What is Virtual Heritage?

By November 8, 2016Blog, Uncategorized

My bachelor’s degree is in public history. My master’s focus is emerging media. By all accounts this sounds like a strange combination. But, it may not be as strange than you think. Institutions in the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) have started their own forays into exploring how new and emerging media can help them achieve their missions. For example, many of these places have digitized their archives and hosted their collections online, increasing access to people all over the world. It would be hard to walk into a museum nowadays and NOT find exhibits that include digital interactives that bring history, science, or art to life in new ways.

Over the past couple of years, I have helped work on one such digital interactive. The Virtual Buffalo Bill project (http://idialab.org/virtual-buffalo-bill/) is an endeavor spurred by the Buffalo Bill Center for the West in Cody, Wyoming and created in partnership with Ball State University’s IDIA Lab and Center for Middletown Studies. The result is a virtual heritage project that recreates Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show as it would have looked when it visited Muncie, Indiana in 1899.

Virtual heritage (VH) is the recreation of historic sites or objects using techniques such as computer generated modeling, animation, and panoramic imaging. Its goals are to conserve, reproduce, and display history with the use of advanced technologies. The result is often a combination between a living history museum and a video game.

In fact, VH is evolving much like museums evolved. If we look at the past incarnations of history museums, they have developed from “cabinets of curiosities” – a hodgepodge of objects or even historic buildings presented to the public with little historical context – to living history museums – institutions that use first person interpretive techniques to help the visitor understand and connect to the historical and cultural context of the past.

VH development is following a very similar evolution as its physical counterparts. VH started with static digital renders of historic buildings and objects, usually based off and in support of archaeological research. This could be compared to the “cabinet of curiosities” phase of physical interpretation – content without context. However, many researchers in the VH field are calling for a next step to be taken in which historical and cultural context should be infused into the virtual space. This infusion can include such things as pop-ups that include old photos or film clips, clickable objects that users could manipulate, or even NPCs that provide dialogue or answer questions – much like a living history interpreter would.

VH is a growing a changing field, one which museums and educational institutions are starting to explore. It is a new dynamic and interactive way to connect people to the past. For example, the Center for the West was interested in creating an experience that illustrated the Wild West show better than a scale model ever could. The Virtual Buffalo Bill project is a VH experience that does just that.

A couple examples of other VH projects:

Virtual Williamsburg http://research.history.org/vw1776/

Virtual Apollo 11 Mission http://immersivevreducation.com/the-apollo-11-experience/

Virtual Hadrian’s Villa http://idialab.org/virtual-hadrians-villa/