The museum of the future! Technology advances research in the humanities (again)

Faith Trend

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A viewer looking at a graphic of Venice and seeing the reconstructed map of the city for a given year and the document that served for the reconstruction, in this case an image the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in the eighteenth century


Following on from Jamie’s fascinating blog post a little while back on the use of technology in the reconstruction of the church of S. Pier Maggiore in Florence, this week I’m highlighting a really fascinating project going on in Venice at the moment and it comes with a helpful 10 minute Ted talk.

Professor Federic Kaplan is part of a project run by EPFL and the University of Venice Ca’ Foscari to create a massive digital collection of Venice’s archives so that they can create a time machine using that data so that when you look at something like a Google map, as well as being able to move around the space, you can also move backwards and forwards through the space and see what it was like hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.

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A helpful chart that Kaplan uses to show how we can create digital information for past centuries – through the digitisation of thousands of printed books and materials and through extrapolation (or simulation) of that material.

Kaplan explains it far more succinctly and passionately than I do so I’m going to let him do all the talking here.

Kaplan highlights that to construct such a time machine, one needs large archives and excellent specialists for those archives. Venice has both of these in abundance which is one of the many reasons it was chosen for this project. As a researcher who has spent many hours in Venice’s Archivio di Stato (which is indeed a very large archive!), the idea that all of their hundreds of thousands of archival documents will one day be online, possibly even transcribed and translated, is a source of major excitement. Kaplan gives just a few examples of the sorts of questions that could be asked of this material from: ‘who lived in this palazzo in 1323?’ or ‘how much did sea bream cost at the Rialto market in 1434?’ to mapping out Mediterranean trade routes to ask questions like ‘if I am in Corfu in June 1323 and want to go to Constantinople, when can I take a boat?’

Even better, for an art historian, is the idea that this type of time machine could be very visual and very interactive. Obviously art historians will be far from the only ones who benefit from this project, research in all areas of the humanities will be significantly impacted. As Kaplan says, ‘research in the humanities is about to undergo an evolution which is maybe similar to what happened to life science thirty years ago.’

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A fully 3D experience!

Imagine the huge impact that this sort of data collection, digitisation and manipulation (to make it interactive and accessible) will have on research in the humanities? The future of our field is going to be very exciting.

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