Nestled along the banks of the River Mersey in Wirral, UK, is the oldest standing building in the whole county of Merseyside, and the most significant in Birkenhead and Wirral—the Birkenhead Priory. Built nearly 900 years ago and often referred to as Wirral’s hidden gem, it is a significant historic and spiritual site that has served many purposes including two churches, medieval and Victorian (both since demolished), throughout its history. With its remaining walls, towers, ceilings, and impressive masonry, it remains a popular site for both tourists and students alike, including a Chapterhouse that offers church services and an on-site museum.
Birkenhead Priory has quite a degree of historical significance: it was the first large building and institution in Wirral and has the same conservation status as Stonehenge. There’s even a famous song, Ferry Across the Mersey, which refers to the first ferry that ran in the 1100s and is still in use today. It is a rich cultural site of high importance to local history and a fascinating place to learn about.
But with travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Birkenhead Priory had to stop giving in-person tours. Instead, they chose to explore digital options to allow visitors to tour the site virtually. At the same time, remote learning became a ubiquitous method for students to keep up with their schoolwork—and to take virtual tours of the Birkenhead Priory.
Enter the Leica BLK360 G1, Wirral Museums, and Hi-Impact Media.
High-tech scanning for remote education
Hi-Impact Media is a scanning and virtual tour service provider located in Wirral, and they work across industries and disciplines to provide immersive video and virtual content to their clients, especially for Lynn McGinn, Schools Resources Officer for Wirral Museums. “At a networking meeting, I came across Hi-Impact and saw what they could do in another building. But if we could reproduce the Priory, it would be so exciting.”
At Hi-Impact, Simon Sloan, Innovation Manager, suggests new and exciting technologies to the firm, especially 3D laser scanning. When Simon first spoke with Lynn and visited the site, he knew he needed something more than image based Matterport tours to capture the entire space, especially outdoors, including detailed masonry. He wanted to create a full 3D model where people could “walk around” as if they were on site, fully immersed in the scene itself—and the BLK360 G1 helped him do just that.
“The end result, from my point of view, with the technology and the planning behind the scan and the implementation of it, we were so delighted how it came out as a 3D model and as a virtual tour,” Simon said. “But the real end result is that it’s got to be useful, so for Lynn, it has to add something to children’s learning and for teachers to engage their students.”
Simon first came across the BLK360 G1 on a previous job and thought that the range and capabilities of the imaging laser scanner would enable him to work outdoors, capture in sunlight, and use the BLK360’s range to capture high walls, the tower, roofs, and high ceilings within the Priory. As experienced Matterport users, Hi-Impact is new to the BLK360, but Simon found it to be a great piece of kit that was a perfect fit for the Birkenhead Priory job.
The BLK360 gave us superior 3D data of the Priory. If we just used Matterport, it wouldn’t have looked like the Priory—it would’ve been very ground-level. But with using both technologies, we could build that 3D model and really make it look like the site we captured.
He also captured big, open grassy sites with gravestones that would’ve been difficult to capture with imagery alone for a 3D model.
“Just being able to go outside without Matterport and use the BLK360 in any conditions was very refreshing,” he said. “It’s just nice to go outside and not worry if it's too bright or if the space is too big. The BLK360 really tied it all together and made the whole project possible.”
Immersive remote learning with 3D models
But schools, of course, faced restrictions on travel and visiting sites like the Priory, so Lynn commissioned the scans to make the Priory more accessible to more people more easily. They will be able to visit the site digitally prior to an in-person visit and do follow-up work afterword digitally, with instructional guidance throughout, both for history and religious studies.
The resulting scans are useful for so many purposes, and there will even be different versions of the 3D model for anyone to explore. “There will be two versions for schools: history and religious education,” Lynn said. “Then there will be another version for free on the Priory website, and it’s such an amazingly important site that people pass by, so this will engage people more. And will help Wirral Museums and their repositories of history about Wirral.”
And for Simon, the project was in his backyard. “Fortunately, we’re nearby, so we could just pop down to the Priory and scan for an hour or two to get what we needed. Initially, we started with a Matterport camera, but we couldn’t use it for the outside space—especially since there was a big storm when we started. Once I had the 3D tours of the indoor space, I knew I had to get outside with a scanner.”
Once Simon did, he knew that 3D laser scanning was the right fit for this project. “What we could capture outside is phenomenal,” he said. “The whole team was so delighted as it came along with such detail, with all the walls and how high up on the building we could scan.”
Lynn shared the same sentiments when viewing immersive 3D data of a site previously only documented with drawings and photos. “Seeing the first scanned section, it was just amazing. I shared it all around the office saying ‘look, look, they’ve started!’ It was such an exciting experience.”
Lynn explained the historic significance of scanning the Priory even further. “Birkenhead Priory is the same conservation status as Stonehenge. Everybody knows Stonehenge and that you can’t touch it or do anything to it, and the Priory is protected the same way. We’ve got pictures of what the Priory looked like through time, and with this technology, we can add to that history and it will definitely be part of the Wirral Archive to preserve the history of the site.”
But they won’t stop with just a 3D model—Lynn has plans to add interactive content to elevate the educational experience even more. “We’ll even have embedded links to websites so people can click to learn more information about, say how the monks might’ve lived, how the Victorians lived, and how the church was used,” she said. “It will be a huge resource for the classroom as they can continue to come back and learn more about the Priory and everything that happened there.”