While I hope to include spatial history in my studies, I really don’t have any experience in using spatial representations in my research. This, however, I hope to change!
Google’s “The Many Dimensions of a Modern Map” describes their maps as dynamic, live, interactive, and personalized and I believe that this provides an excellent base for the work of spatial history. If we want to effectively recreate historic landscapes and connect with our readers and viewers, we should be looking at how to incorporate these characteristics into the way we represent and recreate the past. The digital rendering of 3D models presents intriguing opportunities for historians and their research. As White argues, creating virtual spaces not only offers historians an opportunity to display or visualize their subject, but to also examine new aspects and concepts that they would otherwise be unable to.
However, as Arnoud de Boer and Dylla et al. explain in their respective articles, there are many limitations with spatial history. Among the most significant are a lack of accurate or relevant sources and technological limitations.
The question of sources presents a particular problem – how can one recreate a site if they don’t know what was there? “Rome Reborn” provides an excellent example of this dilemma for, as the creators explained, they simply do not have evidence for everything. Of their approximately 7,000 buildings in their reconstruction of Rome, only 250 are classified as having “great accuracy” while the remainder have “less accuracy”.
In order to fill the many record gaps In “Rome Reborn,” the creators have automated the modelling of buildings according to set parameters. However, these individuals have fully recognized the gaps in their sources and have compensated for them by describing their work as a representative model rather than a replica. In their work, they have not only incorporated “knowledge representations” -what they do know about a subject – but also “ignorance representations” – what they do not know.
This problem is not restricted to older historical periods but to more modern ones as well; Tom Patterson, in “Looking Closer: A Guide to Making Bird’s-eye Views of National Park Service Cultural and Historical Sites“, emphasizes the issue of accuracy but argues that “Strict accuracy, however, is not the intent; our aim is to create buildings that look realistic and recognizable to readers.”
Is this enough? This poses a particularly interesting question to me as a historian for, as be Boer states, historians often lack to the sources to completely reconstruct the sites we are looking at. Therefore, to what extent can we “improvise” before our model is no longer useful to us? How can we ensure that the gaps that we are filling are not going to significantly affect our research or affect the way the public perceives the subject?
Moving beyond filling the gaps, de Boer’s article also highlights the question, “what level of detail is required to let users perceive a historical reconstruction as realistic?” How far do we go or not go in visualizing past landscapes? Taking a look at the Gallery of National Park’s Bird’s-Eye Views, one can see a wide variety of detail in these models. This prompts the question, does the lack of detail detract from the model and its intended purpose?
Patterson’s article on Bird’s-Eye Views also highlights these concerns and argues that generalization is an important part of digitally recreating a site. He explains that one must evaluate a subject’s features to ensure that the most important and relevant features are present. However, Patterson also states that generalization is acceptable for use in modelling and can actually help direct a viewer’s attention to the focus of the project.
Despite its limitations, I think that Spatial History and 3D modelling of historical sites presents historians allows historians the tools to examine their subject in a way we have never been able to do so previously. From a public history standpoint, the recreation of historic sites provides endless opportunities for recreating the past and to connect with the public on a greater level.
In closing, I’d like to leave you with some examples of some current or more recent 3D modelling projects. The first is a 3D reconstruction of Paris (which unfortunately does not seem to work on a Mac) which demonstrates how we can use spatial history on a larger-scale. The second is a smaller-scale project that was produced in parternship with the Google Cultural Institute, Versailles 3D. The last is a reconstruction of Warsaw after it was razed during the Second World War.
P.S. I thought I’d post this here as it gives an idea to some of the software that is on the way!