a resource such as this where a large variety of multimedia assets can be accessed alongside a similarly broad variety of textual content, then a clear, easily-navigable structure is absolutely key to ensure the user is aware of what is available to explore and where they currently are in the overarching structure. It is here that the resource sadly falls rather short. Each chapel is accessed via a 'landing page' for that particular building, and here the associated videos, photo galleries and related sub-pages can be accessed. Sub-pages include further information on, for example, a chapel's history, the associated nonconformist body or the conservation work undertaken so far, but the links to this additional information are discreetly positioned at the foot of the landing page. Considering these are often after lengthy text and/or embedding media, it is likely that they could be easily missed. Upon accessing a sub-page the page layout alters slightly, removing access to several of the multimedia assets and, more importantly, removing the links to the other sub-pages. This has the effect of creating something of a 'dead-end' in terms of navigation, forcing the user to return to the chapel's landing page… but somewhat frustratingly a simple link back to this page is not present. The only recourse is to scroll to the top of the page and click the top-level navigation button associated with the chapel. Although this is not an insurmountable issue, this particular user was charged with comprehensively reviewing the resource and likely showed a rather higher level of perseverance than the average casual browser! A more significant problem is that many users will access the resource via search engines. Search results, depending on the search criteria, may potentially jump users directly into sub-pages, and the lack of visible cross-linking within the resource may mean they remain unaware of the other materials.

The issue of cross-linking stretches further than the intra-linking within the various chapel-focused sub-sections. The resource holds useful contextual information on the broader themes of architecture, nonconformist religion and the socio-cultural importance of these chapel buildings in Wales, but surprisingly this information is poorly connected from other parts of the resource. Aside from a small link to the related form of nonconformist religion at the foot of each chapel landing page, the opportunity to utilise in-text linking to associated information appears to have been completed missed. For example, the sections on chapel building under the 'Welsh Chapels' heading provide excellent background to familiarise the user with how and why these buildings looked as they did, but it is likely these useful perspectives might be missed by less enterprising readers.

Multimedia

The textual information provided by the resource is thorough and engaging (despite the minor structure/access issues). It may justifiably be argued that the main attraction is the breadth of multimedia on offer to support and enhance the more traditional content. These range from simple images and video excerpts, through to visualised laser scans, interactive panoramas and 3D rendered animations. An interactive walkthrough delivered via the Unity game engine platform is also available for the Hen Dŷ Cwrdd chapel.

However, although these alternative forms of presentation provide a level of interactivity and visual engagement often missing from other web resources, they can no longer be considered cutting edge in terms of their technology or delivery. Ten or fifteen years ago these elements would have held a level of novelty that would have fascinated many users, and their presence alone would have justified visiting the resource. Today, the variety and quality of web-accessible interactives and multimedia has meant that the inclusion of such assets must necessarily be content-driven decision and have a clear purpose within the overall structure and aim of a resource. The question of 'why' a form of media is included is key: does it explain a difficult concept, help visualise something in a more meaningful way, or perhaps provide access to areas or views that are simply inaccessible to the public?

Perhaps the most effective form of multimedia is the interactive walkthrough of the Hen Dŷ Cwrdd chapel. The Unity engine allows the user to control movement through the chapel from a first-person perspective, giving them the freedom to walk up to the gallery or position themselves in the pulpit. The digital reconstruction is good, and while the level of detail and realism is obviously relatively low to ensure delivery is quick and smooth, the interior is well textured and atmospheric. As an experiential tool, this interface really helps the user comprehend the space – the heights of the surrounding galleries, the closeness of the seating, the elevation of the pulpit – and the freedom to move through on any chosen path allows for true exploration. The interface also provides proximity-triggered information hotspots that appear as different areas are entered. These provide supporting information and help to contextual the otherwise un-interpreted space. As with most forms of advanced web-based interactive the Unity platform requires a downloadable plugin, but these are now lightweight and easily-installed compared to their ancestors and should not be viewed as a deterrent.

Figure 4
Figure 4: Interior of the Chapel of Hen Dŷ Cwrdd, freely navigable via the Unity game engine plugin.

Several of the chapels have an associated video detailing the results of laser-scanning survey work. Unlike the Hen Dŷ Cwrdd walkthrough these are not interactive, but still provide a notional level of understanding in regards to building form and layout. The spectral point-clouds of laser-scanned data are always strangely compelling to watch, but the ghostly, monochrome interiors and pale walls offer little in terms of comprehension to the average viewer. Laser scanning has proved itself invaluable as a tool for buildings preservation and recording, but as a method of presentation its qualities can often be bettered by a simple video recording. If the raw laser-scanning data files were on offer as downloads to those wishing to undertake their own research then perhaps this inclusion may be more understandable, but no links seem to be available.

Figure 5
Figure 5: Laser-scanned interior of Bethania Chapel.

The photographic panoramas available for several of the chapels are well-put together and contain clickable information hotspots, although these are sparse and often simply pop up a succinctly-captioned image. Perhaps more could have been made of this facility? More informative are the several well-produced videos that accompany the chapels of Bethania, Peniel and Yr Hen Gapel. Although a lengthy watch, with some lasting 8-10 minutes, they are engaging, well-narrated and contain some excellent 3D visualisation work that helps bring the buildings to life. Lastly, the breadth and quality of the image-based media varies between chapels – some utilise old photographs and architects' elevation/plan drawings, while others simply have a couple of modern-day snapshots. The older material does indeed add an extra layer of interest and context to the information presented, but the generally poor (or occasionally non-existent) captioning does leave the user somewhat confused as to what they are viewing.

Figure 6
Figure 6: 360° interior panorama in Peniel Chapel.

Accessing the multimedia is relatively straightforward, with the key assets helpfully displayed along the top of each chapel's main landing page. However, it is rather confusing that some videos are embedded within the page content, while others link out of the main site to YouTube itself. Images associated with the chapels are likewise confusingly presented in one of two galleries, either at the foot or to the right of a page… or sometimes in both! Although, this makes finding images and details again occasionally difficult, what appears to be an initially chaotic structure does eventually begin to make sense after repeated use. Another over-arching image gallery is available from the resource's homepage, but this simply presents roughly 250 images as a single block without captions or sub-headings.

Figure 7
Figure 7: 3D visualisation of Peniel Chapel, extracted from a video detailing the chapel's history.

Summary

In summary, it can be said that The Story of Nonconformity in Wales is a wide-ranging, engrossing resource that does much to help the user recognise and appreciate the history and importance of these buildings from a variety of perspectives. While issues and faults exist, the most obvious being a somewhat fractured and confusing navigational structure, they are mostly minor and relate primarily to presentation and organisation. It should also be recognised that as a relatively new web resource, these problems may represent initial teething issues that will be rectified in due course. The use of a variety of media, from passive video-based experiences to more interactive engagement, should be applauded as respectable attempt to utilise a considerable range of the digital interpretative options now commonly available.

Many online resources are designed for those with an existing level of knowledge in the specific field(s), and cater for researchers and students who essentially already know what they are looking for. The Story of Nonconformity in Wales appears to have recognised and avoided this by approaching its subject as it suggests in its title: a story, as opposed to a catalogue. The supporting contextual information, although perhaps not utilised to its full potential, ensures that the user is treated to an experience that might otherwise be much less accessible and engaging.