Recreating Space

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!

Published by Michael O'Hagan

Historian studying German Prisoners of War in Canada during the Second World War

4 thoughts on “Recreating Space

  1. Great post Micheal! You utilize a lot of interesting spatial history examples which aids in gaining a better understanding into the developments in spatial history. I agree with you of the importance for historians using spatial analysis as a tool for research and education. Through viewing 3D virtual maps, like the ‘Rome Reborn’, it acts almost like a time machine or window into the past for the viewer. We can obtain an idea of how these past great societies operated, and why they were able to sustain themselves for such a period of time. From the Rome example, we can see the greatness of their civilization through their bending of nature by the use of aqua ducts to transport water. We can then compare the developments of later societies and see the changes over time. These maps are also definitely much more visually pleasing and provide more detail versus that of a flat map projection. Although, like you stated with the Arnoud de Boer article, a lot of details are missing from early landscapes. A large amount of research needs to be conducted in order to make a 3D spatial production possible. I am amazed at how they are able to create these 3D renderings, through overlaying past information and inserting 3D historical objects. Very interesting to see how further this will be developed in the future, especially in the hands of the Google map experts!

  2. Wow! Up until seeing that preview for the Warsaw recreation that you posted I had to say I found the subject of 3D modelling a little blah and thought it was something I wouldn’t really use beyond this class. BUT WOW. That video is incredible and really shows the way that we can use 3D modelling to give the public a better understanding and visualization of significant historic events. It also takes into consideration the idea of the video on recreating Rome whereby the creator has to walk a fine line between adding too many details and not enough in order to make it ultra-realistic and as accurate as possible without having all the needed information to make it a replica. The Warsaw model gives a very realistic representation of what the city looked like after devastation without adding too many details that it becomes cheesey or overdone. In essence, the creator has used knowledge but also knowledge of ignorance. I really appreciate you including this extra clip!

  3. Mike, I too worry about the initiative to automatically fill in space with generic buildings with ‘less accuracy.’ As these virtual maps become resources for historians it becomes even more dangerous to fill in those gaps. While designers are not intentionally building false virtual cities, they are and possibly skewing the representation of those cities in history. From my research of archival forgery thus far, I am inclined to say that this innocent filling in the gaps to provide a fuller experience for the viewer is also tricking/ providing false details of these cities to historians and the public alike.
    That being said, I think the work and designs being formed for the cities, buildings, landscapes, and spaces are incredible. The possibilities to view new connections in new formats is changing history and finally giving us becoming historians and other experienced historians something new to study. How do find a topic that is new to academic history? Well, with spatial history we have the possibilities of taking what people think they know and showing it to them differently. Which could be just as entertaining as a new topic, or even better because we get to change the way people are thinking.
    I am attempting to discover a virtual 3D Paris, I will report back in class if the conversation goes there.

    1. I agree with all the comments thus far. As far as filling the gaps are concerned, I’m of the opinion that if we don’t have at least the knowledge of the existence of a particular building or geographical feature, we should not include it. If I were writing a historical paper, I would not include points or details from my imagination and just throw them in. We ought to leave room for research to fill those gaps. In my own experience, it’s harder to dispel historical untruths after they have been perpetuated than to take the time to do the research and get it right the first time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so why should its re-creation be any different?

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