National heritage on virtual terras-firma

Prof Melissa terras from Kirkcaldy
Prof Melissa terras from Kirkcaldy

How do you preserve some of the nation’s most fragile cultural treasures? Answer: You call a former head girl from Kirkcaldy High School.

These days, however, you are more likely to find Professor Melissa Terras walking the corridors of the Bodleian Library in Oxford or in the pages of New Scientist.

Virtual record of the Science Museum Shipping gallery in London. Project spearheaded by Prof Melissa Terras

Virtual record of the Science Museum Shipping gallery in London. Project spearheaded by Prof Melissa Terras

As director of Digital Humanities at University College London (UCL) the 38 year-old works closely with computer science and engineering teams whose cutting edge technology - developed for the likes of NASA or cancer detection - is preserving our heritage.

She said: “It’s a very special mix of people and we have 20-30 things on the boil at the moment.

“My job is to keep my ears open and see whether we should try something by applying the science.

“We are having a ball!”

Previous projects include ‘Transcribe Bentham’ where 80,000 documents handwritten by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham were scanned and then posted online.

Prof. Terras also created a virtual “walk-through” of the recently decommissioned Shipping Gallery at London’s Science Museum.

And, she has helped virtually unravel the burnt and scrunched up Great Parchment Book of Northern Ireland - the equivalent of the Doomsday Book.

Amazingly, the mum-of-three didn’t develop an interest in computing until mid-way through an art history degree at Glasgow University in 1993.

“When I discovered computers I was able to marry what I was really interested in to something that came easily to me,” she explained.

A Masters in computing followed by a Ph.D in engineering at Oxford finally led to UCL’s doors in 2003.

“My own research is very much focused on imaging, especially in application to damaged, deteriorating manuscripts,” she explained.

“Academia is changing. We have to show something has impact to get funding. And you have to be much more agile and grab opportunities.

“I’m not an expert in a particular subject - it’s not like I’m a specialist on a particular town in Italy in the 1600s - instead, I explore new technology and how it can benefit humanity.

“It’s changing all the time - you just have to hold on for a bumpy ride!”

Prof. Terras has recently been appointed to the board of curators at Oxford Library.

She said: “On Monday I was at the Bodleian, on Tuesday I had a meeting at the British Museum and, on Wednesday, the British Library and it occurred to me that this is my life now.

“Only 10 years ago I would have visited these places as a tourist and I have to kick myself!”